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Nothing If Not Critical

CLEMENT GREENBERG: A Life.\o7 By Florence Rubenfeld\f7 .\o7 Scribner: 322 pp., $32.50\f7

April 12, 1998|PETER PLAGENS | Peter Plagens is a painter and art critic for Newsweek. His first novel will be published by Black Heron Press this year

Imagine what the reaction would be today if an art critic issued this pronunciamento: "The extreme eclecticism now prevailing in art is unhealthy, and it should be counteracted, even at the risk of dogmatism and intolerance." Some postmodern identity-politics artist would probably draw and quarter the offender to cheering crowds as part of a performance piece at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. And for adding, "Let painting confine itself to the disposition pure and simple of color and line, and not intrigue us by associations with things we can experience more authentically elsewhere," he might find his body parts flung into an installation at the Geffen Contemporary as much for thinking painting is still important as for thinking it's better when it's abstract.

But when Clement Greenberg inveighed against eclecticism, it was in the pre-atomic year 1944. And he was talking about the Museum of Modern Art's slavish admiration of reactionary Surrealists and School of Paris semi-abstractionists. The next year, he would take a flier on a young, glowering American abstract artist named Jackson Pollock: "[His] second one-man show at Art of This Century [Peggy Guggenheim's gallery] establishes him, in my opinion, as the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miro."

Carefully buttressed over the next few years by exquisitely timed polemical essays reiterating that the only hope for salvation of an already exhausted modern art resided in the irascible New York painters who would come to be known as Abstract Expressionists, Greenberg's opinions on art would become gospel in Manhattan Bohemia. By the mid-1960s, he would have not just discovered but actually hot-housed the next putatively major movement in art, Color-Field painting, and be sitting pretty as a $900-per-hour artists' advisor and cultural kingmaker.

In the mid-'40s, as Florence Rubenfeld writes in her surprisingly readable biography (we're talking the life of an art critic here), Greenberg cut an almost sinisterly impressive figure: "Clem was in his mid-thirties, five feet eleven inches tall, with an impressive forehead exaggerated by a domed head, bald for as long as anyone could remember. He had a beaked nose, large liquid-brown eyes, full sensual lips, and long, shapely fingers usually locked around an unfiltered Camel in the standard toke position. He stuttered a bit in those days and spoke carefully as a consequence. His words issued from the front of his mouth, as if his teeth stood guard."

When I first met Greenberg in 1980, at one of those comfy, bucolic, out-of-New-York symposiums at which he loved playing the eminence grise, he was 71 and by then as august and irrelevant to the actual playing field of contemporary art as, say, Casey Stengel is to contemporary baseball. In 1989, Elizabeth Frank observed in her review of his collected essays that Greenberg was the most hated man in the New York art world. Greenberg's long career arc is one of American art's more fascinating--I'd almost say intellectually lurid--stories, involving as it does Stalinist office politics, a doomed Pygmalionesque love affair, questionable ethics, booze, drugs and a psychiatric cult.

Greenberg's immigrant father, Joseph, had to concoct a western territory for his necktie business to get his laggard son out of his Brooklyn house. All that accomplished, however, was foster a brief marriage in Carmel, bear Greenberg a son (Danny) with whom he could never cope and provide him with the material for his only published poem, "Sacramento 1935." It later proved to be plagiarized from a poem by Mary Lorimer Welch published in the New Republic in 1933--a fact that makes you think "hmmm" when considering Greenberg's fetish for artistic originality. Greenberg returned to the East and got himself a couple of civil service jobs that enabled him to move out on his own into Greenwich Village and into literary editing for the politicized "little magazines" Partisan Review and Commentary. Partisan Review never had a circulation of more than 8,000, but it held enormous sway in the 1940s among those known as "New York intellectuals," who in turn constituted the straw that stirred the drink of American cultural life.

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