THE CRITICAL MOMENT: Abstract Expressionism's Dueling Duo

By Panero, James | Humanities, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

THE CRITICAL MOMENT: Abstract Expressionism's Dueling Duo


Panero, James, Humanities


What is art criticism today if not a muddied profession? How can we agree what criticism is if we cannot agree what art is? So the critic today contends with an unruly field Art makes unusual demands on the viewer, and art criticism makes unusual demands on the writer, who must now fill several roles: that of a stock analyst at the art fairs and auction houses; a gossip columnist at the openings; a sports announcer at the museums and galleries; and a lifestyle guru in the popular press.

Compare this with sixty years ago. Modernism has an uncanny ability to break things down and isolate ingredients. Matisse with color, Picasso with form and line-the best modem art is radically fundamental before it is ever fundamentally radical, a distilled purification of art's first principles. So rt comes as little surprise that as American modem art reached its apex in the 195Os through the flowering of Abstract Expressionism, art criticism achieved a glittering purity of its own-a beautiful high criticism perfectly matched to the period of high art.

The writers who defined the parameters of this criticism were Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978). Greenberg & Rosenberg were like AIi & Frazier. They made up the protagonists in art criticism's fight of the century-a Grapple in the Big Apple between personal and professional adversaries. It was also, undoubtedly, one of the few fights in art criticism to make it into the record books. Yet as the passions of their engagement have dissipated, and the art world has moved on to largely financial concerns, the Greenberg-Rosenberg rivalry has, in hindsight, come to seem of a piece. I say this as someone who has always been more in the Greenberg camp.

Greenberg and Rosenberg were diametrically opposed in their interpretations of Abstract Expressionism, but each interpretation was correct in its way. Their theories were not mutually exclusive, but instead opposite ends of a kind of dialectic. Through two forceful positions argued before the backdrop of Abstract Expressionism, in opposing language, together they laid out the full definition of modem art.

In The Birth of Tragedy, his youthful interpretation of Greek drama, written in 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that great classic art was predicated on the balance of Apollonian and Dionysian impulses-"Apollonian" after the sun god Apollo, with his "measured restraint, the freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god"; and "Dionysian" after Apdb's brother Dionysus, the god of wine, with "the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature ... brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication."

"Wherever the Dionysian prevailed," Nietzsche wrote, "the Apollonian was checked and destroyed.... Wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever."

Greenberg and Rosenberg were the checks and balances of American abstract art in this Nietzschean definition-Greenberg the Apollonian, Rosenberg the Dionysian. In 1947, Greenberg called for "the development of a bland, large, balanced, Apollonian art... in which an intense detachment informs all. Only such an art, resting on rationality ... can adequately answer contemporary life, found our sensibilities, and, by continuing and vicariously relieving them, remunerate us for those particular and necessary frustrations that ensue from living at the present moment in the history of western civilization."

And here was the Dionysian Rosenberg, writing in The American Action Painters," his most famous essay, in 1952: "At a certain moment, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, or 'express' an object.... What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. …

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