Writing Sample

Comparison Essay: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.

The Abstract Expressionist art movement of the postwar era was most notably influenced by two strongly opposed art critics whom operated on two schools of thought; Clement Greenberg, who believed in the formalist theory of art criticism, and Harold Rosenberg, a non-formalist.  It is important to note however, that almost all artwork can be evaluated with either mindset – formalist or non-formalist.  Many pieces will even make both parties happy, but Greenberg and Rosenberg would probably have argued that the other one was wrong.  It is also true, that often a work of art will be more successfully critiqued through the eyes of a formalist or non-formalist.

Clement Greenberg was a very influential art critic in postwar America who not only swayed the popular perception of contemporary art, but also influenced the artists themselves and how they would make their art.  He was strictly formalist with his approach to art criticism.  The formalist art theory is rooted in the idea that that all art has aesthetic value and in order to determine the quality of artwork, the emphasis must be placed on the formal elements of the work. That means that line, form, color, and composition trumps content.  Greenberg also believed that abstraction was superior to figurative art.  He thought that recognizable subject matter in paintings was too cliche’ and only fueled contradictory critiques of artwork.  He argued that abstraction was absolutely necessary for the success of modern painting.  The goal with abstraction he believed, was to bring painting back to itself without reference to life – art was about art.  For Greenberg, the perfect example of this would be Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

In the 1950’s, Harold Rosenberg was a popular art critic who approached art criticism in complete opposition with Greenberg; he believed in fact that art should reflect life.  He was influenced by his interests in mythical and existentialist ideas.  Existentialism proposes that man is responsible for inventing himself through his actions and Rosenberg placed all emphasis on painting as an act.  He considered the canvas an arena in which the artist was going to perform an event and through his manipulation of the mediums would be the resulting image.  In his essay, “The American Action Painters”, which was first published in Art News in 1952, Rosenberg coined the phrase “Action Painting.”  As a non-formalist art critic, he was primarily focused on the context in which artwork was produced.  He was also interested in the biography of the artist, which he felt was inseparable with a painting as a product of the artist’s creative act.  Non-formalism is also seen as an outright rejection of the formalist ideals. The formal elements of a work of art most definitely take a backseat to the action of creating it.

One thing that both Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg had in common was that they both thought very highly of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Seen here is his painting titled, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950.  When he painted this he was at the height of his drip painting success.  The “drip technique”, which became known as his signature style, is thought to have developed out of the artist’s frustration of painting at the easel, coupled with his desire for his paintings to become autonomous. He would soon abandon traditional artist’s materials in favor of applying gloss enamel paint, (which had a loose consistency) with things like sticks, utility brushes hardened with dried paint, turkey basters, trowels and knives.  With his canvas on the floor, Pollock would drip, dribble, pour, splatter and essentially draw with ribbons of paint in the air and let it land on the canvas beneath him.  He would work all four sides of his canvas, dancing around the edges, often in a trance-like state and sometimes even stepping on his painting.  Always in control of his paint, Pollock claimed, but never premeditated, the resulting images of his drip paintings – Rosenberg would argue is a prime example of action painting.  The artist himself said, “Painting is a state of being.  Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.” (Pollock, http://www.jackson-pollock.org/autumn-rhythm.jsp)

Another point to make is that with his canvas on the floor, the size of his works became unrestricted as would be with the use of an easel.  Autumn Rhythm, which is one of his major works that was exhibited in his 1950 solo show at the Betty Parson’s Gallery, is 207 inches wide.  This is significant because at that size, it stops being a painting that one simply looks at, and it becomes part of the environment that not only the artist performed a creative act in, but one that the viewer will interact with when in its presence.

For Greenberg, at least initially, Pollock’s drip paintings were the epitome of art as art without any reference to the biography of the artist and life in general.  These painting were about texture, space and color.  In his essay titled, “American Type Painting” which was first published in Partisan Review in 1955, and was considered a rebuttal to Rosenberg’s 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters”, Greenberg praised Pollock’s “all-over” style as the next step in the evolution of modern painting.  He thought that the “all-over” style was perfect for removing all remnants of illusion and representation.

In the late 1950’s, Greenberg shifted his allegiance from Abstract Expressionism to a new style of painting that he called Post Painterly Abstraction.  He always believed that art evolved progressively, and in doing so, previous techniques and styles would become obsolete.  This would eventually lead to him no longer being Pollock’s biggest fan.  He felt that his paintings were not pure enough as they inevitably pointed to the artist’s emotional state and the creative act.  The Washington DC-based artist, Morris Louis, became Greenberg’s new prodigy.  Above, is his painting titled, Tet, 1958.  Tet, which was given its name by Greenberg after the artist’s death, belongs to Louis’s Veils II series.  It was inspired by Helen Frankenthaler’s “stain” technique, when he met the artist in 1953.  To create these Veil paintings, Louis would pour very diluted, plastic based paint onto a large, raw canvas, allowing the paint to stain the canvas.  Unlike Frankenthaler and Pollock however, who placed their canvases on the floor, Louis would prop his canvas up against the wall to allow the paint to flow freely.  Furthermore, as in the case of Tet, where the two arcs are seen in the middle and to the right of the canvas, he used vertical supports to manipulate the canvas and compose where the paint would flow.  Both Pollock and Louis used the laws of gravity to create their abstract paintings, and both painted on unprimed canvases allowing their thinned paints to stain them.  Where they differed however, was that Pollock’s drip paintings consisted of many layers of paint, that landed on his canvas via the gestures he took with the paint and his unconventional tools.  Louis’ paintings consisted of luminous washes of saturated colors applied without the use of any brushes or tools.  Greenberg saw this new staining technique as an advance in painting because it was pure and eliminated the emotional qualities and the artist’s hand still latent in Abstract Expressionism.  He applauded the flatness of Louis’ work because he found it to be completely absent of the gestural act which made it anonymous, and art as art.

Although Louis purposely wanted to remove himself from his work and place more emphasis on tonal relationships and free flowing color – which is what a formalist critic like Greenberg looks for in evaluating the quality of an artwork, a non-formalist could also argue in favor of Tet as a successful painting because of its organic qualities.  It definitely has pseudo-illusionistic connotations of nature and displays an overall atmospheric effect.  The artist also allowed the paint to carve out its own path – an act of nature, but choreographed its flow as well by manipulating the canvas.  A non-formalist could claim that this technique is not completely devoid of the gesture.  An event did happen to these stained canvases which can be seen as a reflection of the artist’s emotional state at the time. Actually, that can be said of any painting or artwork.

Rivals at best, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, both influence the ideals of how artwork is critiqued today.  Perhaps the best lesson learned, is that neither was right or wrong.  Artists will continue to create their craft regardless, and it is up to the eye of the beholder to make of it what they want.