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An Upstate Color Field

January 11, 2007 By:
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Clement Greenberg's name is not one that resonates these days with readers, except possibly among connoisseurs of the art world. But in the 1940s and '50s, he was one of the great cultural brokers in the United States, determining, with a word or a phrase, whose reputations rose or sank in the American art world. He commanded this power from several perches: He was an editor at Partisan Review, an associate editor at Commentary and reviewed art for The Nation. His influence was so pervasive, in fact, that he single-handedly put Jackson Pollock -- the great drip painter -- on the art-world map. (In fact, in the bio-pic Pollock, directed by and starring Ed Harris in the title role, Jeffrey Tambor played the small role of "Clem" Greenberg.)

The appearance of the unusual The Mirror Eye: Clement Greenberg in Syracuse, published by the University of Syracuse Press on the occasion of an exhibition of very nearly the same name, demonstrates that academia has begun taking an interest in the once-dominant critic who helped shape the public acceptance of Abstract Expressionism. (Greenberg called the style "action painting," after Pollock's methods, while the critic Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg's only rival at the time, called them "color field" paintings).

This pamphlet-like book contains three essays and samplings from the work of five painters who received the benefits of Greenberg's presence and advice. Though none of the five artists -- Stephen Achimore, Scott Bennett, Darryl Hughto, Mark Raush and Susan Roth -- is that well known (they are regionalists in the sense that they live and work in Syracuse, which is not like being an artist in Manhattan). But they should clearly have far greater reputations based on the powerful nature of their work represented here. They are all astonishing colorists, and anyone conversant with Greenberg's aesthetic philosophy can understand what attracted him to their work.

According to Suzanne Shane in her introductory essay, Greenberg, who died in 1994 at age 85, was considered by many to be the most influential art critic of the last century. In addition to bringing Pollock to international prominence, Shane says he also repositioned New York over Paris as the capital of modern art.

A graduate of Syracuse University, where he studied German language and literature, Greenberg wrote what Shane calls his most famous article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" in 1939. From that moment forward, by means of a series of other articles and reviews, the critic "redefined modernism and its ongoing evolution in terms that engaged both artists and intellectuals." In Shane's opinion, his writing placed new American art at the vanguard of modernism, "a tradition he traces from Manet through Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism, through Kandinsky and Hofman, to the American-born Abstract Expressionists -- most notably ... Pollock, but also including Morris Louis, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb."

Shane argues that Greenberg's most famous book, Art and Culture, laid the foundation for the ideas the critic would "revise and refine throughout his long career: those distinctions between high (advanced) art, academic (middlebrow) art, and kitsch (predigested experience packaged as art); how artists define the tradition by their decisions in the making of art -- discarding 'unnecessary' and discovering 'necessary' conventions or elements intrinsic in the work; that ultimately, art is judged solely on the basis of its aesthetic quality, known intuitively by the aesthetic response it produces in the viewer, which is measured against the accumulated aesthetic experience of viewing other great art."

As for the exhibit "Greenberg in Syracuse: Then and Now," it was, as Shane describes it, a tribute to Greenberg's legacy in the upstate New York city, and featured the work of the five Syracuse-based artists the critic visited and encouraged for over 20 years. These five were not the only Syracuse artists Greenberg met with and counseled during his long career, as Shane makes clear, but "they are the ones whose work he looked at most continuously from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s."


 

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