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Clash of the Titans

The art-critic battle that turned Pollock, de Kooning, and others into superstars

Martha Schwendener
April 23, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, Artforum magazine hosted a panel at the New School titled “Art and Money,” which focused on the effects of the decade-long bull market in contemporary art. No one in the art world was particularly surprised by the subject. After all, March had brought us a symposium at MoMA titled “Is the Killer Art Market Killing Art?” and in February we saw a forum organized by the Art Dealers Association of America, also held at MoMA, that pitted art dealers against auctioneers. The market, in other words, has become a primary topic of conversation.

Meanwhile, if you look at the world of art criticism—those meagerly paid scribes writing about all that art circulating around the market—the conversation runs in a different direction. A 2001 roundtable discussion published in the art-theory journal October titled “The Crisis in Criticism” was followed by books like What Happened to Art Criticism? and Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice, along with a host of panels and symposia saddled with similarly alarming titles.

The message is twofold: The market is the art world’s success story of the moment; and art critics are a breed on the cusp of extinction.

But it wasn’t always this way, which is why “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” opening at the Jewish Museum on May 4 and traveling later to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Saint Louis Art Museum, is a perfect show for this moment.

The exhibition includes paintings and sculpture by the luminaries of the American postwar period: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner, Ad Reinhardt, David Smith, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler, and Frank Stella. What the title conveys in a craftily veiled fashion, however, is that the exhibition is grounded in the ideas and writings of two American art critics: Clement Greenberg (1909–1994) and Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978).

Active from the late 1930s through the 1970s, Greenberg and Rosenberg served as champions of what came to be known as Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting (how there came to be two names for the same movement is part of the story). Greenberg and Rosenberg worked in the New York art world and wrote about many of the same artists, but their approaches were different, escalating into what became a legendary personal rivalry.

Curator Norman L. Kleeblatt explains how the exhibition came about: “I had been thinking for a long time about an exhibition that began with the idea of abstraction and the postwar period. I was wondering if there was any way to look with fresh eyes at the various movements that came into American art around the war. A huge amount has been written about the period, but I wanted to use something that’s old and something that’s new. So I thought of taking these two rival positions as a fulcrum to lead one through the movement.”

For those familiar with the ideas and writings of Greenberg and Rosenberg, the title “Action/Abstraction” is a fairly transparent synopsis of their rival positions. The “action” part of the title nods to Rosenberg, whose famous essay “The American Action Painters” was published in ARTnews in December 1952. In it, Rosenberg avoided calling what he was seeing in the galleries and studios of New York a “school” or a “movement.” He had noticed, however, that “at a certain moment in time, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than a space in which to reproduce, re-design, or ‘express’ an object.” For these painters, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

Rosenberg didn’t name names. But everyone knew which artists he was talking about. Pollock and de Kooning fit this description—particularly Pollock, who’d retreated to a house in The Springs, outside East Hampton, to stay away from the watering holes of lower Manhattan that fed his drinking problem. Here, between 1947 and 1951, Pollock made his famous drip paintings, abandoning the easel, laying canvases horizontally on the floor and applying ordinary enamel house paint with the sweep of his arm. (An example in the exhibition is Number 3, from 1950.)

In 1947 Pollock described his working process in words that would be echoed in Rosenberg’s essay: “On the floor, I am more at ease,” he said. “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around in it, work from the four sides and be literally ‘in’ the painting.”

Greenberg, who’d already gained recognition for essays on art like “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) and “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940), responded critically to the idea of “action painting.” In a piece titled “‘American-Type’ Painting,” published in Partisan Review 22, in the spring of 1955, Greenberg accused Rosenberg of “concocting” the concept of action painting and offered instead a list of painters—many included in “Action/Abstraction”—who followed a historical trajectory leading from mural painting in the 1930s to the new, super-sized abstract paintings that tested what he called “society’s capacity for high art.”

So began a battle in print, which played itself out at parties and other art world gatherings: The legend was that you needed to keep the two physically separated.

Pressed for a quick rundown of Rosenberg’s and Greenberg’s primary ideas, Kleeblatt laughs. “There is the two-hour version and the two-minute version.” The two-minute version, he says, would be that Greenberg favored “purity, formalism, flatness, overall design, and surface incident” in painting while Rosenberg argued for “the action of the artist on the canvas and the notion of the creative act being the most important aspect of art making, rather than the product.”

The irony, of course, is that the artists and their works didn’t always line up so neatly and, as Kleeblatt points out, people often “changed sides.” In 1945 Greenberg called Pollock “the strongest painter of his generation” (in 1948 he upgraded that to “the greatest American painter of the twentieth century”), yet Pollock seems to best fit Rosenberg’s “action” model of painting. Meanwhile, Rosenberg is considered de Kooning’s great champion, although Greenberg laid the groundwork for de Kooning’s success by raving in the Partisan Review over his first show at the Egan Gallery in 1948. (Greenberg later withdrew his support for both artists, after de Kooning started painting the figure in the 1950s and Pollock moved away from pure drip painting.)

The equation could also work both ways between artists and critics. After reading Rosenberg’s cultural criticism, the painter Clyfford Still encouraged him to write about art. But after the publication of “The American Action Painters,” Still wrote Rosenberg a letter accusing him of “patent psychological errors” and ignorance of art history. “I am downright ashamed of you,” he wrote, and switched his allegiance to Greenberg.

Once the next generation came along, Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s relationship entered another phase. On the Greenberg side, Frank Stella—whose 1959 painting Marriage of Reason and Squalor, a stark black canvas broken by his characteristic thin white strips of unpainted canvas is included in “Action/Abstraction”—took Greenberg’s formal purity to the extreme. Stella’s work, however, inspired the Minimalists who came later—and neither Greenberg nor Rosenberg could stomach them.

Allan Kaprow, who invented the term “Happenings” (to describe those precursors to performance art) followed Rosenberg and became the model of the “action” artist. In 1958 Kaprow wrote an essay titled “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” stating that Pollock had “destroyed painting.” But this was a good thing. Now artists weren’t bound to mere paint and canvas. “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art,” Kaprow enthused. “Paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists.”

Kaprow was right, of course. Artists have gone far beyond old socks and a dog to make art. For painting and sculpture stalwarts like Rosenberg and Greenberg, however, citing Pollock’s practice as license for Happenings would have seemed sacrilegious.

* * *

So what would Greenberg and Rosenberg have thought of “Action/Abstraction”? Irving Sandler, who wrote the first history of Abstract Expressionism, Triumph of American Painting (1970), says in his catalogue essay that the critics “would have hated to be coupled together.”

Nonetheless, they shared plenty of similarities. Both were born into Jewish immigrant families in New York. Greenberg graduated from Syracuse University and did a stint in the army (he was released after what biographers have described as a “nervous breakdown” during training in Battle Creek, Michigan). In the 1930s, like many New York intellectuals, he gravitated towards Marxism. But his landmark essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” showed him moving away from Marxism and toward a kind of politicized, fervid promotion of modern art. He became an editor of the Partisan Review in 1940 and art critic for The Nation in 1942.

Rosenberg, born in Brooklyn and educated at City College of New York (he later earned a law degree from St. Lawrence College) flourished as an art critic somewhat later than Greenberg. After serving as an art editor for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and working in the Office of War Information, he took consulting jobs for the Treasury Department and the Advertising Council of America. Rosenberg’s best-known art criticism was published in the 1950s and 1960s, but his most prominent post came in the last decade of his life, when he was art critic for the New Yorker.

Their differences might be summed up in two anthologies of their criticism: Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New (1959) and Greenberg’s Art and Culture (1961)—even the publication dates, just two years apart, reveal the competitive nature of their enterprise. Together these texts set up the central argument with regard to Abstract Expressionism, between action and form.

Sandler stresses that, despite the antagonistic nature of their relationship, the two shared “personal, intellectual, and cultural backgrounds: they were Jews, Marxists, anti-Stalinist Trotskyites, prominent New York intellectuals, committed Modernists, contributors to Partisan Review, and engaged advocates of Abstract Expressionism.”

And they were figureheads in the world of New York intellectuals. In 1975 Tom Wolfe published The Painted Word, a book in which he caricatures “the Bergs,” proving that even after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism the two critics were still linked in the popular imagination.

The idea of two Jewish critics coming to prominence at this moment in history is also significant. “One of the things that interested us greatly,” Kleeblatt says, “was that there was this florescence of Jews in the art world—artists and critics for whom being Jewish wasn’t an issue anymore. In the 1920s and 1930s it was an issue in New York—certainly in the 1920s, when there were these hideous articles about this ‘Jewish, Ellis Island art.’ Now Greenberg could be editor of Commentary and write his Jewish articles and then write as an art critic. There was a liberation that came with World War II, a new period in which Jews found power in the secular world.” By the 1950s, he says, “it was rarely commented on that Greenberg was a Jewish critic.”

Both wrote about Jewish culture. Greenberg penned articles about Franz Kafka, Rosa Luxemburg, Sholem Aleichem, and artists like Jacques Lipchitz and Chaim Soutine, while Rosenberg wrote about the world of the Hasidim and about Jewish cultural critic Will Herberg. Greenberg worked at Commentary between 1945 and 1957, during which period Rosenberg was a contributor. Greenberg, ironically, would have been his editor.

At some point, naturally, both writers would swing around to considering whether there was such a thing as a “Jewish artist,” although Greenberg never addressed it as directly as Rosenberg did. Greenberg’s “Self-Hatred and Jewish Chauvinism,” published in 1950, considered ideas of a “positive” Jewish identity, while the author admitted his own “Jewish self-hatred.” (“What I want to be able to do,” he concluded, “is accept my Jewishness more implicitly, so implicitly that I can use it to realize myself as a human being in my own right, and as a Jew in my own right.”) The closest he came to considering a “Jewish art” might be in his comparison of Chagall and Soutine. In a passage that offers a good taste of his acerbic style, he writes, “I find Soutine not only more interesting than Chagall, but more sympathetic. Far away from him is that cloying, folkish cuteness which the latter cultivates in his role of lovable, fantastical Jewish genius from Vitebsk.”

Rosenberg approached the matter head on. In a 1966 lecture titled “Is There a Jewish Art?” presented at the Jewish Museum and later published in Commentary, Rosenberg delved into art produced by Jews and art depicting Jewish subjects. His answer, however, to the question was a resounding “no.”

* * *

If being a Jewish artist or critic in the postwar period was unremarkable, prejudice still existed on a wide scale. Kleeblatt points out that “African Americans in the 1950s were where Jews were in the 1920s,” and that Greenberg and Rosenberg rarely mentioned women artists like Lee Krasner or Grace Hartigan. This was an ordinary part of the climate of that art world.

“I can remember very clearly his criticism,” Lee Krasner said about her teacher Hans Hofmann, decades after the fact. “One day when he came in and said about [my] painting . . . ‘This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.’”

Krasner fared better, perhaps, than some. In a 1946 review a critic wrote about Louise Nevelson’s first major show, “We learned that the artist was a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among the moderns.”

A rising group of gay artists—Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol among them—also stoked anxiety in Rosenberg, who worried about the “banding together of homosexual painters and their non-painting auxiliaries in music, writing, and museum work.”

The art world was clearly changing. Which brings up the question lingering in the wake of this change: Could two rival critics—or even one—wield such power again today?

Kleeblatt is skeptical. “It couldn’t happen now,” he says. “There are many more artists. New York is a much more international center. What we’re dealing with [in the exhibition] is a much, much smaller world with many fewer voices. Of course there were other critics, but none who were as central. Rosenberg and Greenberg were these amazingly resounding and competitive, overarching voices.”

There are other reasons why it would be difficult for a Greenberg or Rosenberg to rise today. More than one writer has pointed out that the real kingmakers in the art world nowadays are curators, not critics. The proliferation of biennials around the world has raised the profile of the globetrotting, studio-trawling curator. (Another indicator: a rise in the number of graduate programs in Curatorial Studies—so many that in 2004 the College Art Association warned there simply wouldn’t be enough jobs to accommodate the graduates. The number of graduate programs in art writing, by comparison, is miniscule.)

And the art world, as Kleeblatt points out, is much more international. Many of the artists in “Action/Abstraction” were immigrants—Gorky, Rothko, de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Jules Olitski, Ibram Lassaw—or the children of immigrants. But globalization has caused the art world to spread out—at least across the latitudes where the world’s wealth is concentrated.

Where Greenberg and Rosenberg promoted, to some extent, the idea of an “American artist,” even shows like the Whitney Biennial, originally devoted to showcasing the work of American artists, have all but thrown out the idea of identifying artists by nationality. Although, if Europe produced the noted critics of the nineteenth century (Baudelaire in France and Ruskin in England), and America produced Greenberg and Rosenberg in the twentieth century, one wonders if the next “big” art critic might not arise in China, the superpower on the horizon.

In Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s day, artists were either painters or sculptors. Today pluralism reigns. (A contemporary critic, in other words, would have a hard time functioning if she adopted Greenberg’s adamant stance against photography as art—or Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s aversion to the movements following Abstract Expressionism, like Pop Art, Minimalism, or Post-Minimalism.)

During the rise of Pop and Minimalism, without the support of America’s two big critics, artists like Donald Judd and Allan Kaprow took on the job of explaining what was happening in new or “advanced” art. Criticism became increasingly divided into camps of “academic” writers and “journalist” critics. Greenberg’s most recognized descendents, the critics Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, both entered the academy, where they remain today.

The last big American art critic was probably Robert Hughes (technically an Australian), who wrote for Time magazine for over thirty years and gained a public profile for his television series and accompanying book The Shock of the New, which chronicled the development of modern art.

Then, of course, there is the primacy of the art market, which, according to the Mei Moses Fine Art Index, founded by a duo of economics professors, reportedly outperformed the stock market in 2007. Even with the recession threatening to dampen this, the climate created by a market-crazed art world means that art collectors or dealers are more often the subjects of magazine profiles than are critics. It’s hard to remember when a critic got much attention.

Which brings us back to those recent panels and forums devoted to the art market. How many critics’ voices were heard? Only one: Roberta Smith of The New York Times was the lone representative at “Is the Killer Art Market Killing Art?” Greenberg and Rosenberg are probably turning in their graves—not the least, one imagines, because that one critic was, of all things, a woman.

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