Clement Greenberg and the critical debate

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Animals and Figures), 1942


Commentary on the book organized by Glória Ferreira & Cecilia Cotrim

the interest of Clement Greenberg and the critical debate (Jorge Zahar) begins with its acute actuality. He reaps a heated discussion in central countries about the notion of modernity and in particular about the North American art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). Without reproducing an existing work, he assembles the collection in the form of a debate circle – including some texts that, until today, had not been collected in a book, not even in the USA.

Added to this unprecedented initiative is the commitment to broaden the debate through extensive and meticulous support material, collected in rare magazines and carefully prepared by the organizers. Each text is multiplied in notes with precise information about what precedes and what unfolds the discussion. In all, considering the breadth of the bibliographic wealth and the pluralism of the collection, we come across a book with an unusual model, supra-authorial and almost interactive, in which conception and execution prioritize open discussion.

Apart from these contributions, what is the debate? The process of constitution of modernity is discussed – and Greenberg is a central author in this discussion. It fell to him to delineate with rare clarity an avant-garde art system, with a strong influence in the USA. In addition, in Brazil, he came to take the place of avant-garde goal formerly occupied by the critics of Mário Pedrosa (1900-1981), in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is this conception proper to the post-war art scene in the USA that manifests itself in art and culture (1961)[I] in the occasional criticism and in the studies of the modernist masters, from Manet (1832-1883) onwards. Among Greenberg's writings, the analyzes about Monet (1840-1926) and Cézanne (1839-1906), cubism and collage (which generates sculpture as construction), by Miró (1893- 1983) and Matisse (1869-1954), as post-Cubists, who, according to the critic, laid the foundations for post-1945 North American abstract painting.

Without taking into account factors of historical rupture – such as the Nazi evil, the atomic race, the new division of the world that began with the rise of the USA and the USSR –, Greenberg, contrary to the Marxist existentialism of Harold Rosenberg (1907-1978 ), advocates the essential continuity of the cultural order in the post-1945 period, trusting that the arts evolve by themselves and apart from historical facts, according to the premise of the transcendental irreducibility of the aesthetic act.

He believes in an idea of ​​partial progress in the face of the advance of the barbarism he denounces – under the guise of mass culture. Thus, he summarizes the “x” of the modernist question in postulates: planarity (flatness), opticality, the increasing and immanentist purification of the medium (medium, that is, painting, sculpture, etc.) which leads to the literality of plastic signs. In this sense, the best concrete example in European modernism of such an anti-illusionist evolution – in convergence with modern reason (in the mold of Kantianism, according to Greenberg) – would be Cubism.

In the post-war USA, Greenberg was one of the first to fight for the new abstract painting. He states: “not since the days of Cubism has one seen (is) such a galaxy of vigorously talented and original painters as that formed by the Abstract Expressionists”. But he refuses the term abstract expressionism and others like action painting, and in 1955 proposed “American style painting”. He will still propose – in vain – the term painterly abstraction (pictorial abstraction), between 1962 and 64. Always to diminish the importance of German expressionism, riddled with extra-pictorial influences, and to emphasize Cubist rigor: the example of self-limitation to the plane.

Against those who see a spontaneous or expressionist content in post-war American painting, as critics (Rosenberg, for example) who rely on non-pictorial categories want, Greenberg demands close attention only to what is on the canvas. And his argument there is that the art of Pollock (1912-1956), de Kooning (1904-1997), Hofmann (1880-1966), Gorky (1904-1948), Still (1904-1980), Motherwell (1915- 1991), Rothko (1903-1970), Kline (1910-1962) and Newman (1905-1970) update the major aim of modernism (from Cézanne, from the cubists) of highlighting the planar character of painting, taking it to the essential; that is, towards a “scientific consistency”, already glimpsed in the “impressionists' insistence on optics”. With this group of painters, the US enters the evolutionary line of art history.

Correct or not, such a set of reflections – which is radically anti-speculative in its observance of the literality of plastic facts – effectively fulfills the task of the hour: to synthesize/overcome European modernism. critic in US art history. Anyway, the debate is open.

Greenberg, a frequent partner of Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), unlike the latter, did not join academic institutions. Limited to journalism or lectures and episodic events, he distinguished himself as an author writing in periodicals about the great retrospectives of European masters in the US and about art books or related topics. His critical work thus bears an enigmatic or incomplete aspect in the face of the firmness and conviction of his judgments, which, although supported by the quality of unique visual attention and structured and coherent reasoning regarding the history of art, only fleetingly managed to expose premises and corollaries .

Now, in this book, the first section brings the rare theoretical texts by Greenberg in which the author has the opportunity to present more reasons and reflect on his judgments. There appears the critic of the critic and the theorist who sees modern art as essentially self-critical or as that which, according to Kant (1724-1804), is configured (this is the “fullest expression” of Kantian self-criticism, says Greenberg) as a science, insofar as it exposes the principle itself as a universal datum and limits itself. Thus, Greenberg announced what is now more current in several areas, since the name of Kant revolves as a positive reinforcement in the axis of the world agenda of established ideas, impelling the reforms of the so-called modernity, according to a system with a single standard or that assumes universal.

In the second section, we come into contact with texts from different angles, regarding the performance or legacy of the critic. They are by five authors from the US and three from France, these linked to the contemporary art magazine macula. Except Barnett Newman and Rosenberg, all participated in the Greenberg Colloquium (Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1993). There are texts of the event, but not only; those of Rosenberg, Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) and Rosalind Krauss (1941) witness clashes with Greenberg's criteria at different historical times.

In 1961, the rival Rosenberg bitterly polemicized with Greenberg, contesting both its formalism and its social implications and placing an “active self” as the basis of the abstract painting that he called action painting; in 1968 Steinberg highlights the limits of Greenberg's canon in the face of the work of Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and JasperJohns (1930), who initiates the pop art in the 1950s, and also against the pop art and the minimalist art of the 1960s; Krauss, in 1972, a former disciple of Greenberg, relies, in this youth text, on Steinberg's ideas, to diverge from the former master (for the same purpose, he uses French post-structuralism today).

Of these oppositional texts, Steinberg's stands out, pointing to the break with the idea of ​​a vertical pictorial plane, linked to the opposition between consciousness and nature, in favor of an opaque horizontal operative surface (flatbed), “open again to the world”, conceived by Rauschenberg, but already suggested by Duchamp (1887-1968) – an artist rejected by Greenberg.

The other texts, however, recent and without the heat of the clash, make an inventory of Greenberg's legacy. The studies of TJ Clark (1943) stand out,[ii] who criticizes the transmutation of modern art into science and the idea of ​​vanguard as a specialized activity, above social fractures; and Hubert Damisch (1928-2017), who comes with the burden of tortuous and frivolous rhetoric of Gallicized Heideggerianism, characteristic of a contingent of French intellectuals.

But, in elaborating the idea of ​​self-education, Damisch has two good moments: the first, when he situates Greenberg's self-education as a common characteristic to fundamental works of art criticism: Winckelmann ([1717-1768], The History of Art in Antiquity, 1764), Diderot ([1713-1784], The Salon of 1765) and Lessing ([1729-1781], Laocoon, 1766). And the second, when it concludes with a parallel between the perspectives of Marx (1818-1883) and Freud (1856-1939). It thus presents self-education as the way of learning for the working class (not yet subject to a guiding party), and also Freud's way of psychoanalysis.

*Luiz Renato Martins he is professor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). He is the author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Haymarket/ HMBS).

Review and research assistance: Gustavo Motta.

Originally published under the title “Made in USA” on Journal of Reviews, No. 29 / NewspaperIn 09.08.1997.


Glória Ferreira & Cecilia Cotrim (eds.). Clement Greenberg and the critical debate. Translation: Maria Luiza X. by A. Borges. Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Zahar Editor / Funarte.


[I] C. Greenberg, art and culture (Boston, Beacon, 1961), selection of critical texts, organized by the author himself (Brazilian version: Art and Culture/ Critical Essays, preface by Rodrigo Naves, translation by Otacílio Nunes, São Paulo, Ática, 1996). For a comprehensive collection of Greenberg's essays, see idem and John O'Brian (ed. by), The Collected Essays and Criticism, 1939-69, 4 vol., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

[ii] See TJ Clark, “Clement Greenberg's Theory of Art” (1982), published in New Cebrap Studies, No. 24, Sao Paulo, Cebrap, Jul. 1989, pp. 131-146, with a different translation, in this case, by Marco Gianotti.

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