In his 1954 essay “Abstract, Representational, and So Forth,” critic Clement Greenberg asserted that “…what counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary” — a straightforward theory that resonates throughout the exhibition of his collection, which opens Palm Springs Desert Museum’s first season as a full-fledged visual art institution (it dropped natural sciences last spring).
Greenberg, who died in 1994, was the most influential art critic of the second half of the 20th century. When he spoke, “it was as if not merely the future of Art were at stake but the very quality, the very possibility, of civilization in America,” Tom Wolfe wrote in his irreverent art world critique, The Painted Word (Bantam, 1975).
In the book, Wolfe finds Greenberg in German painter Hans Hoffman’s Greenwich Village cénacle, the most influential “fraternit[y] of like-minded souls huddled … around [a] romantic figure,” as Abstract Expressionism was in full boom after World War II and New York replaced Paris as the epicenter of Modernist art. In the cénacle, Greenberg “radiated a sense of absolute authority.”
Indeed, Greenberg framed the discourse for generations of artists and historians, asserting a flatness theory and championing Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting. “Every student of contemporary art knows the importance of Clement Greenberg to the development of American art,” says Christine Giles, associate curator at Palm Springs Desert Museum, the exhibition’s only West Coast venue outside Portland Art Museum, which organized it. Other venues include Dayton, Ohio; Syracuse and Katonah, N.Y.; Columbia, S.C.; and Naples, Fla.
The Greenberg collection — on exhibit Oct. 2 through Jan. 5, 2005 — includes 159 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper surveying five decades of midcentury U.S. art, beginning with early Abstract Expressionist works by Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, and Helen Frankenthaler. Representing the Color Field movement are Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland (his first Circle painting), Friedel Dzubas, Paul Jenkins, and others.
“This exhibition is a great way to launch our new mission as an art museum,” Giles says. “Greenberg not only transformed the careers of numerous major artists, including Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, but transformed the way we talk about contemporary art today.”
Greenberg has long been credited with discovering and shaping Pollock, but the assertion misrepresents the relationship. In fact, as Wolfe emphasized, “Peggy Guggenheim picked Pollock. He was a nameless down-and-out boho Cubist. She was the niece of Solomon (Guggenheim Museum) Guggenheim and the center of the most chic Uptown art circle in the 1940s.” Rather, Pollock’s success fueled Greenberg’s writings on the prevailing flatness theory.
The collection, which Portland Art Museum purchased from Greenberg’s widow, Janice Van Horne, also includes examples of the movement Greenberg called PostPainterly Abstraction, including pieces by Walter Darby Bannard, Larry Poons, and Darryl Hughto.
In addition to his writings, Greenberg frequently visited artists’ studios and shared observations. “His contribution in the studio is scarcely mentioned, but for artists who benefited from his visits this was probably the most significant aspect of what he did,” sculptor Anthony Caro wrote in the exhibition book, Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection (Princeton University Press and Portland Art Museum, 2001), available in the museum store. “He had an extraordinary clarity of eye as well as the highest of standards. In fact, I would say that his eye was the nearest to infallible I have ever come across.”
However, the controversial critic denounced Pop Art — a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, which was a reaction to Impressionism — that was hailed by theorist Leo Steinberg and revived New York’s galleries. Greenberg’s ubiquitous color commentary faded with the rise of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip blowups, Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and Jasper Johns’ American flags — but came back en vogue with Op Art.
Complementing the Greenberg collection, Palm Springs Desert Museum has organized Modernism and Abstraction from its permanent collection. The exhibition, which runs Oct. 2 through Jan. 2, 2005, spans works from the 1940s through the 1970s, including early Abstract Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Color Field painting along with artists associated with Post-Painterly Abstraction and the Gesture Movement. It includes works by Willem de Kooning, Wolfgang Paalen, Hans Burkhardt, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Louise Nevelson, Sam Francis, Mark Di Suvero, Frank Stella, Michael Goldberg, John Altoon, and others.
Art critic and historian Dr. Irving Sandler will critique the Greenberg collection Nov.18 in the museum’s Annenberg Theater. Information: (760) 325-0189 or psmuseum.org.