Clement Greenberg Essay Abstract Expressionism

Possibly the most renowned art critic in American history, Clement Greenberg (1904-1994) held sway for years in the postwar period over not only the popular perception of contemporary art being made in this country but also how the artists themselves thought about it and brought it into being in their studios. While his reign eventually came to an end, with opinion turning against his dogmatic edicts, his ideas—which he published in the pages of the Partisan Review, the Nation, and Commentary—remain a critical touchstone for anyone trying to grasp the Abstract Expressionists, the Washington Color School painters, and others who were engaged in formalist, "non-objective" art, as abstraction was called back then. What follows is a précis on Greenberg's key accomplishments.  

Greenberg admiring an especially flat painting by Kenneth Noland

As a prolific critic, Clement Greenberg developed his theories on the page—as he put it, “I would not deny being one of those critics who educate themselves in public.”  Greenberg’s intensely influential focus was on the notion of “formal purity.” Through his praise of Hans Hofmann in the Nation in 1945, Greenberg described his own critical priorities: “I find the same quality in Hofmann’s painting that I find in his words—both are completely relevant. His painting is all painting; none of it is publicity, mode or literature. It deals with the crucial problems of contemporary painting on its highest level in the most radical and uncompromising way, asserting that painting exists first of all in its medium and must there resolve itself before going on to do anything else.” 

If Greenberg’s mode of coming up with his theories was an improvisitory work in progress, his bets on artists were at times visionary.  His first mention of Jackson Pollock—almost the first mention of the artist in print—was in a 1943 review for The Nation: “There is both surprise and fulfillment in Jackson Pollock’s not so abstract abstractions. He is the first painter I know of to have got something positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American painting.” While he critiqued Pollock’s larger paintings as the artist taking “orders he can’t fill,” Greenberg did find the smaller work “much more conclusive… among the strongest abstract paintings I have yet seen by an American."

As Pollock developed from his early abstractions to the “drip” paintings for which he is known, his work fell more into Greenberg’s ideal—painting about space and color and, above all, about painting itself. Greenberg argued in his 1948 essay “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” that “the dissolution of the pictorial into sheer texture, into apparently sheer sensation, into an accumulation of repetitions, seems to speak for and answer something profound in contemporary sensibility.” 

For Greenberg, the new artistic expression followed Hans Hoffman’s “dissolution of the subject”—and thus moved away from the recent, still subject-bound European movements like Surrealism or even Cubism. Nonetheless, Greenberg maintained that this advancement from subject matter towards the flatness of the picture plane was part of a continuum—an evolution that began with Manet, who he held created the first "Modernist pictures," and saw its flowering in Abstract Expressionism. In fact, he felt that flatness was "more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism," because, he explained, "flatness alone [is] unique and exclusive to pictorial art.") 

But Greenberg did not want that evolution to reverse. When Pollock started to move away from drip painting, and de Kooning showed his less-than-totally-abstract Women series at the Sidney Janis Gallery, Greenberg was not pleased. He soon moved away to champion a new group of artists who were emerging in the nation's capital, the Washington Color Field painters—a group including Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis who achieved what the critic considered highly admirable flatness by pouring thin paint directly into the weave of their canvases.

As time went on, Greenberg's orthodoxy when it came to his bans on figuration and multidimensional texture in painting became ripe for a backlash among artists seeking non-Greenberg-ian ideals. Enter Rauschenberg and Johns.     

A day at the beach with (from left) Jackson Pollock, Greenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner

– Greenberg and Helen Frankenthaler, 24 years his junior, were romantically involved from 1950 to 1955 and remained close until the critic's death.

– He curated on occasion, notably a show called “Talent 1950” with Meyer Schapiro at the Samuel Kootz gallery that featured figures like Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning, and Larry Rivers alongside the now-forgotten Esteban Vicente, Al Leslie, and Manny Farber.

– Greenberg had enemies. But he also had a decades-long correspondence with his college friend Harold Lazarus. The letters, posthumously anthologized by Greenberg’s widow, pulse with humanity. From “Clem” to Harold: “Yes, the honors pile. But I want gossip, sexual intrigue, back-biting and hair undoing. I want women, confidences, confessions & broken hearts. Dissipation, indiscretions, glitter, dash, sparkle, sin” (September 25, 1940). On art writing: “Everyone dislikes technical criticism of painting; and there’s no other decent kind. What’s wanted is horseshit. And the horseshit is so easy to write brilliantly, but I shan’t” (September 25, 1940).

– In 1966, the English artist John Latham held an event called "Still and Chew" at which he invited attendees to chew pages of Greenberg’s Art and Culture. Fermented and distilled, the masticated book was then returned to the St. Martin’s School of Art library. MoMA acquired the vials in 1969.

– Greenberg also moonlighted as a poet.


– “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (Partisan Review, 1939)
– “Towards a New Laocoon” (Partisan Review, 1940)
– “Abstract Art” (The Nation, 1944)
– “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” (Partisan Review, 1948)
– “American Type Painting” (Partisan Review, 1955)– “Modernist Painting” (Voice of America lecture, 1961)
– “After Abstract Expressionism” (Art International, 1962)
– Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961)

Know Your Critics: What Did Harold Rosenberg Do?
Know Your Critics: What Did Meyer Schapiro Do?
Know Your Critics: What Did Leo Steinberg Do?
Know Your Critics: What Did Irving Sandler Do?

Like so much of painterly art before it, Abstract Expressionism has worked in the end to reduce the role of colour: unequal densities of paint become, as I have said, so many differences of light and dark, and these deprive colour of both its purity and its fullness. At the same time it has also worked against true openness, which is supposed to be another quintessentially painterly aim: the slapdash application of paint ends by crowding the picture plane into a compact jumble – a jumble that is another version, as we see it in de Kooning and his followers, of academically Cubist compactness. Still, Newman, and Rothko turn away from the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism as though to save the objects of painterliness – colour and openness – from painterliness itself. This is why their art could be called a synthesis of painterly and non-painterly or, better, a transcending of the differences between the two. Not a reconciling of these – that belonged to Analytical Cubism, and these three Americans happen to be the first serious abstract painters, the first abstract painters of style, really to break with Cubism.

Clyfford Still, who is one of the great innovators of modernist art, is the leader and pioneer here. Setting himself against the immemorial insistence on light and dark contrast, he asserted instead colour’s capacity to act through the contrast of pure hues in relative independence of light and dark design. Late Impressionism was the precedent here, and as in the late Monet, the suppression of value contrasts created a new kind of openness. The picture no longer divided itself into shapes or even patches, but into zones and areas and fields of colour. This became essential, but it was left to Newman and Rothko to show how completely so. If Still’s largest paintings, and especially his horizontal ones, fail so often to realize the monumental openness they promise, it is not only because he will choose a surface too large for what he has to say; it is also because too many of his smaller colour areas will fail really to function as areas and will remain simply patches – patches whose rustic-Gothic intricacies of outline halt the free flow of colour-space.

With Newman and Rothko, temperaments that might strike one as being natively far more painterly than Still’s administer themselves copious antidotes in the form of the rectilinear. The rectilinear is kept ambiguous, however: Rothko fuzzes and melts all his dividing lines; Newman will insert an uneven edge as foil to his ruled ones. Like Still, they make a show of studiedness, as if to demonstrate their rejection of the mannerisms which have become inseparable by now from rapid brush or knife handling. Newman’s occasional brushy e dge, and the torn but exact one left by Still’s knife, are there as if to advertise both their awareness and their repudiation of the easy effects of spontaneity-Still continues to invest in surface textures, and there is no question but that the tactile irregularities of his surfaces, with their contrasts 0 f m att and shiny* Paint coat and priming, contribute to the intensity of his art. But by renouncing tactility, and detail in drawing, Newman and Rothko achieve what I find a more positive openness and colour. The rectilinear is open by definition: it calls the least attention to drawing and gets least in the way of colour-space. A thin paint surface likewise gets least in the way of colour-space, by excluding tactile associations. Here both Rothko and Newman take their lead from Milton Avery, who took his from Matisse. At the same time colour is given more autonomy by being relieved of its localizing and denotative function. It no longer fills in or specifies an area or even plane, but speaks for itself by dissolving all definiteness of shape and distance. To this end – as Still was the first to show – it has to be warm colour, or cool colour infused with warmth. It has also to be uniform in hue, with only the subtlest variations of value if any at all, and spread over an absolutely, not merely relatively, large area. Size guarantees the purity as well as the intensity needed to suggest indeterminate space: more blue simply being bluer than less blue. This too is why the picture has to be confined to so few colours. Here again, Still showed the way, the vision of the two- or three-colour picture . . . being his in the first place (whatever help towards it he may have got from the Miro of 1924-1930).

But Newman and Rothko stand or fall by colour more obviously than Still does. (Where Newman often fails is in using natively warm colours like red and orange, Rothko in using pale ones, or else in trying to dram, as in his disastrous ‘Seagram’ murals.) Yet the ultimate effect sought is one of more than chromatic intensity; it is rather one of an almost literal openness that embraces and absorbs colour in the act of being created by it. Openness, and not only in painting, is the quality that seems most to exhilarate the attuned eyes of our time. Facile explanations suggest themselves here which I leave the reader to explore for himself. Let it suffice to say that by the new openness they have attained Newman, Rothko, and Still point to what I would risk saying is the only way to high pictorial art in the near future. And they also point to that way by their repudiation of virtuosity of execution.

Elsewhere I have written of the kind of self-critical process which I think provides the infra-logic of modernist art (‘Modernist Painting’). [. . .] As it seems to me, Newman, Rothko, and Still have swung the self-criticism of modernist painting in a new direction simply by continuing it in its old one. The question now asked through their art is no longer what constitutes art, or the art of painting, as such, but what irreducibly constitutes good art as such. Or rather, what is the ultimate source of value or quality in art? And the worked-out answer appears to be: not skill, training, or anything else having to do with execution or performance, but conception alone. culture or taste may be a necessary condition of conception, but conception is alone decisive. Conception can also be called invention, inspiration, or even intuition (in the usage of Croce, who did anticipate theoretically what practice has just now discovered and confirmed for itself)- It is true that skill used to be a vessel of inspiration and do the office of conception, but that was when the best pictorial art was the most naturalistic pictorial art.

Inspiration alone belongs altogether to the individual; everything else, including skill, can now be acquired by any one. Inspiration remains the only factor in the creation of a successful work of art that cannot be copied or imitated. This has been left to artists like Newman and Mondrian to make explicit (and it is really the only thing Newman and Mondrian have in common). Newman’s pictures look easy to copy, and maybe the\ really are. But they are far from easy to conceive, and their quality and meaning lies almost entirely in their conception. That, to me, is self-evident, but even if it were not, the frustrated efforts of Newman’s imitators would reveal it. The onlooker who says his child could paint a Newman may be right, but Newman would have to be there to tell the child exactly what to do. The exact choices of colour, medium, size, shape, proportion – including the size and shape of the support – are what alone determine the quality of the result, and these choices depend solely on inspiration or conception. Like Rothko and Still, Newman happens to be a conventionally skilled artist – need I say it? But if he uses his skill, it is to suppress the evidence of it. And the suppression is part of the triumph of his art, next to which most other contemporary painting begins to look fussy. [. . . ]

First published in Art International, VI, no. 8, Lugano, October 1962.

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