Clement Greenberg: A Life

Deborah Wilk reviews 'Clement Greenberg: A Life' by Florence Rubenfeld

By Deborah Wilk

Published March 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

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.

Deborah Wilk

Deborah Wilk is a writer who lives in Chicago.

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