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In his introductory essay to Vitamin P, a survey of contemporary painting first published by Phaidon in 2002, the poet and critic Barry Schwabsky takes pains to point out the variety of stylistic positions available to a contemporary painter. In doing so, Schwabsky suggests that there is no single identifying characteristic that would disqualify a contemporary painting from critical consideration today. This state of openness was not always the case. In my opinion, however, the receptivity that Schwabsky claims for painting is not actually an accurate characterization of the current situation, where success is generally judged by an artist’s standing in the marketplace.

While there are many factors that have contributed to the current situation — where painting is marginalized in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways — the roots of it go back to Clement Greenberg and his 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” With this text, Greenberg began to develop his brand of formalist theory regarding innovative modern art and to advance the concept of art’s historical progress. And while it is easy to say that Greenberg is no longer as relevant and that formalist theory and its doctrinaire condemnation of subjectivity, subject matter, relational composition, drawing, and spatiality are no longer regarded as dominant, it seems to me that his formulations continue to be a powerful presence in one guise or another.

Outlining the distinction between avant-garde (or high art) and kitsch (or middlebrow art), Greenberg made three points. First, Modernism is defined by self-criticality and a rethinking of mimesis. Second, in the search for its irreducible identity, advanced painting clarifies its essential uniqueness as a two dimensional, flat surface where the optical takes precedence over such traditional elements as subject and pictorial space. Third, abstraction is more advanced than representational art. In Greenberg’s view, it was Impressionism and, in particular, Claude Monet that advanced painting the furthest, and not Pablo Picasso and George Braque during their Cubist phase.

In his next important essay, “Toward a New Laocoon” (1940), Greenberg further details the historical progress of painting:

But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas: where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other. Where the painter still tried to indicate real objects their shapes flatten and spread in the dense, two-dimensional atmosphere. A vibrating tension is set up as the objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes.

In his desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting, Greenberg insisted “upon the real and material plane.” This insistence led directly to the literalism of Minimalism and to the literalist readings of Pop Art, particularly the “flag” paintings of Jasper Johns. Although Greenberg rejected Johns’ paintings, his followers did not, in part because they saw in Johns a way to distinguish their viewpoint from Greenberg’s while adhering to his model of historical progress.

According to Greenberg and those he influenced, painting could only be about itself — a viewpoint that artists as diverse as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol heeded, and which Johns seemed to do, in his early paintings. Certainly, Warhol — who relied on photographs for his subject matter — is acknowledging Greenberg’s insistence on painting’s flatness when he famously states:

If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.

And Frank Stella’s position is not so far from Warhol when he states: “What you see is what you see.” Despite their avowed differences, here is a moment in the mid-1960s when Greenberg, Stella, and Warhol all agree with each other on a central issue: the flatness of the picture plane must be upheld.

Greenberg’s Formalist theory was understandably attractive to younger critics and art historians because he seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method, with a variety of materially verifiable ways by which one could evaluate art. In doing so, he is claiming to be objective rather than subjective. In such declarations and later developments — “the death of painting,” “de-skilling,” “appropriation is the only game in town” and “provisional painting” — one hears the echoes of Greenberg’s belief in historical progress.

In his essay, “Provisional Painting” (Art in America, May 2009), the poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein, in his quest for something fresh and new, described a tendency among both young and seasoned contemporary artists to make work that “look[s] casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling.” It seems to me that in order to isolate these characteristics, he had to ignore one of modern art’s recurrent legacies, which is the need for each generation to make “casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling” work in its rush to distinguish itself from what came before.

In his attempt to extend the shopworn formalist doctrine of historical progress, Rubinstein paradoxically chose an ahistorical argument that fails to recognize that the “unfinished” work of art — after being touted in one way or another for the past 150 years, since Claude Monet painted “Impression, Sunrise” (1872) – had long ago passed from being an innovative possibility to being the go-to standard. Haven’t such reactionary choices become predictable and constraining – a set of familiar, easily mimicked gestures? Are we now mimicking the first mimickers? Are Rubinstein’s mimickers imitating the first mimickers? Also, are these painters being placed into the historical context of Greenberg’s formalist strictures in order to make them a safer bet in the marketplace?

It seems to me that the current situation is not about available options, as Schwabsky suggests, which span a wide range of possibilities, or about a critic channeling Greenberg’s legacy and identifying the next viable tendency in art. Rather, it revolves around one fundamental question: how does an individual go about making work when a significant part of the art world believes that painting and drawing are dead? Or, to put it another way: after the death of the author, how does an individual reinstate the mantle of authorship and take responsibility for what he or she makes? Mimicking casualness or employing a machine or fabricators to make one’s work — as many critical darlings are busy doing — might be this generation’s way of shucking responsibility. Previous generations of artists, critics and curators bought into a constricted definition of what art could be, believing that history had brought them to an inevitable endgame and that any aesthetic alternative was spurious at best. But nothing, we should remind ourselves, is necessarily etched in stone. Greenberg’s theories were narrow and wrong, catastrophically so. The need to undo the damage and to learn to see for ourselves continues.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...

79 replies on “Some Thoughts on Clement Greenberg and His Legacy”

  1. I think Greenberg’s most important legacy was his critical exclusivity. His bombastic approach fired up the opposition.

  2. Reading/listening to artists/critics who are devoted to painting arguing that painting is marginalized is like reading/listening to white guys bitching about the unfairness of affirmative action.

      1. I wasn’t making a comment on whether or not you were a white guy. I’m saying that painting’s relationship to art history is analogous to the white male’s relationship to history. Both have been historically privileged and, in my opinion, both benefit from a challenge to their dominance. It is hard for me to hear the argument that the practice of painting is marginalized just because it is not considered primary.

        1. Fair enough. While painting has been “historically privileged”, as you say, was it simply a coincidence that the repeated pronouncement of its death in the 60s, 70s and 80s – a pronouncement made by white academics – occurred when artists of color were gaining visibility? Or was it a power play by white academics to control who got to be visible and on what terms?

          In the “Reinventing Abstraction show curated by Raphael Rubinstein, is it simply the truth that no Black woman painter did anything of note during the time period covered by the show?

          Or is it true that only one third of the artists in Mr. Rubinstein’s show needed to be women, because – even as he wrote about the rise to prominence of women painters in the 1980s – all he had to do was pay lip service to that viewpoint?

          1. No

            Probably

            No

            And I’m not sure I understand your fourth question.

            I would love to read more about what you bring up regarding the pronouncement that “painting is dead” and its relationship to the success (or lack therof) of non-white, non-male artists. The whole “painting is dead” thing always seems so ridiculous to me, especially when I continue to see painting being represented in galleries, print, and in the market as most dominant. As far as I’m concerned, painting could die a little more, you know? The question you bring up in the article: “how does an individual reinstate the mantle of authorship and take responsibility for what he or she makes?” is very interesting to me. When I read about the role of painting in a contemporary context, I never see enough attention paid to the interaction between identity politics, painting, authorship, and historical recognition, and this is the interaction that I think needs to be considered when answering the question you pose.

          2. Here is one place to begin.

            The End of Painting by Douglas Crimp, which appeared in October, Volume 16 (Spring 1981). A supplement to this would be the essay “On the Museum’s Ruins” by Crimp.

            The catalog for the exhibition of “The Pictures Generation” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is another book to consult.

            This, by the way, appeared on the museum’s description of the show: “The famous last line of Barthes’ essay, that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” was a call to arms for the loosely knit group of artists working in photography, film, video, and performance that would become known as the “Pictures” generation, named for an important exhibition of their work held at Artist’s Space in New York in 1977.”

            There is a hatred of labor in America – a belief that outsourcing is a mark of success. Success is the result of an idea rather than of labor.

          3. Thanks for these sources.

            I agree with your statements regarding labor. But in this particular discussion, if I understand it, you are speaking to the victimization of the practice of painting at the hands of photography, film, video, and performance. In my opinion, it’s not such a bad thing, considering painting has held its high status over craft practices like ceramics, fiber arts, etc. with pride for hundreds of years.

          4. I do not think of painting as being a victim. And, as my piece on Ken Price in an earlier Hyperallergic Weekend should make evident, I am not against craft practices. I agree with T.J. Clark who observed that painting was a craft tradition. Terms like “de-skilling” and statements like “appropriation is the only game in town” deny – to some extent – labor and the craft tradition of painting. That is all I am getting at.

            I am not stating that labor does not factor into other art forms.

          5. Do you have an opinion on the paintings of Julia Rommel? Her spare, fastidious monochromes defy the assumption that the monochrome is exhausted.

            It’s true painting’s status as a privileged medium has not been absolute. Even in the time of Velazquez in the 17th century, it was not considered to be one of the refined liberal arts. And after the Daguerreotype, in 1839, painting’s role in verisimilitude was challenged.
            Greenberg gave painting a unique exclusive identity. Following in the line of Kant, Bell, and Fry, determining form to be the critical characteristic and to then assert painting’s independence as an autonomous object by deducing two dimensionality as the essential attribute. Crimp declared excerptation, fragmentation and framing to be the manner of picturing, expanding the limits of the medium and the notion of time. Julia Rommel evokes this internal temporality with her fussily deliberate makeshift paintings.

  3. An interesting question to ask of Greenberg would have been why he thought abstract painting was an ‘advance’ on figurative painting when it so obviously brings with it the severe spatial restrictions of flatness. All other genuine historical advances in painting opened it out to embrace greater not lesser states of spatiality. I think there is a very strong case now to be made for abstract sculpture to have all the spatial advantages over figurative sculpture. The case for abstract painting looks very much more compromised.

    1. This is interesting, I would say that complex spatial relationships in painting and flatness have been in conflict ever since the beginning of photography. One of the first painters to embrace flat space and consequently seen as one of the first modern artists is Eduard Manet

      1. So the standard story goes… but Manet isn’t flat, it’s a myth based on Greenbergian theorising; his major paintings are incredibly complex, spatially. And there is no such thing as ‘flat space’; the provisional painters have pretty much conclusively proved it’s a worthless and pointless project to travel in that direction.

        1. With regard to Manet and later modernist painters, Thierry de Duve and Michael Fried have proposed substituting flatness with “facing-ness” as in face-to-face, which allows for greater complexity. I don’t think any painter of real merit thought “the flatter the better,” but many great modernist painters seem to provide a sense of fullness and presence and there-ness with respect to their media and images: Cezanne, Matisse, Rothko, Heilmann. It’s a feeling that got reified into a theory. And since Stella, there has been no point in amplifying it, making it more pure or intense. It’s there as an ingredient, and it’s fun to see painters like Heilmann or Keltie Ferris poke holes in it.

          1. I can’t honestly say that I can see a huge difference spatially between the way, say, Constable painted, and the way Courbet and Manet painted – and then you are straight into Cezanne. There is a much more profound change, in my opinion, with the move into abstract painting, where the picture plane and the surface become obsessive to the point of tedium, and all that fabulous spatial complexity is ruled out. As I said at the beginning, the really interesting thing is that the opposite appears true for sculpture. Abstract sculpture could and should become far more spatially liberated than figurative sculpture ever could. The fact that abstract sculpture was in hock to abstract painting for so long, thanks in large part to Greenberg (and Caro’s pictorialism etc.) might yet pass into history as a very false start.

  4. This really jumped out at me “Mimicking causalness or employing a machine or fabricators to make one’s work – as many critical darlings are doing -might be the generation’s way of shucking responsibility. It seems that from the 80’s on , when the art world became a small industry ,the demands for producing commodities branded by artists preclude individual involvement except for the most fleeting or most artists who have demanding careers don’t have time to paint.

  5. As a painter entering the field in the 60’s this article strikes many chords. thank you. It seems that much of the responding comments, although all of interest, try to argue against the history that is non- reversible and continue the “whites only” mantra that has not been the case recently. The World has entered the realm and if the auction houses are an indicator, much of what is sought is not by white males. The palette chosen is open, the race of little importance, unless the painter chooses to make it the issue. progress and a return to the original intent of the media.

  6. John,

    First time caller, long time listener. I think the death of the author, as you point out, is the turning point. It leads to tactical and defensive positions: outsourcing, de-skilling, as you mention. But the issue is not specific to the medium of painting, as another has mentioned in the comments. The question of authority (there, I’ve said it) goes beyond a specific medium, and aims at any artistic endeavor. It encompasses more than craft. In today’s pluralism, in the denigration of a master narrative, it’s verboten to invoke authority, but I think that is the elephant that’s being ignored. Why should we pursue MFA’s, lean on theoretical texts and historical precedents, if not to accrue onto our acts a measure of authority, to be heard and listened to, to be paid attention? I think the sooner we can get over our fear of speaking with authority, not only for ourselves but for others, the sooner we can create shared experiences, lean-tos against the wind.

    1. Victor,

      Authority – Yes, or as I put it, how do you take responsibility for what you do when – in the current climate – definitions of what is the right and wrong thing to do marks every step one takes? How do you – to cite a cliche – get outside of the box?

      1. I wish I knew. But I’m a hopeful kind of guy on good days, and, if the sureties of modernism enact our pre-adolescence, and postmodernism flings an adolescent “whatever” to all comers, maybe as adults we’ll have to accept responsibility for making sure the babies are fed?

        On the other hand, on bad days I don’t see a way out. The current climate doesn’t seem conducive to accepting responsibility, and to my thinking this problem is all tied up with certain hegemonies (capitalism, liberal democracy) already in place. I’m too much a product of, and believer in, these existent hegemonies to put faith in revolution. Bill Gates, after making his fortune with Microsoft, turned his attention to helping the world, and after studying the situation, he asked (priceless) if there could be a form of “caring” capitalism. He couldn’t get that it’s people (like him) who care, and that corporations are not people.

  7. Marginalized compared to what exactly? It seems necessary in order to avoid the opaque logic supporting articles such as this, for the writer to provide a coherent definition for what actually constitutes the ‘art world’ in 2013. Otherwise, the illusion created falsely suggests that every artist(painter or otherwise) around the globe and regardless of philosophy, intent, medium, interest or audience is pursuing the same brass ring.

    Today there are countless artists of all mediums, philosophies, shapes and sizes working and receiving critical and financial recognition through multiple channels of distribution at stratified levels in the ‘art world’. Paintings are one aspect of this diversity just as rap music is one aspect of the music industry. It seems absurd in 2013 to expect the vast array of art forms offered through these plural channels to be compared and discussed in the same fashion. We live in an age of pluralism, specialization and vertical expertise. The ‘art world’ reflects this diversity. Why should we expect ‘painting’ en masse to rise to a singular point of critical or financial value that eclipses all other forms? ‘Painting’ has it’s rock-stars at many different levels in many different channels and we know who they are. What exactly is the problem?

    Historically, patronage and recognition for any painter has never been easily won. The golden age of ‘isms was the 19th century, in which various art movements were named by observers. In the 20th century artists named their own movements. Art movements in the 21st century are currently culturally passé and those that attempt to declare them are usually surprised not at the recognition they receive, but the laughter.

    Could there be a ‘next big thing’? I’d wager yes. I suspect it will likely be technology driven, perhaps around mid-century. It might even be ‘painterly’ in some aspects. It may or may not entirely displace painting as we know it today. I’d bet not

    To paraphrase a comment Jerry Saltz made in another conversation (as close as I can recall his words), “Nobody has seriously considered painting dead since at least the Carter administration.”

    Perhaps what we really need today is a body of art writers and critics more broadly knowledgeable about the stratified cultural pluralism visibly inherent in the 21st century ‘art world’. In our golden age of specialization, art criticism seems to have not kept pace. Perhaps what is dead is effective and meaningful art criticism.

  8. To add: Clement Greenberg is often vilified for his noticing and reporting of the cultural trends of his time. Certainly, he offered and promoted his own interpretations about what was valuable, or not. His interpretations and speculations also changed over time. Excellent for him!

    Too often his work and thoughts are dismissed by painters who have not actually read or considered his writings but are happier regurgitating anecdotes and assigning blame for a changed world. In this collection of essays shown, “Art and Culture”, there is a specific essay beginning on page 131 titled “Abstract, Representational, And So Forth” that reflects his mid-century Ryerson Lecture at Yale. To better understand how Greenberg viewed the value of representation vs. abstraction, it is worth actually reading that specific essay. ;]

    I believe this collection of essays can be found in Google books.

    “Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what count’s first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary.” -CG

    1. Quality is defined as an “inherent feature or property,” which, in the case of painting, would be its flatness. Greenberg’s argument was tautological and not expansive.

      1. Greenberg is not using quality to mean “inherent feature” in this instance, but “goodness,” and his remarks on flatness were made in regards to the painting he was writing about at the time, not to all painting for all time. It’s a shame to see these caricatures of his work still being perpetuated twenty years after his death.

  9. Please cite evidence in Greenberg’s writings for the following claims:

    1. That he had a “desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting.”

    2. That he was of the mind that “painting could only be about itself.”

    3. That his criticism was “formalist” or “theory,” much less “formalist theory.”

    1. It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.

      Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting.

        1. I didn’t realize that I was being cross examined. Apologies for not recognizing this. It seems to me that Greenberg’s statement would apply to the first two questions you stated.

          As for reading Greenberg, there is a fundamentalist approach to his writing, and a talmudic one. I took a talmudic one and considered the implications of what Greenberg wrote. If you disagree with those thoughts, that’s fine.

          Greenberg believed in historical progress. I have a problem with that.

          1. Perhaps, in your consideration of Clement Greenberg, you should take into account how he wrote about women artists, specifically Anne Truitt.

          2. You are being asked to provide evidence that Greenberg said what you said that he said. That you can’t except by means of tendentious interpretation isn’t Talmudic, it’s just biased. And I’m not sure whether he believed in historical progress or not, but I am sure that your chosen excerpt from “New Lacoon” describes what was going on within an important strain of painting at the time and nothing more.

            How does the way in which he wrote about women artists relate to this discussion?

          3. In writing about Anne Truitt, Greenberg characterized her as “the gentle wife of James Truitt.” Here his condescension towards her (a woman artist) shows through. I don’t think we can ignore this condescension when it comes to Greenberg’s formulations regarding art.

          4. You take it personally when I call your interpretation tendentious, but you say that we can’t ignore a possibly condescending remark that Greenberg once made about Anne Truitt when considering his formulations regarding art? All of them?

            What was the context of that remark?

          5. Could you tell me in what context Greenberg’s remark, which appeared in Vogue (May 1967), would be proper?

            Could you tell me where in that statement Greenberg is writing about Truitt’s work?

            Is it because she is “the gentle wife of James Truitt” that she uses the colors that she does?

          6. You’re asking me to justify a six-word fragment of a sentence that I haven’t read (and, just guessing, you haven’t either), from the May 1967 issue of Vogue, as if appraising the full scope of his intellectual legacy hinges on it. This is silly.

          7. Well, if you haven’t read the fragment, how did you know it was six words?

            The problem is that you ask lots of questions, but don’t answer the ones I ask you. Instead, you use terms such as “silly” and are generally dismissive.

            Don’t assume anything about what I have or haven’t read. And I won’t assume anything about the person who put this sentence on his website: Critics who view their services as important to art are stooges in clerical garb.

            I am sure someone wants to hear you pontificate further.

          8. How did I know it was six words? Because… I read “the gentle wife of James Truitt” and counted up six words. Is this a trick question? I apologize for assuming you haven’t read the sentence containing this fragment – I hereby now assume that you have. What was the sentence? I still don’t see how it relates to any point you made in the original post, but maybe the full statement will make it clear.

            I was asking you to provide evidence that Greenberg said what you said he said. If you have none, say so. Greenberg aside, it seems to me that if a writer says that Mr. So-and-So said X, Y, Z, a reader ought to be able to ask where Mr. So-and-So said X, Y, and Z and the pursuit of intellectual probity ought to be agreeable to all concerned.

          9. Greenberg made the following statement: “For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art.” Why don’t you tell me how “stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained … more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism” also allows for illusionism?

            He then went on to say: “Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”

            I happen to disagree with the implications of this rather narrow judgment, not to mention the influence it (and he) had in constructing various orthodoxies. I don’t think I need to provide further evidence.

          10. The way in which modernist art oriented itself around flatness did not provide as much room as traditional painting for illusionism. It does not follow from this that Greenberg wanted to banish illusionism. The 1978 postscript to the essay from which those quotes are excerpted is worth reading: “The writer [CG is referring to himself here] is trying to account in part for how most of the very best art of the last hundred-odd years came about, but he’s not implying that that’s how it had to come about, much less that that’s how the best art still has to come about. ‘Pure’ art was a useful illusion, but this doesn’t make it any the less an illusion. Nor does the possibility of its continuing usefulness make it any the less an illusion.”

            Not only were his ideas about flatness not prescriptive, one gets the sense that as far as he was concerned, it all could have turned out differently. What you’re calling a “rather narrow judgment” is really a generative explanation about a distinct phase of modernist painting.

  10. This is a terrible, incompetent essay. Is this student work? I would suggest the author take more time in reading Greenberg, so as to not go off the rails following their own strange assumptions.

    Kitsch IS middlebrow art? Uh, no.
    Greenberg condemned “relational composition” and “drawing”? Are you daft?
    Greenberg thought abstraction “more advanced” than representation? No, that’s not even close to accurate.
    Greenberg personally had a “desire to banish illusion”? You’ve got to be joking…

    This essay is one MASSIVE art-history fail. It hurts the brain to read such ignorance.

    Go banish yourself, chump.

    1. I would suggest the author take more time in reading Greenberg, so as to not go off the rails following their own strange assumptions.

      Here, the writer might note that “author” is singular and “their” is plural.

      1. Is this honestly the first time you’ve encountered “their” as a gender-less singular pronoun?

        You might want to consider picking up a hobby, like reading, sometime.

  11. Can we agree that whatever Greenberg wrote and/or meant, an over-simplified construal of it “flat=good” had significant effects on the efforts of artists and critics? Just because Greenberg did not explicitly write the generalities with which Yau describes painting’s discourse of the last several decades does not mean the ideas were not in the air.

    For me, Yau’s most cogent concluding final comment does not entirely depend on arguments about Greenberg’s writings:

    “But nothing, we should remind ourselves, is necessarily etched in stone.”

    Hasn’t the torrent of rehabilitative shows, including Sugerman, Price, Baer, Lozano, & HighTImesHardTimes shown that ostensible historical imperatives (how art has to be given this or that current situation) can always be challenged, undercut, or evaded to stimulating effect?

    1. It seems that we cannot agree that Greenberg’s writings led to the equation”flat=good.”

      Why else would the responses include such terms as “chump,” “dead” and “tendentious?” In my essay I never used such terms because, as much as I might disagree with someone’s opinion, I don’t think it is necessary to be disrespectful and dismissive.

      1. I called your interpretation tendentious because it was, not to disrespect or dismiss you personally, and it’s cheap of you to say that I did.

        Edit: I’ll add that if you think you’ve given Greenberg’s writings a fair and untroubled reading, and there is evidence for the views you attribute to him, I invite you to make that case.

        1. Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way, and Modernism’s success in doing so is a success of self-criticism

          My problem with Greenberg stems from the narrowness of his views, as suggested by the statement above, which he made. I do not agree that “the only and necessary way” to see a “Modernist picture” is “as a picture first.” I do not agree that this is “the best way of seeing any kind of picture.” (Which includes Old Master works). I think this way of thinking about art is reductive. Nor do I think that the narrowness of this kind of reading – or what could be called orthodoxy – ended with Greenberg.

          What I wanted to raise was the possibility that orthodoxies of various kinds continue to exist when it comes to thinking about art, and that perhaps these assumptions – whatever they are (“appropriation is the only game in town”) – should be questioned. That is the case that I wanted to make. My reading of him was not “untroubled.” I never made that claim.

          You have repeatedly stated that I have provided no evidence for my argument. That is your right. Perhaps you are comfortable with statements such as “the only and necessary way.” Greenberg’s statement does not “invite” another point of view. I have a problem with that. I don’t think it is necessary to continue.

          1. (For anyone following along, the first paragraph overhead starting “Whereas one tends to see…” is a quote from Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” 1960, not the previously cited essays from ’39 and ’40.)

            But these, then, are new objections, leaving aside your previous claims that he wanted to banish illusionism, that he proclaimed that “painting could only be about itself,” or that he was working in formalist theory, either the formalist part of the theory part. There is no evidence for these claims, and I repeat it because it’s true and you seem unwilling to acknowledge it.

            Of course you’re free to disagree with the idea that looking at a picture as a picture first is the best way to look at a picture. In 2013 and with self-consciousness thoroughly entrenched in fine art, it seems that one would at least have to start there automatically, and in regards to modernist work in the two decades leading up to 1960, it’s uncontroversial to say that regarding it thus is all that’s necessary to the satisfactory experience of such art. That work may subsequently call for other kinds of analysis doesn’t change that. Nothing afterwards in “Modernist Painting” necessarily precludes such analysis, it just doesn’t call for it.

            Yes, I am comfortable with statements such as “the only and necessary way” because I realize that he is writing about painting being made within particular parameters, and he does not anticipate that subsequent critics will read him to be talking about all art in all places from then until Ragnarok despite his giving them no reason to think so. It’s not his job as a writer to invite other points of view, only to state his own.

          2. You are comfortable with that statement by Greenberg. And I am not. It seems that you cannot accept my discomfort, but must try and put me in my place. And yet, as you say, “it not his job”(or mine) to invite other points of view, only to state his (my) own.” I have stated my point of view.

          3. You’ve certainly tried. But perhaps you shouldn’t if you’re bothered by the prospect of someone testing the claims leading up to your view for truth.

          4. Credit for what? I’m glad to hear that you’re not bothered. I’m here to have an intellectual discussion. I just think you’ve assumed too much about the strength of your position. Those orthodoxies you mentioned overhead – I’m not a fan of them either. One of the bigger ones going, though, is the anti-Greenberg orthodoxy, and you’ve repeated several articles of that particular faith as if they were facts.

    2. There was most certainly a phase of academic modernism in which the associated ideas were reduced to a rote or a credo. This happens to all ideas that become widely adopted – they have a living, vital phase followed by a dead, academic one. I have written about this here [sorry, here] – see the passage about my conversation with (the wonderful) Philip Morsberger.

      I don’t doubt that a lot of people reduced Greenberg’s ideas to “flat=good” and painted accordingly, but anyone with modernist inclinations and some talent will tell you that that reduction is a pretty moribund way of looking at art. If anything, the modernist message is that nothing, not even flatness, guarantees quality.

  12. I’m thinking about your comments re authorship and historical progress in the context of the “anonymous Tantric paintings” from Rajasthan included in the current Venice Biennale. These works are small-scale, but otherwise reflect the union of abstract form, flat painting space, and metaphysics that Modernist painters since Greenberg have often embraced. Artists from Rothko to Ellsworth Kelly to Agnes Martin come to mind. Of course, these works are not of the Modernist tradition, although tellingly, their provenance is cited to a New York gallery. It strikes me that their presence in the Biennale, which is heavily influenced by Breton’s strategy of cultural appropriation from non-Western and Western folk arts alike, is treated as both non-authorial and ahistorical. Compare this with the treatment of European painters such as Hilma Af Klimt or Emma Kunz, who are positioned as taking their rightful place in history. What do you think is happening here? I’m sure the market plays into it but as yet unsure of how.

    1. I don’t believe that Hilma Af Klint has been given her rightful place in history. I think her work is the process of being rediscovered. Her work was not included in the exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910 – 1925” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for example. Did the modernist painters you cite all embrace “metaphysics} – which is integral to the “anonymous Tantric paintings” in the Venice Biennale?
      Yes, they are teated “ahistorically.” I think you raise an important and interesting issue that has yet to be fully addressed.

      1. I have heard terms like “transcendental” used to describe all these artists. Metaphysics in the Modernist, post-Theosophist, non-denominational sense. I agree that there is work to be done on the subject and am working on it myself. However I’m still curious about your opinion wrt the market’s preference for European/American “discoveries” and non-Western “artifacts” in a contemporary art context as my example was meant to illustrate?

  13. I appreciate Yau’s assertion that the “causal. dashed-off” approach has been a part of modernism since pretty much the beginning. As I read “Provisional Painting” I couldn’t help thinking of Manet. Modernism has long questioned what counts as a finished and respectable artistic effort, particularly as endorsed by dominant arbiters of taste (who hold economic power). of course those tables are always turning.
    However, I don’t think Rubinstein’s observations of a spike in this mode of painting are entirely specious. But its redemptive possibilities are undoubtedly overrated. At the risk of being a-historical, I think a great deal of beautiful painting is made with a touch that borders on incoherence, which can easily swing into either ineptitude or showy facility, things I guess only the viewer can decide. But that’s why I think Carroll Dunham is more skillful than John Currin. And Raoul De Keyser wasn’t as good after he realized he was Raoul De Keyser.

  14. First, I should say I’m not well read in Greenberg’s theory- not at all in fact. I think its amazing though, knowing how much controversy he inspired in his day, that his ideas are still being debated with such passion (or should I say animosity??) Wow, i mean, these comment threads are pretty aggressive. I’ve been recognizing this type of ‘provisional’ painting and have kind-of been thinking of it as ‘neo-formalism’ lately. I don’t think I’m all that into it though. I could be totally wrong, but I think that Greenberg’s preference “flat=good” (or is it assumed preference?) was really about illusion vs. truth- like ‘non- representational painting is in fact more honest? Maybe so, but when I look at a painting, I don’t feel like i’m being lied to (well, by the painting that is…) I wish there was an idea that painters could rally around, but I don’t think it’s all that necessary, now at least. Maybe someday, but I think that painting is doing just fine. Art has grown far beyond it’s classical media, but I’m assuming that painting will always have a place. Is anyone else capable of imagining the ‘last painters’ ( I mean, honestly, and for real) I think that some painters today indulge in that premise, and I think that Greenberg and the Ab/ex. people did also. I don’t think it is more than an indulgence though. Maybe the biggest lie painting has ever told???

    1. quick clarification: I used the formulation “flat=good” not as a shorthand for Greenberg’s ideas but as shorthand for oversimplifications of Greenberg. I just don’t want to get blamed for perpetuating that.

      1. Thanks, and for sure no blame. Having not read Greenberg’s essays (I think I may want to now) I have always assumed that Greenberg and ab/ex artists saw a painting’s flatness or objectivity as a virtue, so your formulation made sense. Although I think I always thought of his stance as more like “flat= truth” is that at all correct??? And what I was writing before, and what some people have written in this thread about ‘the death of painting’. I mean, that has to be an invention. Imagine how big your ego could get if you were the last to be doing something, history would remember you always and by default, no?

  15. John,

    I think you’ve made some interesting, and potentially valid points about the
    legacy of modernism and its effects on contemporary art theory. I do however
    think you’re unfairly castigating Greenberg for a widely held Western cultural
    belief in historical progress; a belief rooted in an understanding of time as
    progressing in a linear rather than cyclical fashion, and one shared by
    numerous thinkers, not just art critics. Greenberg was always at pains to
    point out, particularly in his later years, that much of his seminal writings
    were responses to observations of trends, not dictates about a historical
    necessity. Also, I don’t think its fair hold Greenberg accountable for our
    21st century discomfort with widely shared 20th century gender
    stereotypes. Again, condescension when dealing with members of the opposite sex
    was not the exclusive domain of 20th century art critics.

    None-the-less, I think the critical heart of this essay, and its something
    I’m inclined to agree with, is a condemnation of all the current lazy thinking
    about art that, for whatever reasons -probably financial-, is underpinned by
    foolish assumptions regarding a non-existent ‘avant-garde’. The belief in
    a vanguard of cutting-edge art predates Greenberg by several decades, and he
    should not be held responsible of the ramifications of this misguided position.
    Raphael Rubinstein on the other hand should know better than to evoke, however
    covertly, the specter of something that no longer -and probably never did- exist
    to justify his bad taste in painting.

  16. Whether or not Greenberg wanted to banish illusionism is beside the point. HIs writings had the effect of perpetuating that idea as an imperative. Ask Philip Pearlstein and Philip Guston. I read him claim somewhere that he actually preferred illusionistic art / realism but that the abstract art that was being made was just of higher “quality” than contemporary illusionistic art. People have been debated whether he was DEscribing or PREscribing since “Modernist Painting” hit the streets and maybe before, hence the need for the postscript that has been mentioned.
    His basic theory, that painting is involved in a long task of self-clarification, of asserting what it most essentially is at bottom, grabbed many artists’ attention and seemed like a valuable task. But Gb said it was something that had been going on for many many years. Once the cat was out of the bag, artists tried to force it, and it all fell apart in fun, varied ways. And it became clear that there is no such thing as an essence of painting. Unless you want to claim that its essence is context (Daniel Buren?).
    But I still read Yau’s main point as a warning against imperatives, against the idea that some ways of working are more or less valid at the moment, and particularly against the idea that painting is just not capable of addressing our contemporary situation, For an example of this, see David Geers’s “Neo-Modern” in a recent issue of October, in which he actually uses the phrase “overturning established taboos” as a negative. However, I can’t think of any other examples of anti-painting of late. It seems not as marginalized as Yau claims, but of course I don’t travel in the same circles.
    Interestingly, maybe Yau’s challenge to artists to take responsibility for their output, coming from his assertion that both the “provisional” mode or the mechanized mode are evasions, could itself be read as an imperative, or perhaps better a task. I’m not calling him a hypocrite. “Death of Author” theory has been hugely important. Maybe we should argue about the finer points of Barthes instead of Greenberg, something I’m not qualified to do, except to venture that Barthes did not want to eliminate artists/authors, but only to point out that their moves, or their range of options, are to an extent circumscribed or at least nudged by current tendencies and expectations, and that an author/artist does not get the final interpretive word.

    As to the death or end of painting, that seems to come from an idea of historical progress that predates Greenberg but that would seem to be a corollary of his work although he would deny it I’m sure. (He didn’t like Minimalism. Donald Judd said once about Gb: “I thought we wanted the same thing.”) In 2002, Douglas Crimp gave an interview in which he claimed that the point of his famous essay was to say that “The end (purpose) of painting was to end (come to rest) in the museum.” This is more subtle than “you should stop painting because it’s a dead art,” although there was probably some of that sentiment too in 1981 because his main rhetorical adversaries, Barbara Rose and Richard Hennessy, presented painting as bolstered by quite romantic notions that to Crimp seemed to betray the ruthless examination of customs that had been part of modernism before Greenberg.

    1. I wrote this essay in part because it is the beginning of September and, after a brief hiatus, the art world (whatever that might mean) will begin (in New York, at least) having exhibitions in galleries, etc. I wanted to call attention to the “provisional” mode, mechanized mode of making, and outsourcing, and ask: are these historically inevitable. Or are they perhaps the accepted, seemingly smart thing to do? I don’t have any answers. I raised the questions, in part to remind myself to be alert. I think that Greenberg believed that one learned how to see, and that his writing comes out of that position. I disagree with him on that – I think one should try to keep learning about seeing and thinking, try and keep one’s eyes open.

      1. From a talk that Greenberg gave in 1983: “True taste, genuine taste, develops, expands, grows. It changes only insofar as it corrects itself, true taste. And it doesn’t do that temperamentally, but as part of the process of its growth. Growth means increasing openness, catholicity, inclusion more than exclusion. As you go along, get older and look at more and more art you find yourself liking more and more art, without having to lower your standards. Taste refines itself; it’s true. It discriminates more as it develops, and yet at the same time, paradoxically, it becomes opener.”

        For Greenberg, looking was a never-ending process, and the mark that you were doing it correctly is that your taste would surprise you. There is much in his writings that support an idea of art and art history as fluid and non-deterministic.

        1. In this talk that you cite, Greenberg makes the following remark:

          “And so there’s a lot, relatively, a lot of good new art being produced in our time, and by young people, too. Curiously enough, among painters, an unusually high proportion of women. I’m not saying that as a sop to the feminists in the audience.”

          Why does he use the phrase “curiously enough?” Did it surprise him that women could make “good new art?” If so, why? Is this an example of him becoming “opener?”

          He says lots of nice things about “the process of growth”… “without having to lower your standards.” The world he lives in is stable, even secure. Everything hums along for the enlightened man. The problem is that I just don’t buy it. I also have a problem with the word “standards.” It is that simple. And you can’t seem to accept it. Which is why this conversation is going nowhere.

          1. It may not be going toward anything, but it’s certainly moved around quite a bit. You claimed that Greenberg wanted to banish illusionism and believed that a picture could only be about itself according to his brand of formalist theory. When I asked you to cite evidence for any of this, you produced a quote that didn’t relate in any obvious way from an essay that you hadn’t referenced in your article, and you tried to stick him with a sexism charge via a context-free remark about Anne Truitt. When I asked you to produce the context, you moved to a generalized critique of the narrowness of his worldview. I provided counter-evidence against that narrowness, and now you’re back to the sexism charge via a different passage of his writing, and saying that I can’t seem to accept that you have a problem with the word “standards” when this is the first mention of said problem. All along you’ve been dropping hints that my tone or attitude has been inimical to civil, productive discussion.

            I’m sorry to say so, but this discomfort you say you’re experiencing seems to derive from your determination to give Greenberg a pessimal reading, with benefit of the doubt wholly withdrawn and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit the damning narrative you’re trying to establish that leads up to his “theories” being “narrow and wrong, catastrophically so.” I would argue that this whole line of reasoning is just another assertion of historical progress, namely, that Greenberg is wholly or largely responsible for the installment of limiting orthodoxies and that we now need to “undo the damage and to learn to see for ourselves.” This is just another expression of trying to prompt history in a certain direction. Struggling against edicts that Greenberg is supposed to have made has been a major feature of art-world thought since 1972. Orthodoxy? You’re soaking in it.

            Meanwhile, reminders that possibilities are myriad, restrictions are provisional, and nothing is etched in stone lay among the writings of Greenberg. You want a way out of the cell, but you’re kicking the keys into the drain. That’s not to say that the writings or the author are free of complications – that, indeed, would be just another orthodoxy – but they’re often fascinating and they remain useful. Moreover, they deserve to be represented fairly.

            Edit: For the record, I would stand up against a pessimal reading of the works of John Yau. I just happen to be somewhat well-versed in Greenberg.

          2. This is what you stated.

            Please cite evidence in Greenberg’s writings for the following
            claims:

            1. That he had a “desire to banish illusionism, which he
            felt was extraneous, from painting.”

            2. That he was of the mind that “painting could only be
            about itself.”

            3.
            That his criticism was “formalist” or “theory,” much less
            “formalist theory.”

            Here are the answers, which you seemed to reject
            the first time.
            In
            answer to question 1.

            I based my statement on a number of Greenber’s statements, including these.

            Greenberg: It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater;
            color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.

            Greenberg: Modernist painting in its latest phase has not abandoned the representation of recognizable objects in principle. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable objects can inhabit.

            I am not sure why you believe that these two statements by Greenberg do notsupport my statement that he had a “desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting.” Did all Modernist painting “abandon in principle … the representation of the kind of space that recognizable objects can inhabit.” Isn’t the kind of space Greenberg is referring to called “illusionistic?” Isn’t Greenberg’s reading of art history “tendentious?”

            I would further add that Greenberg, in describing the work of Pollock and Tobey, states that allover painting “relies on a surface knit together of identical or closely similar elements which
            repeat themselves without marked variation from one edge of the painting to the other. It is a kind of picture which dispenses apparently with beginning middle, end.” Given Greenberg’s advocacy of allover painting, is it really that big a leap to advance the view that he “had a desire to banish illusionism?”

            Finally, this sentence comes from the
            “Dictionary of Art Historians”
            (http://www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org/greenbergc.htm)

            “Modern painting, Greenberg asserted, was evolving toward ridding itself of Renaissance pictorial illusion, adding that the public’s initial revulsion toward Abstract Expressionist art of the 1940’s was a “symptom of cultural and even moral decay.”

            I would call attention to the fact that the dictionary proposes that Greenberg “asserted” this view, which suggests that his reading of history was not unbiased, but in fact a claim. And imbedded within that claim is a “desire to banish illusionism,

            In response to question 2.

            Greenberg: It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. “Purity” meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance.

            Is it really such a big leap to advance that Greenberg, who stated “Purity” meant self-definition, believed that “painting (of the kind he valued) could only be about itself? The self that I am referring to is its status as a flat surface.

            In response to question 3.

            This is how Greenberg is described in “Dictionary of Art Historians.”

            “Greenberg’s formalism (so associated with his writing that it is sometimes referred to as “Greenbergian Formalism”) was a blend of his reading of Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), Hofmann’s theories of painting, the writing of the 19th-century esthete Walter Pater and the work of the British Bloomsbury formalist Roger Fry.

            Is my use of the word “formalist” that different from what is stated here? Is what Greenberg wrote objective fact or a “theory” about history, a theory that comes out of his belief in formalist values that he laid out in his reading of history, examples of which I cited in the answers to your first two questions.

            I don’t doubt that you are “well-versed” in your reading of Greenberg, I just don’t happen to think that you have read him very
            closely or deeply.

          3. Regarding #1: The passages you’ve provided are descriptive of what modernist painting was doing at the time, not prescriptions for what painting ought to be doing in general at the time. His advocacy of that period of abstraction was based on the quality of the paintings, much of which took the tone that this (from Art in America, Aug.-Sep. ’65) did: “At the beginning of the 1940s the strongest new impulses of American painting were making themselves felt in the area of abstract art.” It was based on quality and formed entirely a posteriori. He was known to revoke such advocacy when the quality fell off: “What turned this constellation of stylisic features [of Abstract Expressionism] into something bad as art was its standardization, its reduction to a set of mannerisms, as a dozen, and then a thousand, artists proceeded to maul the same viscosities of paint, in more or less the same ranges of color, and with the same ‘gestures,’ into the same kind of picture.” (This was for the 1964 catalogue for “Post Painterly Abstraction” at LACMA.) Writing for the Jan. ’64 Vogue, he said in so many words: “There are many, many contemporary representational artists whose work I admire – to name only a few close to home: Milton Avery, Arnold Friedman, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Granlund, Sidney Laufman, Edwin Dickinson, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, John Chumley, Lennart Anderson, Goodridge Roberts of Canada.” He noted afterward that while the best art in the previous thirty years was abstract, so was the worst. One of the artists he advocated for was Horacio Torres. The “cultural decay” remark from “Art and Culture” (1961) reads thus in its entirety:

            The tendency is to assume that the representational as such is superior to the non-representational as such; that all other things being equal, a work of painting or sculpture that exhibits a recognizable image is always preferable to one that does not. Abstract art is considered to be a symptom of cultural, even moral decay, while the hope for a “return to nature” gets taken for granted by those who do the hoping as the hope for a return to health.

            Note this well: “cultural, even moral decay” is not Greenberg’s characterization of the viewing public, it is his characterization of the viewing public’s characterization of abstract art. This tells you what you need to know about the Dictionary of Art Historians.

            Clement Greenberg had zero desire to banish illusionism.

            Regarding #2: Again, please note the 1978 addendum to the “Modern Painters” essay you’re quoting: “‘Pure’ art was a useful illusion, but this doesn’t make it any the less an illusion. Nor does the possibility of its continuing usefulness make it any the less an illusion.” For that matter, have another look at the main body:

            The flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an absolute flatness. The heightened sensitivity of the picture plane may no longer permit sculptural illusion, or trompe-l’oeil, but it does and must permit optical illusion. The first mark made on a canvas destroys its literal and utter flatness, and the result of the marks made on it by an artist like Mondrian is still a kind of illusion that suggests a kind of third dimension. Only now it is a strictly pictorial, strictly optical third dimension. The Old Masters created an illusion of space in depth that one could imagine oneself walking into, but the analogous illusion created by the Modernist painter can only be seen into; can be traveled through, literally or figuratively, only with the eye.

            So-called ‘purity’ is a useful illusion and the slightest mark makes depth: Greenberg is saying that painting can’t only be about itself, but that there was a distinct trend in the history of painting leading up to the modernist work to try.

            Regarding #3: Greenberg wrote an essay entitled “Complaints of an Art Critic” for the October 1967 issue of Artforum that devotes a whole section, maybe a couple thousand words, to his rejection of the formalist label. His central objection is that “it assumes that ‘form’ and ‘content’ in art can be adequately distinguished for the purposes of disourse,” which of course it can’t. Furthermore, “…the quality of a work of art inheres in its ‘content,’ and vice versa. Quality is ‘content.’ You know that a work of art has content because of its effect.” I’m not an expert on Fry but this would seem to be quite out of sync with his views, and there’s something coarse about lumping them together in a category that one of them refused outright and in important respects did not adhere to.

            If Greenberg has a theory about art he never stated it as such, and the dominant refrain throughout his writings (the only one, to be sure, that underlies both his interest in Morris Louis and Hindu sculpture, to pick two) is that it’s necessary to look at a lot of work and use your taste. Is “look again, and again,” as he put it in a 1983 talk on taste a theory? Maybe if you have a supremacist idea about theory, but I’m not such a person and I doubt you are either. To my judgment this is a practice, and it’s the reason why his writings maintain such vitality.

            I will nevertheless heed your opinion that I have not read Greenberg very closely or deeply, and remedy this with the serious perusal of the Dictionary of Art Historians that you’ve demonstrated.

          4. I think you should read Leo Steinberg’s essay, “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public (1962), which is included in Other Criteria.

            I would also recommend this essay “Leo Steinberg and the Provisionality of Modernist Criticism” (2008) by Stephen Moonie.

            The Abstract summarizes the essay:

            Leo Steinberg’s early critical essays, particularly ‘Contemporary
            Art and the Plight of its Public’ (1962) proposed a kind of criticism which we could describe as ‘provisional,’ acknowledging the fundamentally contingent nature of Modernism, with its recurrent upheavals. Steinberg’s arguments were partially motivated by his objection to the Modernist trajectory established by Clement Greenberg, a trajectory which delineated a definitive Modernist canon, established by the critic’s practised taste. Steinberg’s critical model, however, is both more ‘yielding,’ and more explicitly interpretative. But despite the profound sense of doubt which permeates the Modernist condition, Steinberg’s suggests a position which need not necessarily succumb to a debilitating scepticism.

            This is the quote I would direct your attention to – it is about Leo
            Steinberg’s criticism of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. It clarifies why I had issues with Greenberg’s use of the word “standards.”

            “This is brought out more explicitly in ‘Other Criteria.’ The
            aesthetic judgement which adjudicates the value of an artist within the Modernist canon can no longer be called upon, for the work begins to resist being framed within such criteria. Rather, it demands a new kind of response, which Steinberg outlines earlier in his essay, where he sets out two possible responses to modern art. The first is clearly the Greenbergian/Friedian approach, which involves ‘rest[ing] firm and maintain[ing] solid standards. The
            standards are set by the critic’s long-practised taste and by his conviction that only those innovations will be significant which promote the established direction of advanced art.’ Thus the Greenbergian critic works within a framework where art’s trajectory is something pre-ordained; subsequent work can thus be accommodated without causing too much disturbance
            to the over- arching framework. Greenberg’s modernism thus parallels T. S. Eliot’s notion of ‘tradition,’ which consists of a series of ‘monuments’ which new work must conform to—in this sense the tradition is exclusionary and oppressive; it extorts acquiescence to its existing framework as the price of entry.”

            The entire essay – which I recommend – can be found here: http://www.essex.ac.uk/arthistory/research/pdfs/rebus_issue_2/Moonie.pdf

          5. I will indeed read both essays. I have a copy of Other Criteria around here somewhere. Right off the bat, though, I see something amiss with Moonie’s abstract. The reason that you have to “look again, and again” is because nothing is pre-ordained. There’s a trajectory, but it’s idiosyncratic, and it could detour at any time depending on what artists of the moment decide to try. Even your own taste will surprise you if you look at enough art. One searches in vain among Greenberg’s writings for such determinism. But I will read and decide after.

  17. As a digital artist I feel that, although Painting may not be dead, it certainly is wet, wonky and bound in analog decrepitude. Perhaps it is not the “death” of painting as much as it is the rise of illusion, virtuality and dematerialization. Painting, as a verb, is never going away…the noun, the thing itself… is, once again, in a remarkable state of flux. And, as such, it will survive quite nicely, thank you.

  18. To my way of thinking, it is a fatal flaw [for painters] to read and digest as serious or correct a critical review of painting. They are normally written by them that don’t or have never painted themselves. Greenberg is included on the long and tedious historical list of self appointed ‘Painting as Art’ or ‘Painting is Dead’ experts.

    1. The thing about painting is that there is no real difference between flatness and illusionism – it’s all pigment and vehicle on a support and that is what painting is.

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