Art Critic Who Launched the Career of Jackson Pollock

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Art Critic Who Launched the Career of Jackson Pollock


Byline: Joseph Phelan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Forty-five years ago this June, Americans were engrossed in reading such bestsellers as Irving Stone's fictionalized biography of Michelangelo, "The Agony and the Ecstasy," William Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," and John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." A little book of essays entitled "Art and Culture" was hardly noticed by the mass audience, yet it was to have a huge influence on the growing discipline of art history.

The long life of the author of that book, the art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), extended over critical years in the history of American art. He was central to the movement of American painting from the periphery to the center of the Western art world. As the champion of abstract expressionism, he sold the world on the idea that the history and logic of modern art culminated in the work of Jackson Pollock.

In "Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg,"

Alice Goldfarb Marquis, the author of previous books on Marcel Duchamp and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., has produced a balanced, reliable and engrossing account of this pivotal figure in American art criticism.

New York City in the 1930s was the center of radical politics, the only American city, one wit quipped, that believed it was actually in the Soviet Union. Two young men of the left, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, took over a little magazine called Partisan Review. That journal, along with Commentary (for which Greenberg was to work later as an editor) and a few others, were to have a disproportionate influence on American high culture in the ensuing decades.

As Partisan Review began its transformation from a Communist mouthpiece to an independent leftist voice in politics and the arts, Greenberg found himself involved with its endeavors, his ambition for a long time having been to write literary criticism. But he soon found himself outclassed in a field requiring a very special blend of insight and literary skill which the luminaries who ran the journal possessed in abundance.

Greenberg's first important essay for the journal was "Avant Garde and Kitsch," published 1939. It was a polemic on the clash between popular culture and artistic innovation that would engage thoughtful readers in his own time and provide grist for scholarly mills into the next century.

According to Ms. Marquis, Greenberg was largely channeling Leon Trotsky's reflections on revolutionary art and culture. Nonetheless, his own immediate contribution was to popularize the concepts of avant garde and kitsch for American readers. Greenberg was the first American writer to develop a complex theory about how these phenomena develop in industrial societies.

This essay, the most discussed of any Partisan Review had published, signaled an about face for 1930's radicals resonating with their profound disappointment that the masses had failed to respond to political radicalism. Sixty-five years later it remains essential reading for students and scholars in a broad range of fields: sociology, literature and the arts, history and even economics.

Greenberg was drafted into the United States Army in 1943. A nervous breakdown a few weeks before he was to be sent to fight in Europe led to a discharge from the service. Back in New York a few months later, he began furiously reviewing contemporary art for the Nation and Partisan Review, writing art criticism with a seriousness which was uncharacteristic in the reviewing of his time.

Greenberg was even more of an exception in his insistence on devoting his attention to contemporary American artists. This was a time when the powerful Museum of Modern Art and other promoters of modernism were ignoring the wellsprings of new American art being produced in the cold water flats of lower Manhattan. For many of his early readers Greenberg became a rabbi, a leader and an advisor delivering a weekly sermon on the art of the 20th century. …

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