Friday, April 5, 2019


“Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in”. (Greenberg, 1939, from “Kitsch & the Avant-Garde”.) This is Greenberg's entire, primary argument for modernism and his enthusiastic flagellation of painting, the wobbly foundation on which the tyrannical throne of modernism resides. It is an extremely debatable premise that Greenberg co-opted from a lecture by Hans Hoffman, who painted supremely repetitious and monotonous paintings of colorful, blurry squares and rectangles. Here are a couple of quotes from some of the artists he mentions:

“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.”
Henri Matisse

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”
Pablo Picasso

“Art is the path to being spiritual.”
Piet Mondrian

“The works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness.”
Joan Miró

None of that sounds to me like the calculated materialism of Greenberg and Hoffman, nor does it sound like a basis for an “objective” intellectual pursuit, which modernism and its spawn have always claimed to be. It is an invention of personal fancy, simply a projection of what one wished early modernist painting to be.

When people talk modernism, they talk Greenberg. When they talk “Narrative of process” and “continuum of art history”, they use fantastical contrivances of Greenberg, not the objective “truths” or rational systems that the expressions pose as representing, or that modernists and their later kindred would like them to be. When people believe they see the “relationship between an artist and his materials” when they look at a minimalist painting - any painting that strives to speak through materials and not imagery - more than come to an understanding of what the artist intended and how he or she went about his or her work, they are merely inventing stories about what they imagine they see, or would like to see.

Greenberg may not have invented all the vocabulary and notions of American modernism, but he consolidated them, including bits of Duchampian gospel (the two worked together to build the collections of both the MOMA and the Whitney museums), and gave voice to a pseudo-scientific, quasi-Marxist package that rolled off the tongue nicely and that propped up the strident arrogance of Newman and his “Uptown Group”, Hoffman and the rest of the pack, and that continues to be the self-confirming and disdainful language of neo-modernist doctrine.

Supporters of modernism and neo-modernism often say that there’s more to modernism and it’s later iterations than Greenberg and his talk, and if you agree, I challenge you to do so with an earlier quote by an earlier writer that uses key elements of the movement and its ideology that are broadly held and used, and that precede the all-but now universal patter Greenberg so unfortunately gave to the world.

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