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Time always takes revenge on a critic. Any writer with an acute sense of the contemporary in art is bound to appear dated eventually, so the recent exhibition and catalogue of Clement Greenberg’s private collection at the Portland Art Museum necessarily raises the question of taste: Here it is the critic who is up for judgment. It is easy to notice the fallibility of Greenberg’s choices, and in a way too obvious. Would Charles Baudelaire or Denis Diderot come off any better if we saw a show of their favorite pictures? Probably not. Would their best judgments seem suspect? The professional Greenbergians in the academy today must reject that thought, because too much is at stake. The canonical critics are too useful to art historians to allow their actual responses to particular artworks overmuch importance—that is, without judicious selection. But since for Greenberg taste was the operative faculty, I do not think we can engage with his ideas at all unless we are willing to do the same kind of work that he did.
So is Greenberg the advocate of an art for suburban homes with overstuffed beige sofas, striped wallpaper, clashing chandeliers, and an excess of pale and pastel tints? On the evidence of his collection, I guess so. But better, he also seems to share the taste of the people who live in such palaces. (The history of an idea: born in the Village in the 1940s, destination Westchester County ca. 1975.) Greenberg’s friends in art-historical high places have got to face the fact: The art he liked was generally pretty bad, and that does have consequences for his best ideas.
After the shock of the realization that Greenberg’s avant-garde was largely kitsch has passed away, a more rigorous formal reading becomes possible. The work in the collection falls into three groups, corresponding to two declinations in the critic’s own life. The largest group, the great middle section of the exhibition, comprises late Cubist abstractions built around the principle that abstraction means vagueness. What is striking about the shaped canvases of Darryl Hughto, the canvas collages of Susan Roth, the enlarged brushstrokes with one edge fading into the ground by Friedel Dzubas, and much of the rest is that they are all so Cubist. They have little twisting shallow spaces, overlapping planes, problem-solved edges, and a tendency toward literalism that stops short of full objecthood. Dzubas’s Ochos Rios (1972) looks like a magnified bit of passage from a Cubist painting ca. 1911.
Of course, this is not what Greenberg wanted American painting to be. That is why his important writing is concerned with the top tier of the collection: Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, and Jules Olitski. Actually the Louis’s are all gone, presumably sold before the donation to the museum (which makes one wonder what else is missing), but the other three are heavily represented and with very interesting later works. I, for one, did not know about Noland’s tondos or Caro’s figure drawings. But what matters is whether the most important speculations about art need necessarily have any relation to contemporary work. Greenberg developed his thoughts in proximity to the work of a handful of individuals. He always denied having any influence on the artists to whom he was close, so it could not have been a true dialogue—but then his thinking was not thereby restricted. Let us put it this way: Important art is always sui generis, and important criticism always has an element of speculation that breaks with critical decorum by failing to find its grounding in actual work. But then, to serve its social role, criticism does not have to be consistent, only persuasive. Greenberg’s ideas about what painting could be or should be are best approximated by the work of one or two artists, yet even here the match is not perfect. As for the work in the collection, most of it does not even come close.
Most of Greenberg’s fans today are art historians, who have a very different relation to art than critics. It is well known that Greenberg did not like art historians, and he certainly did not want to be one. What is remarkable about the vogue for Greenberg in the academy is how uncritical it is. I have not, for example, known anyone to address the scandal of Olitski, and Olitski is the link between the two groups of abstractions in the collection; the artist is central to Greenberg’s most important thought, and his paintings are superkitsch. But then, maybe that is really what makes them interesting, not the technique of spraying or the strategy of placing all pictorial incident at the canvas edge. If Greenberg was wrong about Olitski, then he must have been not quite right about everything else. And if he was right about Olitski, maybe Dan Christensen or Larry Zox deserve another look. And maybe all those acres of stained and splotched and cut and beige canvas should be rehabilitated. Robert Smithson and Donald Judd will just have to move over while we all get a grip on Olitski’s Bunga.
We could give Olitski his day and say that The Prince Patutszky—Red (1962), included in the exhibition, is a strong painting and that what happened since is embarrassing but irrelevant. Or we can allow Greenberg a lapse. But those are just excuses, and they dodge the real problem, which is firstly the critic’s very real and unconditional belief—he considered Olitski “one of the profoundest pictorial imaginations of this time”—and secondly that vexing matter of taste.
A 1989 work by Olitski in the collection called Noble Regard is a smallish panel covered with very thick acrylic heaped up into hills and valleys of a burnished bronze gold. Down in the hollows and cracks it has a dusting of black that looks like spray paint, and that gives a further trompe l’oeil kick to the literalism of its space. The realer than real effect makes the piece look like a painting of a painting and brings to mind Gerhard Richter’s paintings of photos of brushstrokes from the late 1970s. A show that placed Richter beside Olitski would be another of time’s revenges, and maybe it should also include those artists who put spray-painted shadows below their brushstrokes to make them lift off the surface. Such a comparison would show that Olitski was not so far off his moment as we might think—and have the real merit of demonstrating that Richter is not as smart as we are told. Or that the difference between painting painting and “conceptual” painting is not very much—the “conceptual” in art today being a trope for ideas easy enough for anyone to get. Turning aside from that amusing prospect, it is clear that from the present historical perspective it is impossible to “get” Olitski, and, therefore, that it is impossible to verify Greenberg’s taste.
This brings me to the third group of works in the collection, which comprises realist paintings, mostly landscapes. Here the artist most represented, with five works, is the Canadian Dorothy Knowles. Greenberg had a genuine affection for these semi-demi-abstracted and very easy acrylic nature scenes. This may be because Greenberg, as an amateur painter himself, also enjoyed making unambitious, modestly scaled landscapes.
So the artist who painted landscapes was also a connoisseur who not only had a taste for late Cubist abstraction, but who also was a critic who bravely speculated something much bolder and more important: a grand-scale decorative art that reconciles sensibility with public address and that definitively breaks with Cubism and thereby with the whole European tradition. Like a stick with two bends, these three different roles define a life, and the historian who wants to understand Greenberg will have to bring all three angles into view. But while the art historian has to deal with the embarrassment of reconciling Olitski’s worst with Greenberg’s best, or vice versa, I would rather stress the critic’s speculative daring—that the limitations of his experience were no limits to his thought. What he wanted to see really did not exist—until he saw it. Greenberg’s theories are not revealed historical laws but creative proposals, so in the end he works more on the pattern of an artist than a critic. Greenberg himself would say that the number of significant works and artists is always small, and the same must apply to critics. But I do not believe that art history today is ready to acknowledge that interpretations, while necessarily general, are never generally applicable, or that any critical theory is more a product of a personality than an objective response to art. I cannot see that Greenberg is anything other than an embarrassment for art history, because what matters in his thinking is what reaches beyond its historical moment. And so he forces art historians to make their own judgements of taste.
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo