Clement Greenberg was right

by Alison Gates


Fresh from ten weeks in Rome and La Biennale di Venezia, Babel's art section editor illustrates why the art critic's 1965 essay "Modernist Painting" was dead accurate and explains why painting is pushing up the daisies.


Some artists, it seems, take Post-Modernism for granted. I am one of them. It serves me well to have cast off the hierarchy of absolutely everything and adopt the premise that anything can be art and art can be anything. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there is a large segment of the population who, after at least twenty years of the anarchy and subsequent settlement into the era we call the Post Modernist Period, are still on the fence, or more shockingly, flat out rejecting the infant-canon which I so heartily embrace. A recent foray into the venerable La Bienniele di Venezia this past October, coupled with the new and strange experience of living in excruciatingly close proximity to working painters for ten weeks, brought me to surprising new conclusions, and a completely unpredicted return to Clement Greenberg's essay entitled "Modernist Painting."

I have struggled with Clement Greenberg since I first read his essay, the classic writing assigned to art majors and art history majors studying the Twentieth Century, over 13 years ago. I read it as a student of writing and it seemed to me (at the time, and still today) that although Greenberg was writing about Modernism, that his personal critical style was pretty gothic. It’s dense, thick, and I read it the way I read The Scarlet Letter in high school: Read a paragraph, fall into a stupor, wake up; reread the paragraph, think "Huh?," give myself a pep talk about having a higher than average IQ and a really good vocabulary, reread and move on hoping whatever I missed would not be on the test.

All in all, I have been assigned "Modernist Painting" as required reading for class four times. I'm not sure how many times I've read the piece, but it's been quite a few. The essay was published originally in 1965, and the gist is that Modernist Painting (especially color field painting) is the apex, the pinnacle, the possible omega of art. Unless, of course, you're a sculptor, or perhaps a practitioner of the "craft media" (ceramics, glass, fiber, wood carving, metalsmithing and the like) or those "servile media" (printmaking and photography) which operate best in service to painting. Greenberg simply didn't address these media except to advise that those working in three dimensions had better examine their own successes using the properties specific to their own art-form. (Whenever I consider this I somehow cannot block out the mental picture of a family choosing their Christmas tree: Is it full on all sides? Is it symmetrical? No bald spots or flat areas or brown patches?)

Martin Puryear recently installed a commissioned piece on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle; the artist was inspired by a model of airflow he'd seen. I saw the drawing and in the flat plane it looked like a sample spoon from Baskin and Robbins 31 Flavors. It wasn't even up long enough for the protective patina to be applied before some art vandal wrote on it "Plain or Honey Roasted?" It looks like a peanut, only, using Greenberg's model as I see it, it is a perfect example of Modernist Sculpture. In other words, if it were a Christmas tree it would be fit for Martha Stewart. But is it the best thing Puryear's ever done? Is it the pinnacle of his career? Is it the best sculpture ever made? For Martin's sake, let's hope not. And for myself, I think not. I visit it sometimes to reflect (like I seek out Bernini's horrifying Baroque statue of Truth, or Magdelena Abakanowicz's Tree-Hand sitting next to the real old-growth trees in Bellingham, Washington) that precious materials do not always make precious art, and even the best of us is occasionally too seduced by our own idea to be able to see what is just not working.

For a long time I believed this very thing about Greenberg and his Modernist Painting. Flat, that was Greenberg's point. Flat and rectangular. He goes on for pages extolling the virtues of the flat and rectangular. Like Frank Stella before he started to explode his canvases. Greenberg's best friends were the Pantheon of Modernist painters. He was literally and figuratively in bed with these painters. It was an elite group, and elite groups by their very nature generally cause one's perspective to become reduced, shallow, two-dimensional.

Ironically enough, Greenberg’s girlfriend was Helen Frankenthaler who stunned the world of painters by staining unprimed canvas with thinned down paint. Her art has a whole different set of implications if one is a fiber artist, because fiber artists are staining unprimed fabric all the time; it's not a modernist technique at all, in fact it's one of the most traditional of all the textile processes and is practiced in some way in just about every culture. One of the conundrums plaguing fiber practitioners is that the medium, fabric, is so fragile that it could never withstand the environmental forces against which stone and steel are naturally resistant, and therefore gets less attention historically simply because it cannot endure physically. This, coupled with hundreds of years of sexism (since fiber processes are integral to domestic life and therefore most commonly practiced by women) has brought fiber into a state of ghettoism.

Meanwhile, here's Helen and Clement in the Cedar Bar double-dating with Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, talking about flat paint, eliminating focal points and such. And ironically, even as she's breaking this new ground in color field painting, she's not going to get a lot of credit for it once her chums Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland come to town and start doing the same thing, and much like all the other fiber art done by women of her era, the early stuff is going to start rotting; Frankenthaler's early works are disintegrating as we speak, since she began doing these paintings with oil-based paints and turpentine thinners which eat unprimed canvases over time.

Fortunately, acrylic paint was introduced somewhere in the middle of the 20th century and she began to use that, but my copy of Janson's 19th and 20th Century Art (granted, it's an old copy) doesn't mention Helen Frankenthaler at all on page 401, where I found this quote: "This reliance on color as a primary means, with the consequent suppression of formed or shaped elements, is most conspicuous in the work of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Both painters have taken advantage of the wide range of brilliant hues in the new plastic water-paints, and by allowing them to soak into unprimed canvas, in the way Pollock stained his black-and-white canvases of 1950-1951, they have preserved the colors at their full saturation and created new visual and tactile effects." Yes, Pollock stained canvas in black and white for one year and he is credited, whereas Frankenthaler made a whole life's career out of the idea and didn't make it into the big books we all buy for the survey of art. Anyway, since I am neither an art historian nor a Guerilla Girl, I'll get back to my original point, which was, Clement Greenberg was right.

I came to this conclusion around the time of the Venice Bienniale, though I had had my suspicions about it beforehand. I didn't want to concede to Greenberg, who by this time had come to represent everything to me that I hated about art in America. A painter friend of mine who was with me in Venice at the Bienniale remarked, "I was surprised there wasn't more painting." I wasn't. Painting is close to dead. In my book, it's time to either evolve or die.

We also went to see a huge Anslem Kiefer retrospective held in conjunction with the Bienniale. Were Greenberg still up and jumping, I'm not absolutely sure we'd know who Anselm Kiefer is (and, I might add, the nice couple from Texas who credited his bookworks to the ancient Venetians, creatively attributing the tar-soaked burlap pages to a pre-paper time so long ago time had turned them black with age probably still don't know who Anselm Kiefer might be...perhaps someone related to the guy who was in M*A*S*H?). Kiefer's work was off the canvas. About a foot thick, and huge, the sensation in smaller rooms was that of an installation. It referenced sculpture, architecture, ancient artifacts, stonemasonry, hay-baling, and railroad ties. His paintings were montages of photography and bits of farmyard debris, there wasn't a flat moment in the entire retrospective. And so we come back to the question: Where does painting stop and sculpture begin?

As Americans, we need to look to our own entrant for the Venice Bienniale, Robert Colescott...if we can find him; the text panels in the American Pavilion were so dense with butt-kissing and self-congratulation over the fact that for the first time the committee had chosen a "person of color" to represent the United States that it was indeed a little hard to find the artwork which we, as Americans in Venice, were looking to feel a patriot's connection with. No such luck. Scrape the text off Colescott's paintings and they are still dramatic paintings, but, in America, land of multi-media, we still get a little confused between the differences between experiences that are best expressed verbally and what's best expressed visually. I admit as an artist I use words in my work pretty regularly. I also admit I come from advertising. I don't claim to be a painter, though. However, I do claim heritage in the realm of the cross-stitch sampler and the mourning quilt. (Maybe Colescott does too, I don't know, there wasn't room in the exhibit for an artist's statement that I can recall seeing, but had it been there I would most certainly have read it.) His paint wasn't flat either, it was figurative...and there were all those words on the canvases. Now the question seems to be "Where does painting stop and advertising (or propaganda, or the comic strip, or the storyboard) begin?"

If I say painting is dead, I say so because I believe some other artform which is not yet taught at Yale is being born from it's ashes. If I say painting is dead it's because I have come to the conclusion that Greenberg's definition of modernist painting is fully correct and that this kind of flat, non-figurative, true-to-the-two dimensional process of which he speaks really was the living end. The reason why I bother to state this is because right now in America and elsewhere, young minds are being taught that painting still is the highest of all artforms, and it isn't. This is the Post-Modernist era. We have supposedly done away with the hierarchy which we have come to see as harmful to women and people of color and inmates of various institutions and white men who don't make enough money and talented children who live in the wrong neighborhoods. This isn't just political correctness. It's also attractive because homogeneity is pretty boring, and applies to so few people that the funding has been cut to nothing. Painting is falling and it is taking the rest of us with it, but to where will we all be pulled? Into the past, of course.


Alison Gates can be reached at