Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg

Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg by Alice Goldfarb Marquis. MFA Publications, 2006, $35, 321 pages.


Clement Greenberg dominated the American art scene and is still considered the most influential American art critic of the last century. He almost single-handedly established Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists and set the standard for art criticism.


"A complex, highly nuanced portrait of America's most controversial art critic. A masterful biography of Greenberg (1909-1994)... a rare combination of meticulous scholarship and crisp, vivid prose." -- The Brooklyn Rail

"Formidable." -- Bookforum

"Bracing...a biography that reads more like a novel, one that will no doubt excite and unnerve many readers...a benchmark...the life and legacy of Clement Greenberg." -- Wall Street Journal

"Fascinating." -- John Russell, New Criterion

"A rich, incisive, and even-handed portrait of this groundbreaking arbiter of aesthetics." -- Art & Antiques

"Marquis writes engagingly, making a reasonable case for Greenberg's enduring importance." -- Wilson Quarterly


Dr. Alice Goldfarb Marquis is an award-winning journalist and historian. Her previous books include Marcel Duchamp, Alfred H. Barr, Hopes and Ashes,The Art Biz, and Art Lessons, recipient of a San Diego Book Award for best nonfiction.


I almost want to ask Alice Goldfarb Marquis, how did a nice person like you choose such a bristly, irascible, antisocial, hidebound, pugnacious sexist like Clement Greenberg for the subject of a critical biography? But I suspect I know. He was also intriguing, mischievous, and wrote like an angel, albeit fallen. What I say is: "Clement Greenberg, you point out, was very attracted to women -- liberated women, sexually experienced women -- and had an affair with Jean Connelly, the wife of Cyril. And had an affair with Mary McCarthy [author of The Group]. After they'd broken up, McCarthy told someone that he was mad at her for his not having fallen in love with her."

"It was strictly like a tennis match between those two," says Dr. Marquis.

"They stayed friends for a long time."

"They did, they did," she says, almost wistfully.

"With slightly younger, weaker -- intellectually weaker -- women, and with less experienced women, he actually gets physically abusive."

"He just couldn't express his rage verbally," says Alice Marquis. "I think he saw women in one way: as being weaker. When he couldn't control them, he would see them as a menace of some kind."

"He doesn't slap Mary McCarthy," I point out. "He realizes there's something else there. He might get slapped back. But for all of his immense socializing -- going out all the time to posh dinners in Manhattan and political drinking sessions -- he was really a loner. I mean, his idea of a good time was to have dinner by himself and go to a movie."

"Which he did frequently," she says.

"You describe an incident where he almost comes to blows with critic Lionel Trilling at a party. He actually punches a romantic rival at another event. For an unathletic bald guy, he was certainly into fisticuffs," I say. "He's quite imposing. I mean, he's very physical and often gets into actual fights in somebody's living room, like a Norman Mailer, two-fisted artiste."

Dr. Marquis considers for a moment before speaking: "He always had to be on top. And that's one reason that he didn't have really close friendships with anybody."

"He even stayed mad at his parents," I interject, "for always throwing away his artwork when he was a child."

"Yes," says Dr. Marquis. "At the Getty Museum in L.A. there are quite a few drawings and sketches of Greenberg's. I was surprised that his own [adult] work was all little portraits, little snapshots of structures, of people. It was all representational."

"But to begin at the beginning.... You're a visiting scholar at the University of California at San Diego. Where is home?" I ask author Alice Goldfarb Marquis.

"Well, I live right across the street from the campus."

"Oh, so you're visiting from across the street."

Dr. Marquis laughs. "Yes. I was raised in New York City. My husband and I came West. We had a lot of luck and success running newspapers in California. As a result, eventually I was in a position to do whatever I wanted."

"Which was?"

"To become an historian," she says. "I finished my Ph.D. in 1978. I didn't want to teach undergraduates in some obscure college and started writing books instead. Art Czar is my seventh."

"And UCSD has been very supportive?"

"Yes," says Dr. Marquis. She sounds amused. "Although they can't quite figure out what I'm doing, because when I started there, I was told that my sentences were too short. My paragraphs, too."

"And here I'm about to bless you for not writing in academic style. You did such a splendid job with Art Czar . It's so wry and witty, and amazingly balanced, given the difficulty of Clement Greenberg's obstreperous personality. Were you published by many publishers, a few publishers?"

"Oh, always different ones. Some merged into other publishing houses, or an editor came along who didn't like what I wrote, so I'd have to find another house. But now I have the ideal publisher, which is the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The director of publications edits my work and I'm grateful."

"Yeah, editing is passé," I add. "Editors concentrate just on acquisition. So for your seventh subject you chose Clement Greenberg, the leading art critic of the 1930s and '40s, who worked as an editor himself on the culture beat for left-wing periodicals. Like Greenberg, do you find yourself re-editing already published work? Just going over and over it, never feeling it's finished?"

"That was something I was absolutely stunned to see, in examining his papers at the Getty -- that he actually would read and edit writing that was already in print, published, done."

"Clement Greenberg came of age in a radical period," I prompt.

"Yes, he was raised in New York, the son of well-off Jewish immigrants. At the time, the city was a political hotbed."

Dr. Marquis falls silent, and I nudge her again: "So this out-of-work boulevardier takes the subway into Manhattan and says that he likes being among the crowds of gentiles; he finds it's liberating. And in the '30s, of course, there are lots of folks playing at revolution in New York. Everyone has a stipend or has private means and yet is advocating revolution. 'Proletarians by proxy,' you call them."

"Yes," says Dr. Marquis.

"But," I go on, "he seems not so philosophically drawn to the Left as he is looking for drink and women, really. He is only half-joking when he says, 'I want fame and then I'll have money.' The political debate at the time was vicious. You had to keep up or be annihilated by the invective. A lot of that creeps into Greenberg's writing."

Dr. Marquis agrees: "He went to Syracuse and didn't have the training of those who attended the City College of New York, where the campus echoed with shouting matches between people of opposing views. It really sharpened debating skills. The same sort of clashes took place in people's parlors. All through the 1930s, Greenberg hardly had a job and occupied his time reading and monitoring the venomous arguments."

"Greenberg, you say, wasn't that good at verbal dueling, but he was very caustic and strong-willed on paper. He was trying to make his way among these Manhattan adversaries, and there were some formidable achievers among them, like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, Harold Rosenberg and Hannah Arendt. It was a very radical setting then. As you point out, there were even two elected city councilmen who were Communists."

"Yeah, there was much more fervor and idealism then," Dr. Marquis explains. "People are more cynical now and don't really believe any particular system is going to save the world. Anyway, Greenberg adopted Trotskyite positions in his early writing, and took up the avant-garde and kitsch as a kind of political tract. Trotsky was the only one of the red revolutionaries to write about art and artists' roles in the coming age."

"Clement Greenberg's main claim to fame," I say, "is that he championed artist Jackson Pollock and abstract art? Pollock, who, critic Harold Rosenberg is quoted saying, saw the canvas as 'an arena in which to act, rather than as a space in which to reproduce...' You compare Jackson Pollock's and Clement Greenberg's personalities in a most interesting way, suggesting that they're very similar, despite their dissimilar backgrounds."

"Pollock had a bad temper," says Dr. Marquis, "like Greenberg, and drank a lot. Greenberg, over his last 30 years, was an alcoholic. Both men felt worthless except in their work. Both were fundamentally sad and had trouble expressing themselves verbally, sometimes resorting to violent behavior with their women and with males who threatened them. Both he and Pollock often implied there were sinister forces aligned against them." Dr. Marquis pauses for a moment. "Greenberg was very much influenced by what Leon Trotsky had written about art: that the proletariat would take over producing it. But there had to be a transition when intellectuals tutored the new artists. Greenberg saw himself as a tutor to Pollock."

"And to many other artists," I add, "whom he would visit and critique."

"Exactly," she says. "Pollock in particular. Greenberg did not have much contact with real proletarians, other than Pollock. Who was uncouth, foul-mouthed, drank, acted out violently. It was, Greenberg felt, his job to mentor the painter. At the same time, a lot of Americans had money for the first time and were interested in art. Clement Greenberg was their guide, which is why his influence was so strong."

"But," I point out, "for all the publicity Greenberg garnered Pollock's work, it still wasn't sold very often or for very much."

"Not back then, no," she agrees. "The Museum of Modern Art generally resisted adding American artists and modern artists to its collection. The museum stayed with the Europeans. Through the '30s, every summer its director went to Paris to find the new art. Soon after WWII, he went and it wasn't there."

"But MoMA still didn't turn to the American artists," I say.

"It took a while, but the director did appreciate Pollock and bought a canvas around 1940. It wasn't one of his abstract drip paintings, however."

I say, "Almost the best thing Pollock does for his work is to kill himself in that 1956 car accident."

Dr. Marquis's reply is measured: "The art market is such that, when an artist dies, the work becomes much more valuable."

I elaborate on her comment: "Since there's a limited number of pieces thereafter. In fact, Greenberg convinced a number of artists and artists' widows to destroy work, hundreds of pieces."

Dr. Marquis says, "Morris Louis destroyed all his early work. And when he died, Greenberg was advisor to the estate. There were a lot of unstretched paintings. Greenberg picked out which ones to stretch and show."

"Pollock's prices skyrocketed," I say.

"Partly it was his death. And partly it was newfound prosperity and more people getting interested in acquiring art. The art scene just exploded."

"You write that there was a museum opening every three or four days in North America."

"There was a tremendous surge. By the time the pop artists came along -- Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg -- there was a much larger pool of people interested in art. It reached a frenzy. When Lichtenstein and other pop artists have their first shows, they are sold out before they open. Buyers knock on gallery doors to get in and buy before the public is let in."

"Greenberg denounced pop art," I interject.

"Oh, absolutely," Dr. Marquis exclaims. "He hated the pop artists."

"Do you like pop art?"

"Very much, and my next book is about pop. But the latest rage...? I do find it difficult, going to a gallery and seeing a pile of old sofas, and finding that this is considered a really exciting work of art."

"Part of the impetus for the notoriety of modern art, you write, ironically came from the State Department and the CIA. They take up modern art as a sterling example of Western freedom, as opposed to dogmatic communist insistence on realism. Greenberg goes on overseas tours with art exhibitions funded by the government to promote this American freedom. Legislators, who loathed modern art, suddenly tout it."

Dr. Marquis laughs. "Yes, an amazing turnabout. It was so interesting to discover that connection between the Cold War and modern art. There was just nothing said about how this had occurred. It had happened spontaneously, it seemed. I was an art major in those days, and everybody was painting abstract expressionist pictures in art classes, including me. Little did we realize."

"Do you think that a lot of great work is overlooked?"

"Yes. Judgment is influenced by the time we live in. You grow up in a certain period, you start looking at art at a certain age..."

"And you become socialized? Overexposed?"

"Yeah, For instance, I think it's very hard to do paintings at this point and have them recognized. You see all around you advertisements and visual stimuli. We are subjected to so many visual stimuli every day, whether in a newspaper or leafing through a magazine, by signs, or looking at graffiti scratched onto a subway window. There are so many images bombarding us."

Her reply prompts a story from me: "Years ago, in New York, there were two plainclothes policemen assigned to the subways to crack down on the graffiti artists. The paper did a piece about the cops, but they also interviewed the teenage artists. And these kids would sit in the elevated subway stations in the mornings, watching for their night's work to roll by, criticizing rivals. The kids exhibited all of the sort of migraine anguish and neuroses of artists. All the same self-doubt. The cops allegedly discouraged the kids by holding them upside down over the third rail, with a flashlight stuck in their mouths, threatening to drop them if they didn't stop 'tagging' subway cars and walls."

"You know," she says, "there are tunnels under the freeways in San Diego where graffiti artists have done their thing. And, of course, some of them were taken up by galleries and had shows. Did the kids stop doing their graffiti?"

"No. They kept right on."

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