Clement Greenberg Essay Abstract Expressionism

Clement Greenberg Essay Abstract Expressionism-24
We know that the author of "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" was no fan of mass culture, nor of the "middlebrow" poetry and fiction published in journals like the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post.Kitsch, in Greenberg's sense of the word, denoted a watering down of modernist innovations, a pilfering of the high by the low.

We know that the author of "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" was no fan of mass culture, nor of the "middlebrow" poetry and fiction published in journals like the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post.

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In his desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting, Greenberg insisted “upon the real and material plane.” This insistence led directly to the literalism of Minimalism and to the literalist readings of Pop Art, particularly the “flag” paintings of Jasper Johns.

Although Greenberg rejected Johns’ paintings, his followers did not, in part because they saw in Johns a way to distinguish their viewpoint from Greenberg’s while adhering to his model of historical progress.

Rather, it revolves around one fundamental question: how does an individual go about making work when a significant part of the art world believes that painting and drawing are dead?

Or, to put it another way: after the death of the author, how does an individual reinstate the mantle of authorship and take responsibility for what he or she makes?

And so it came as a welcome surprise to me when examining Greenberg's papers at the Getty Research Institute to discover that the critic did address the tendency directly, in two unpublished lectures.

One of these talks, "After Pop Art," was delivered at the Guggenheim Museum during the fall of 1963.According to Greenberg and those he influenced, painting could only be about itself — a viewpoint that artists as diverse as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol heeded, and which Johns seemed to do, in his early paintings.Certainly, Warhol — who relied on photographs for his subject matter — is acknowledging Greenberg’s insistence on painting’s flatness when he famously states: And Frank Stella’s position is not so far from Warhol when he states: “What you see is what you see.” Despite their avowed differences, here is a moment in the mid-1960s when Greenberg, Stella, and Warhol all agree with each other on a central issue: the flatness of the picture plane must be upheld.The great champion of Abstract Expressionism never published an essay on the subject, and occasional remarks in interviews and texts in John O'Brian's indispensable anthology of the critic's writings suggest a definite disdain for the phenomenon (the early work of Jasper Johns being a decided exception).Yet the reasons for this distaste are not entirely clear.But Pop reversed this flow, suggesting a redemption of the low by the high.In this respect, the absence of a sustained account of Pop by Greenberg is a bit more curious.Greenberg’s Formalist theory was understandably attractive to younger critics and art historians because he seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method, with a variety of materially verifiable ways by which one could evaluate art.In doing so, he is claiming to be objective rather than subjective.In such declarations and later developments — “the death of painting,” “de-skilling,” “appropriation is the only game in town” and “provisional painting” — one hears the echoes of Greenberg’s belief in historical progress.In his essay, “Provisional Painting” (Art in America, May 2009), the poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein, in his quest for something fresh and new, described a tendency among both young and seasoned contemporary artists to make work that “look[s] casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling.” It seems to me that in order to isolate these characteristics, he had to ignore one of modern art’s recurrent legacies, which is the need for each generation to make “casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling” work in its rush to distinguish itself from what came before.


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