Pop Art: Clement Greenberg

By Meyer, James | Artforum International, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Pop Art: Clement Greenberg


Meyer, James, Artforum International


We do not often associate Clement Greenberg with Pop. 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. 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. 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. 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papers at the Getty Research Institute to discover that the critic did address the tendency directly, in two unpublished lectures.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. The more substantive lecture, "Pop Art," would appear also to date from the early 1960s, although its venue is unknown. It is published here for the first time.

We will never know why Greenberg opted not to rework and publish the lectures. It may be that the arguments they advance did not quite convince the exacting critic. Or perhaps an essay on Pop simply did not hold a high priority. The early '60s were heady days after all: Greenberg, then at the apogee of his influence, was deeply engaged in refining his theory of modernism in such texts as "Modernist Painting" and "After Abstract Expressionism." Whatever the case, the Pop lectures, though unfinished, are compelling both for what they tell us about Greenberg and for what they tell us about Pop. It is by now an old saw that Greenberg's call for a painting that explored the conditions of the medium and an allusive, abstract sculpture excluded much of that era's vitality--the Happening, the Combine, the Minimal Object, the Pop canvas. Yet if the portal of Greenberg's modernism became increasingly narrow, admitting but a few into its precincts (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Anne Truitt, and Anthony Caro), the image of a critic out of touch is far from accurate. The Greenberg of the '60s was no less active a viewer than the Greenberg of the '50s, visiting galleries often and sometimes returning to an exhibition more than once. We have heard much of Greenberg's famous "eye," his ruthless ability to assess a work at a glance. But "Pop Art" and other writings of these years suggest that we might as easily speak of Greenberg's feet--the feet that for decades would trudge up and down Manhattan's unforgiving streets and stairwells to see yet another artwork or exhibition.

"After Pop Art" attributes the movement's ascension in 1962 to a strictly market logic. Greenberg observes that a drop in the stock exchange coupled with a slackening interest in second-generation Abstract Expressionism instantiated a taste for Pop: The collector who could no longer afford Pollock, but was weary of Norman Bluhm, could take a chance on Warhol. In other words, Pop was a fashion, and as a fashion, it would soon run out of steam. (The movement was "already finished," Greenberg writes.) Of course, in retrospect, the fall of 1963 turned out to be not Pop's curtain call but its opening act. As the conceit of this issue makes abundantly clear, Pop would only be succeeded by more and more Pop After Pop.

"Pop Art," published here, focuses less on the movement's market ascent than on it's modernist past. Greenberg recounts the history of modernism as a dialectic of form and motif, of the visual and literary, of an art "of sensations" (Cezanne, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism) versus one of "ideas" (Symbolism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop).

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