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Clement Greenberg: A Life

Clement Greenberg: A Life

by Florence Rubenfeld

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Love him or hate him, admire him or revile him, there is no doubt that Clement Greenberg was the most influential critic of modern art in the second half of the twentieth century. His championing of abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and David Smith helped to put the United States on the international art map. His support for


Love him or hate him, admire him or revile him, there is no doubt that Clement Greenberg was the most influential critic of modern art in the second half of the twentieth century. His championing of abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and David Smith helped to put the United States on the international art map. His support for color-field painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland dramatically accelerated their careers. The intellectual power of Greenberg's sometimes polemical essays helped bring about the midcentury shift that saw New York replace Paris as the art capital of the Western world; his aggressive personality and fierce involvement in the New York art scene triggered a backlash so potent that one critic termed it a "patricide.""Florence Rubenfeld has written a gossipy, vivid, and above all intelligent life of Clement Greenberg-not an easy figure to depict. At once sympathetic and shrewdly insightful about his polarizing character, she has given us a man whose fabled orneriness and power hunger was redeemed by his love of art."-James Atlas Florence Rubenfeld was the East Coast editor of the New Art Examiner for many years. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Editorial Reviews

Terry Teachout
...Greenberg will be remembered in the long run not for overrating Morris Louis, but for having produced a body of writing about art that is fully worthy of comparison with the best work of the best critics of the 20th century....[C]ritics are hated not for being wrong, but for being right.
National Review
Deborah Wilk

Dave Hickey, art criticism's current darling, does it in his latest book, Air Guitar. Chris Ware, alternative comics' boy wonder, does it in the Comics Journal. Make no mistake, bashing Clement Greenberg, the mid-century macho art critic credited for single-handedly making the careers of such modern art luminaries as Jackson Pollock, is a practice still alive and well among those who traffic within the ethereal territory of visual art theory.

For the better part of the Cold War era, Greenberg championed the avant garde movement of formal abstraction over any other approach to visual art, severely influencing both practice and patronage and endowing the critic with a power previously unknown. Despite the hold that pop took on American art in the '60s and early '70s, Greenberg's perceived titanism wasn't successfully challenged until the mid-'70s, when the ethics of his custodial control over the estate of artist David Smith were publicly questioned. From then until his death in 1994, Greenberg has been considered an absolutist, an arch-conservative whose theoretical views could not possibly accommodate the cultural concerns of new art.

However, Florence Rubenfeld's new biography, Clement Greenberg: A Life, is the latest addition to a recent movement that has sought to reexamine the virtue of Greenberg's critical theory. Reaching beyond the incestuous circle of New York intellectuals of the late '30s and '40s -- a group that gave rise both to Greenberg's critical practice and a legacy of scholars and editors who finally stripped him of any immediate power -- Rubenfeld realizes her mission to recontextualize Greenberg's work in the wider orbit of art history. In a straightforward narrative style, she recounts his emergence and rise to power, stopping along the way to analyze the development of his critical theory. As a result, the book is a rhythmic read, with gossipy biographical information giving way to academic analyses of the cultural and political influences that shaped American intellectual life of the late 20th century.

Rubenfeld does a nice job of laying out the framework of Greenbergian Formalism -- the concept with which Greenberg championed the new American work of the '40s and '50s as the center of international art -- for those unfamiliar with high-art theory. The romantic escapades of Greenberg's social milieu provide a fine reprieve from the mental machinations required to digest his theories.

However, getting personal with Clement Greenberg may be the key to recasting him as an academic good guy. By presenting Greenberg's theories about art as the purely self-taught ideas of a product of postwar influences, Rosenfeld deconstructs the institutional and authoritative nature of his writing, arguing that his ideology stemmed from personal passion. While Clement Greenberg: A Life ends with several renowned critics and scholars acknowledging Greenberg's exile from visual art's ivory tower as symbolic patricide, only the passage of time will reveal whether the brokers of the current dialogue are ready for the return of their prodigal father. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her first book, arts journalist Rubenfeld demonstrates that it is possible to delve into aesthetic precepts while giving an absorbing account of a life. As she notes, the death of American art critic Clement Greenberg in 1994 was treated as a nonevent by the New York art world. That was not the case with his life. Born in 1909 to Polish Jewish immigrants, Greenberg joined the heady mix of New York modernists who felt that the arts could change society. An English graduate from Syracuse University with no formal background in visual art, Greenberg championed the cause of American post-WWII vanguard art, often leaving a trail of enmity and even, in the case of David Smith's estate, near scandal in his wake. His personal life was no less turbulent, largely because he aligned himself with Newtonian psychiatrists who reduced marriage to a series of "musical beds." What distinguishes this book is Rubenfeld's combination of prodigious research (much of it in the form of interviews with art world personalities) and her clear explanation of the intellectual trends Greenberg espoused or that grew up in reaction to himall of which she does without the deadening gigantism of some biographies. Deftly written in an evenhanded tone, this is both a chronicle of one man's highs and lows, and an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the art world. It will appeal to anyone interested in 20th-century art or simply in a good story, convincingly told.
Lee Siegel
Clement Greenberg, America's most potent and consequential art critic, is invulnerable to sentimental treatment....Rubenfeld, a former East Coast editor for New Art Examiner magazine, has ventured a life of Greenberg that is a defense of sorts. It is bound to kick up a stir. -- The New York Times Book Review
Robert Storr
Giving substance to this specter has been one of the pressing problems of criticism for more than a decade....[B]eneath the sordidness and behind the screen of rhetoric there lies the immensely complicated drama of a true literary gift and a genuine passion for art misspent in the pursuit of coterie clout and big-time art world fame. It is a tragedy of the intellect.
Art Journal
Kirkus Reviews
A sympathetic biography of the controversial critic who championed the abstract expressionist school as early as 1944, when he anointed Jackson Pollock and a few others as the "future of American painting." The bristly Greenberg, who died in 1994, began writing literary and art criticism and essays in the '30s, while working for the U.S. Customs Service in New York. His classic manifesto "Avante-Garde and Kitsch," published in the Partisan Review in 1939, distinguished high art from popular middle-class diversions, arguing that it was the function of the avant-garde not to experiment but to find a path along which culture can keep moving. In his celebration of artists like Willem de Kooning, Pollock, Morris Louis, and David Smith (and in his sweeping denunciation of Pop art), Greenberg, who in later years wrote for the Nation and Commentary, developed a reputation as a fighter, his power and influence earning him vocal enemies. Rubenfeld, a former East Coast editor for the New Art Examiner, notes the influence on Greenberg's criticism of T.S. Eliot, a sometime Partisan Review contributor, from whom Greenberg may have drawn in formulating his ideas on modern art and its relation to earlier traditions. Usefully locating Greenberg in the context of American art-world politics and letters, and making a persuasive case for his importance, she makes no apologies for the critic, who could be both brilliant and devastating in his opinions, even of his friends' work. His personal life as presented here was a series of fractured relationships. But as Rubenfeld notes, when he committed critically to an artist's work, he committed personally as well, forging close social tieswith many of the painters and sculptors whose work he was drawn to, though these positions of influence sometimes led to inevitable questions of conflict of interest. A clear and honest summary of the life of one of the most pugnacious, influential, and original critics of modern art.

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University of Minnesota Press
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6.00(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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