In 1971, the previously all-women Bennington College had been coed for two years. Clement Greenberg had been visiting the college as an advisor and lecturer for the last twenty. At the school’s art gallery, he had introduced the work of Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis, and had given Jackson Pollock his first retrospective exhibition. Some of these painters had come to be known as the Green Mountain Boys, a wordplay on the Revolutionary War militiamen of Vermont (where Bennington was located) and Greenberg’s last name. Yet even as he continued to wield influence, Greenberg’s reputation as a critic had been on the decline for some time. At odds with the prevailing artistic tendencies, he found himself on the defensive and isolated. Far from New York, he sought refuge in his students and long-time colleagues.
Greenberg had been dismissive of the artists associated with Minimalism, Neo-Dada and Pop, preferring to subsume them under categories of his own, such as “far-out,” or “Novelty art.” But as compelling as these terms seemed to Greenberg, they were never widely adopted. The artists in question were no longer upstarts; with solo shows at so many major institutions, a consensus had formed around the work. In the eyes of the public, the new work had grown in stature. As a result, Greenberg was estranged, not only from the emerging status quo, who had in any case sought to discredit him, but even the next generation, the young artists who would comprise the avant-garde of the coming decade. Now at the start of their ambitious careers, these artists were faced with the precedent established not by a Newman or a Noland, but by Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Andy Warhol.
The weight this notion of generational succession carried with Greenberg only further exacerbated his alienation. He was fond of drawing on the past example of Ingres, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose following “sent two generations of academic painters—three generations—to their doom.” Once, in a moment of bluster, Greenberg told his seminar that he had personally witnessed the coming to fruition of three generations of artists. The youngest, he said scornfully, had “become so damn knowing.” Some time later, in his writing, Greenberg used the same paradigm to make a comment on both form and quality: “Today Pollock is still seen for the most part as essentially arbitrary, ‘accidental’, but a new generation of artists has arisen that considers this an asset rather than a liability.”
Greenberg was convinced that a good Pollock was as good as a bad Titian, or even a bad Goya. He made such comparisons believing that artistic quality could be measured across the ages. Cubist painting between 1910 and 1914, for example, could stand up with anything of the Old Masters. A good David Smith could stand next to a Donatello. Aristide Maillol could stand next to a Donatello. Gorky made paintings that were better than middle-run Bonnards or Vuillards. In the museum of Greenberg’s mind, the totality of western art was to be sorted and arranged, placed in a line in an endless corridor, not chronologically, as in the nineteenth century museum, but according to each work’s relative greatness. It was clear he would never see either end of the line, but he did see, somewhere in the middle, Donatello, Maillol, and David Smith.
The new work, according to Greenberg, did not live up to the standards of artistic quality. It was “far-out” at the expense of formal rigor. In a few years, if—and when—the public came around, the pendulum of opinion would swing the other way. Greenberg believed that Carl Andre’s floor pieces would have been much improved if he “had paid enough attention to proportion.” Judd, likewise, suffered from the same problem, not having “borne down enough on proportions.” Greenberg thought it was conceivable that a box, say, two by three feet, if done in the right way, would be persuasive for him. He was known to say about Land Art that nothing prevented a ditch from here to San Francisco from being a great work of art. The hypothetical artist, however, had better pay attention to the ditch’s proportions.
Good work made Greenberg doubt the limits of his taste. Good work had an obscure quality that forced Greenberg to reckon with it, however intuitively. Instead of wanting to dismiss a work outright, he would feel an undeniable responsibility to accommodate it, to find a place for it within the horizons set by other good work. This ability to inspire doubt was the basis for Greenberg to assess a work’s quality, and the means by which he could thereafter admire it with conviction. If a work did not inspire him to adapt his taste, it was either academic or kitsch. He would shrug it off without a second thought.
Greenberg did not feel the slightest need to accommodate the new work. And yet, it seemed, he could not reject it. If he was not compelled to accept it as pushing the limits of his taste, why was he not able to banish it to the wasteland of bad art? In the classroom, addressing his students, Greenberg struggled, but ultimately could not articulate the answer to this question. “You,” Greenberg said, while in fact meaning “I,” “had to find out where this negative judgement came from.” As he spoke, his thinking seemed to turn back on itself; he was frustrated by what lay just outside of grasp. “Anyone who disagrees with the whole weight of authority is likely to feel nervous about reactions they can’t help having,” he said.
A student posed the question: “Do you think modernism is relaxing in its maturity and accepting more?” In his mind, “modernism” and “Greenberg” were synonymous. The question might have been if Greenberg were relaxing in his maturity, accepting more. But inasmuch as the current state of art was concerned, if Greenberg would have said, “Yes, I like it,” he would have been lying; he simply didn’t. People, when faced with consensus—they say they like something. They say, “Well, I like it too.” “With contemporary art, you are so alone,” thought Greenberg. “You are all alone with it.”
Jay Chung is an artist and writer. Most of his work is developed in collaboration with Q Takeki Maeda. He has contributed to Starship for many years and is a regular columnist since 2014.