Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 2/4): Killing Clement Greenberg

Mary Miss, Perimeter/Pavilion/Decoys (1978), Rosalind Krauss, Kline Group Diagram (1979)

Just as artists had "entered a situation the logical conditions of which can no longer be described as modernist," some time in the late sixties and early seventies, so too had Rosalind Krauss. her Klein group diagram elegantly signaled two things: that she was orienting her thought by means of the "undecidable" mix of intellectual disciplines that was just beginning to coalesce at the time; but more importantly, the diagram was a visual rebuttal to the modernist theoretical framework that had dominated the New York art world for decades. Like the cartoonist Thomas Nast lampooning Boss Tweed, Krauss constructed a visual tool that her constituents could easily understand, but Krauss's target was the modernist critic Clement Greenberg. Like Tweed, Greenberg might have yelped, "Let's stop them damned pictures, I don't care so much what the papers write about—my constituents can't read—but damn it, they can see pictures." In all probability however, Greenberg may have never understood that his most important constituents were artists, or how effective Krauss's diagram would turn out to be in undoing his legacy.
Krauss wrote that the publication of Art and Culture in 1961 "presented the critical work of Clement Greenberg to the generation of artists and writers who were to develop during the 1960s, it presented its readers above all with a system through which to think the field of modernist art. And this system, or method – often referred to inexactly as formalist – had far greater effect then the particularities of its author’s taste." More than anything else, the Kline group diagram is remarkable for how economically it turned Greenberg's own logic back on itself. In his book Kant After Duchamp, Thierry de Duve explains: 
Greenberg has always been convinced that sculpture never had to fear its proximity painting in the way painting had, for its own survival, ‘to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture.’ If sculpture had anything to fear, it would more likely have been its excessive proximity to architecture; that is why, according to him, the tradition of the monolith was driven to its ultimate conclusion by Brancussi after whom the best modernist sculpture (David Smith and Anthony Caro included), far from fencing off the pictorial, incorporated openness of form, textural effects, color, and, more generally the opticallity that characterized modernist painting.Theirry de Duve,Kant after Duchamp, 22 

Clement Greenberg with a Krauss-like diagram of what she might have called the "negative condition" of painting as described by Greenberg.

Greenberg’s formulation of modernist painting was a double negative. In his 1961 essay, Modernist Painting, he had argued that, "Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness" because "flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture." If Krauss had diagrammed this she might have slung painting beneath not-theater/not-sculpture. Krauss’s own diagrams of the Expanded Field cleverly reworked Greenberg's naughts, making a virtue out of his baise against sculpture's unseemly proximity to architecture. 
Greenberg was making the case for abstract painting (flat meant no illusionistic depth). I have been told that he was really nice by guys who knew him, and that he remained a committed communist until the end. He was however, also an unabashed elitist, defending abstraction in art against more popular representational art in the severest of terms. In his essay, Avant-Garde and Kitch, Greenberg explained: 
Unfortunately, until the machine age, culture was the exclusive prerogative of a society that lived by the labor of serfs or slaves. They were the real symbols of culture. For one man to spend time and energy creating or listening to poetry meant that another man had to produce enough to keep himself alive and the former in comfort. In Africa today we find that the culture of slave-owning tribes is generally much superior to that of the tribes that possess no slaves.Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitch, AiT, 541diocincratic art
Greenberg couldn't have possibly defended abstract art in terms of popularity, and he was trying to put it on surer theoretical footing then the vagaries of personal taste (as de Duve and Krauss both allude, history has not treated Clem's personal taste kindly - he chose some winners, but a lot of losers too). His negative formalist schema was an effort to make the subjective and idiosyncratic, objective and universal. Twenty years later, Greenberg's systematic defense of painting had almost completely backfired. Abstract art was indeed on surer footing, but minimalist (the red-headed bastard off-spring of Modernist Painting as far as Greenberg was concern) had eclipsed the painterly abstraction Greenberg loved.Greenberg for example did not support Frank Stella, but the logic system and the privilege it gave to flatness as a pictorial essence or norm provided the conceptual framework within which Stella’s first decade of production was understood and, widely, acclaimed. Profoundly historicist, Greenberg’s method conceives the field of art as at once timeless and in constant flux. That is to say that certain things, like art itself, or painting and sculpture, or the masterpiece, are universal, transhistorical forms. But in the same breath it is to assert that the life of these forms is dependent upon constant renewal, not unlike that of the living organism. The historical logic of this renewal was what essays like ‘Collage’ or ‘American-Type Painting’ strove to discover, while always insisting as part of that logic that ‘modernist Art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.’ RKThe Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myth It wasn't just a mater of taste however. While still radically abstract, minimalism endangered Greenberg's supposedly objective justifications for abstract art. In her essay, The Originality of the Avant Guarde and other Modernist Myths, Krauss wrote:
Profoundly historicist, Greenberg’s method conceives the field of art as at once timeless and in constant flux. That is to say that certain things, like art itself, or painting and sculpture, or the masterpiece, are universal, transhistorical forms.Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1.
Minimalist objects were understood as neither painting nor sculpture, and now Krauss was defending them as neither  landscape, nor architecture. She was choking Greenberg with his own neither/nor.

Richard Serra, House of Cards (1969), Rosalind Krauss, Not-Architecture (1979)

The art that came in the wake of minimalism was even more mixed up and eclectic, very much akin to Jameson's "theory." Krauss would write that, "Over the last ten years rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture: narrow corridors with TV monitors at the ends; large photographs documenting country hikes; mirrors placed at strange angles in ordinary rooms; temporary lines cut into the floor of the desert. Nothing, it would seem, could possibly give to such a motley of effort the right to lay claim to whatever one might mean by the category of sculpture. Unless, that is, the category can be made to become almost infinitely malleable."
The examples Krauss used for sculpture-proper within the ‘categorical no-man's-land’ that it had become by the mid 1970s were the minimalist “quasi architectural integers” Robert Morris had exhibited in 1964, and his “outdoor exhibition of the mirrored boxes-forms.” Krauss built her defense of minimalism (and the then nascent post-minimalist art forms of earth art, installation, and video) on the anxiety that shadows Greenberg’s theories on sculpture, "its excessive proximity to architecture." Krauss, who had started out as a devoted follower of Greenberg, but broke with him both intellectually and personally, embraced the minimalist art (and in some cases the artists) that Greenberg had rejected. 
Krauss's reformulating of sculpture as "not-architecture” as a positive justification for the “quasi architectural integers” of minimalist art was an elegant rhetorical turn, but it has to be seen for what it was: a rhetorical weapon aimed back at her disapproving mentor.
Clement Greenberg, I like to image, whistling past Jeff Wall's,  Flooded Grave (1998)

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