Writer's Block

Art Czar
April 29, 2006

a review of 'Art Czar' By Alice Goldfarb Marquis, MFA Publications, 321 pages, $35

The scene is an evening at Peggy Guggenheim's apartment in 1947. One of the guests is Clement Greenberg, art critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism, particularly of the artist Jackson Pollock, who is on the cusp of national fame. (Life magazine will come calling two years later.) The predominantly American-led movement is threatening to usurp Europe's longstanding domination of the art world, and as it happens a European Surrealist, the German Max Ernst, is also at Guggenheim's gathering. Apparently provoked by Greenberg's preaching on art (it didn't help that the critic had it in for the Surrealists), Ernst dumps an ashtray over Greenberg's head.

In "Art Czar," her bracing biography of Greenberg, Alice Goldfarb Marquis describes how "the critic leaped up to throttle Ernst." But a young Surrealist, Nicolas Calas, "took a roundhouse swing" and knocked Greenberg to the floor. His date for the evening, writes Ms. Marquis, "rushed to press two aspirins and water on Greenberg, who gratefully swallowed the pills. However, seconds later, he remembered his aspirin allergy and roared that he had been poisoned."

Ah, the good old days. For art criticism, it was an age of titans. Chief among them was Clement Greenberg, whose career fortunes were as volatile as his private life, soaring in the 1940s and 1950s and declining into near obscurity in the last decades of his life. Ms. Marquis traces this path with economy and precision, leaving intact the contradictions of Greenberg's life: son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, secularist, Marxist, anticommunist, advocate of the avant-garde, and conservative counterweight to politically fashionable trends. In doing so Ms. Marquis has produced a biography that reads more like a novel, one that will no doubt excite and unnerve many readers -- not least those who still feel passionately about Greenberg's legacy, true believers and apostates alike. As for the old arguments, the ones Greenberg himself felt so strongly about, those likely will remain unresolved.

It speaks to Greenberg's power as a critic that he continues to provoke a dozen years after his death -- in 1994, at age 85 -- and nearly a half-century after the publication of his most important collection of writings, "Art and Culture" (1961). That slim volume included trenchant essays on established modern painters such as Klee and Cézanne. Perhaps most notably, the book also reprinted a piece called "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939), Greenberg's defense of high culture from mass taste. The entire volume defined the sensibility -- highbrow, severe -- that informed Greenberg's views of Abstract Expressionism. The book also presaged his advocacy in the 1960s -- as the Pop and conceptual art he detested rose to prominence -- of the "post-painterly abstraction" of Color Field artists such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

A new element in the Greenberg story -- notably absent from Florence Rubenfeld's "Clement Greenberg: A Life" (1997), a chatty biography that referred to its subject as "Clem" -- is a collection of letters from Greenberg to Harold Lazarus, a friend since childhood. Ms. Marquis has read the letters closely and woven them into a rich, if chilling, narrative of Greenberg's intellectual development.

In Ms. Marquis's presentation, one element predominates: Greenberg's lifelong contempt for his Jewishness. Writing from a camp in the Pocono Mountains, where he was a counselor one summer during college, Greenberg complained of "squalling Jew bastards from the very best homes in Long Island." Of his Jewish editors at the influential journal Partisan Review (which first published "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"), he wrote: "[They] make me sick. Preserve culture from the Jews. Hitler's almost right."

Greenberg's torn emotions and conflicted feelings, Ms. Marquis contends, drove him away from serious personal relationships. He embraced instead booze, pills and a form of radical psychological therapy that, we're told, "insisted that the patients sleep with a different partner every night and sever all close ties."

Yet his restlessness also spurred Greenberg, Ms. Marquis says, to flee the Marxism of his youth for the liberating freedoms of modern art. Do we have a bruised psychology to thank for creating this great American art critic? Maybe, maybe not. Ms. Marquis can be at times too quick to identify Greenberg's personal demons as the catalysts for his intellectual achievements.

Then there is the issue of political determinism. Ms. Marquis too casually attributes the rise of Abstract Expressionism (and of Greenberg's own profile) to the machinations of Cold War propaganda. She is right that the freedoms inherent in modernism were trumpeted by American cultural campaigns targeting the Soviet Union, but Ms. Marquis seems to have fallen for the standard left-wing academic line that this fact somehow discredits the art itself.

What does come through in this biography is Greenberg's intellectual complexity. It is true that a kind of radical and even Marxist theory was part of his critical apparatus -- Greenberg felt abstraction to be the end of a historical dialectic in art -- but he was hardly revolutionary in his approach to critical judgment. "Championing the new art of his time," writes Ms. Marquis, "he exercised discrimination, following the best of traditional art critics." In short, aesthetic values mattered to Greenberg as much as form.

An artist could have no better fan, no worse enemy. Sometimes he was both: In Greenberg's 1945 obituary for the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky in the Nation magazine, he said that "for a short period of time, Kandinsky was a great painter," but then wrote him off, claiming that Kandinsky "in the last analysis remains a provincial" and "the example of his work is dangerous to younger painters."

The power of critics such as Clement Greenberg in art or Edmund Wilson in literature -- both did much to shape elite and popular taste in the mid-20th century -- is hard to imagine today. Contemporary art is self-parodic and insulated against Greenberg's style of criticism, and art-world success is now determined almost exclusively in the marketplace, not on the printed page.

And yet in the precincts where art -- and thinking about art -- still matters, Greenberg is "indispensable," as Ms. Marquis notes. In an age when much art criticism is "conducted in a self-referential mumble," she says, "his rhetoric remains a benchmark for persuasive prose in the field of aesthetics." Her biography is a benchmark as well, for discussions of the life and legacy of Clement Greenberg.