Clement Greenberg biography: genius, monster, monument ON BOOKS

May 17, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

When Clement Greenberg was born, in 1909, modernism had taken hold in virtually all of Western culture. When he died, in 1994, it was possible to argue that modernism had run its course. Few critics - arguably none but T.S. Eliot - had greater impact on that course than Greenberg.

Take "modernism" in its broadest sense: art, literature, music and whatever else you like that broke from the classic, academic, mainly representational forms that historically dominated Western artistic and intellectual work. Often political, frequently self-consciously populist, invariably restless, the modernist movement was entwined with Marxism, Nazism, psychoanalysis - virtually every potent notion challenging tradition.

Greenberg's most important impact was on painting but he made major contributions in literature and general culture. As he became influential, much of the art world was muddled with mediocrity. Even serious observers - he famously wrote in 1939 - made little distinction between a T.S. Eliot poem and a Tin Pan Alley song.

He perceived strong contrast between contemporary high art, on one hand, and commonplace illustration and entertainment on the other - between vision and the mundane. His 1939 Partisan Review essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch," drew that line insistently.

A New Yorker of modest origins and no formal education in art or intellectual history, Greenberg was indomitably forceful. From the late 1930s until the 1970s, he wrote criticism in most of the influential journals in America. He began at Partisan Review, moved on to be art critic of the Nation and then an editor at Commentary.

Greenberg was a monument and a monster. A disciplined aesthete and a petulant self-indulger. A genius of intricate insight and a gross vulgarian. He inspired immortally great art and physically altered art of genuine importance. He was generous, venal, loyal and given to betrayal. In short, he was not an easy man. Five years after his death at age 85, he has become no easier to define or reconcile.

Now comes a biography, product of 10 years of research and writing: "Clement Greenberg: A Life," by Florence Rubenfeld (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $30).

Rubenfeld has done a delicious, celebratory and finally very, very sad job of anchoring Greenberg, the person. Her book is far from perfect, but it is a rich recounting of his life and times. Such were the confusions he created, inevitably there will be voices who dispute her versions of some events.

The book, which is relatively sympathetic, will be reviled by critics who detest Greenberg beyond reason or merit. It will be vilified especially by the clique of Marxists who still survive in intellectual backwaters. But it will rise above that flak. There is no better examination of the man to date, but inevitably, his life will be re-examined in future biographies.

Almost immediately after the end of World War II, Greenberg began to perceive that young abstract artists working in New York had an originality, honesty, force, energy - an artfulness - that leaped beyond the vitality and loveliness of the European artists who dominated world recognition.

By the time he was done, he had led collectors, curators, dealers, art historians - the market and the culture - to accept abstract art as vitally important. The artists he virtually forced into wide acceptance included Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Mark Rothko, David Smith, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler - and many more.

With courageous straightforwardness, Rubenfeld relates the controversies of the late 1940s in which art and personal morality were confronted. Especially moving is her examination of anti-Semitism - blatant and latent - in the highbrow world.

Though a committed Marxist in his early days, Greenberg was at the bloodied forefront of the battle, in 1940s and early 1950s, against adamant supporters of Stalin and Stalinism who significantly dominated New York intellectual circles. the Nation was a center and main voice of Stalinism. Greenberg resigned as its art critic.

Rubenfeld's research began when Greenberg was 80, still immensely influential - to many, frightening. He was not enthusiastic about her project. He did cooperate, in a manner, allowing her some 50 hours of taped interviews, and not interfering with her interviews of hundreds of others, many of whom would have refused to talk if Greenberg had so asked.

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