Clement Greenberg: A Life
Drawing on exclusive interviews with Clement Greenberg before his death, this is the first comprehensive biography of America's greatest, and most controversial, critic.
Clement Greenberg was born in the Bronx in 1909, the child of Jewish immigrants from Polish Lithuania. He attended Syracuse University, spent three years sleeping late, reading, and frequenting museums, and then toured the country as a traveling salesman for a necktie business owned by his father. By 1935 he was back in New York working at a routine civil service job. One could hardly have predicted that from these inauspicious beginnings would emerge one of the century's premier cultural critics.
In 1939 he wrote "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", the landmark essay that catapulted him from anonymity to the center of a stellar group of intellectuals known as the Partisan Review crowd-- Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Meyer Schapiro, and Lionel Trilling, among others. The subject of Greenberg's essay was modem society examined through popular culture and painterly abstraction. It was his uncanny response to the form abstraction was going to take in advanced American painting that placed him-- with no formal training in art history-- at the apex of the art world for the next fifty years.
Greenberg's independent opinions and combative style soon made him enemies. William Phillips, a founding editor of Partisan Review and a close friend, explained: "Clem would declare his dislike and lack of respect for other people's ideas, behavior, character. I'm not saying he was wrong, he was usually right. But... it creates friction." Greenberg criticized the taste of the Museum of Modem Art, while he sang the praises of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and David Smith when few in the art world took them seriously. By the end of the forties, when his ideas began appearing in Life, Time, and Newsweek, the establishment was compelled to react.
Greenberg had become a kingmaker. The artists he praised dominated the leading art magazines and monopolized the exhibition schedules of the great museums of the world. But Greenberg flew too close to the sun and paid the price. Although he routinely denied having any power at all, he was accused of telling artists how to paint and of being a dictator who laid down laws and destroyed the careers of those who did not follow them. The artists he excluded, and the critics who supported them, were so embittered that when the backlash came it lasted for two decades. By the late seventies, "Clembashing" had become the art world's favorite indoor sport. Ironically, though, the uneven and obsessive nature of the battle-- the majority of the art world against one lone voice-- ensured his position at the center of the art conversation. To this day no one has appeared with the charisma or authority to replace him.
Florence Rubenfeld traces the rise and fall of this impassioned and provocative critic, telling his story, in part, through his words and the words of the dazzling array of personalities who surrounded him. She provides a new assessment of his profound contribution to art criticism, insights into his influences and identity, and an engaging social history of an infamous postwar milieu, peopled by brilliant intellectuals and groundbreaking artists. "Clement Greenberg: A Life" is an authoritative account of a remarkable man and the vibrant New York art world he helped to define.
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