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Art Critics Comparison: Clement Greenberg vs. Harold Rosenberg

Many modern art movements have been supported and promoted by critics who have sought to shape understandings of the artists' work in distinct ways. Abstract Expressionism is notable for the contributions of two critics, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, who put forward influential interpretations of the movement which were often starkly opposed. The following chart compares and contrasts their ideas.

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Noted for his dogmatic formalism, Clement Greenberg refused to engage purely speculative assertions about the content of paintings and sculptures and concentrated instead on discussing the details of depicted shape, color, and line. Only by attending to these formal matters, he argued, could a critic make judgments about the quality of a work of art and its relationship to the historical development of modern art.
Harold Rosenberg asserted that artists in New York had made a significant breakthrough in the history of painting by ceasing to regard the canvas as a surface on which to paint a picture but instead as a surface on which to record an event, an “action” (defining Action Painting). For Rosenberg, the act of painting, the painter's expressionistic encounter with the canvas, was paramount.
Clement Greenberg vs. Harold Rosenberg
Born in New York, the child of first-generation Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Clement Greenberg studied English literature but later gravitated towards writing about art. He emerged as a critic in the pages of the so-called “little magazines” that gave voice to New York's intellectuals. His first major essay, "Avant-garde and Kitsch," was published in Partisan Review in 1939. From 1942 until 1949 he served as art critic for The Nation, beginning a period of nearly thirty years during which Greenberg devoted himself almost exclusively to writing about visual art. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Harold Rosenberg earned a law degree before gravitating towards the circles of New York bohemians and intellectuals and writing poetry. Like Greenberg, he too wrote for the “little magazines”. Interested in art, literature, philosophy, and drama, his writings ranged widely over cultural productions and thought. His few early contributions to art criticism made him famous, and later, from 1967-1978 he served as art critic of The New Yorker.
Clement Greenberg's essay "'American-Type' Painting" was first published in Partisan Review in 1955 and anthologized in his 1961 collection of essays, Art and Culture. In some respects "'American-Type' Painting” was prompted by Greenberg's desire to counter the increasing popularity of the ideas that Rosenberg had launched, in 1952 with "The American Action Painters." The essay represents one of his central statements about the development of modern art which progresses toward its essential essence of flatness. Greenberg also tackles the development of Abstract Expressionism and argues for the radicalism of color field painting - relating it to Impressionism rather than Cubism. The title of the essay, borrowed from a phrase that British critics had used to speak of recent American painting, suggests Greenberg's discomfort with the term “Abstract Expressionism,” which he believed was "inaccurate." However, he was generally happy to refer to the movement as Abstract Expressionism. Harold Rosenberg's essay "The American Action Painters" first appeared in Art News in 1952 and was republished in his 1959 collection of essays The Tradition of the New. The essay, without naming specific artists, presented the new American art along broadly existential lines and underscored its radicality. Painters, Rosenberg explained, were now treating the canvas as an "arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." "The American Action Painters" did much to establish Rosenberg's reputation as a critic, and ultimately brought him an important following among other critics and artists such as Lawrence Alloway, Allan Kaprow, and Robert Goldwater. Much of his argument contradicted Greenberg's reading of painting, which saw the formal qualities of the art work as paramount and understood American painting as an integral part of an unfolding tradition of modern painting stretching back to Édouard Manet. Rosenberg’s essay thus laid the basis for a long-standing and oftentimes bitter rivalry between the two critics.
Greenberg viewed abstraction as a characteristic facet of modern painting, for if art was to be authentically modern, each medium had to pursue a process of rationalization which would progressively disentangle it from other, related mediums. Indeed, it was also increasingly a necessary facet of modern painting, since art was being threatened by the intrusion of kitsch, ideology, and commerce. Figurative art, and the sorts of anecdotal subjects that were common of American painting in the 1930s, were, for Greenberg, typical of the kind of extraneous, “literary” material that needed to be excluded from painting. The goal was an abstraction which referred back to painting itself and disavowed any reference to the external world - for Greenberg, this would be epitomized by the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. Rosenberg's emphasis on the creative act - at the expense of the formal aspects of an artwork - meant that abstraction was a less important quality for him than for Greenberg; however, that is not to say that his tastes were broader than his rival's; in fact, though Rosenberg had been careful in "The American Action Painters" not to single out any painters as examples of his concept of “action painting,” many thought the phrase implicitly championed gestural abstraction of only a few artists. If Greenberg's opinions led him to value Pollock above all, Rosenberg's lead him to celebrate Willem de Kooning as well as others such as Franz Kline and later Barnett Newman.
Greenberg's approach to art criticism was avowedly formalist. He believed that although form was not the total of art, it offered the only firm basis on which to make both judgments of quality and assessments about the relative character of different works of art. He even argued that it was so easy to make contradictory assertions about subject matter in art that any discussion of subject was without purpose. Although Rosenberg contributed to similar magazines as Greenberg in the 1930s, he came to art criticism later, and his outlook was shaped largely by hanging out with the New York artists at The Club and Cedar Tavern. This shaped his interest in subjective, mythical, and existential ideas, which he went on to highlight in his criticism.
As the 1950s unfolded, Greenberg began to feel that the gestural abstraction which had characterized the innovative work of de Kooning and others in the late 1940s was beginning to degenerate into a school or a manner - what he termed "the Tenth Street touch," after the area in New York where the painters lived and worked. This devolution led him to champion the work of Color Field painters, who he argued were pursuing a more radical deconstruction of the traditional easel picture. He first elaborated these ideas in his essay "’American-Type’ Painting" and pushed them further in "After Abstract Expressionism" and in the introduction to an exhibition he curated in 1964, Post-painterly Abstraction. Rosenberg was the dominant critic in the 1950s, the critic who offered the most popular and compelling description of Abstract Expressionism, and whose writing inspired a new generation of gestural painters such as Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan. However, his primacy was threatened towards the end of the decade by the increasing prominence of Color Field painting, for which Greenberg began to champion. Inevitably, Rosenberg was not a champion of post-painterly styles, and he argued that it resembled abstract art theory, rather than abstract art in practice. By the 1960s, Rosenberg's position was further threatened by the attacks of younger critics who eschewed his existential rhetoric.
Privately, Rosenberg and Greenberg are said to have come close to fist fights on a couple of occasions. In public - or on the page - they were more circumspect, though Greenberg made no secret of his contempt for Rosenberg's writing. His most famous attack on his rival came in his 1962 essay "How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name," in which he slyly remarked that he had never wanted to comment on the apparent subject matter of artworks (as Rosenberg was wont to do), since he found that he could easily assert the opposite and feel on equally safe ground. Ten years after Rosenberg published "The American Action Painters," he penned another essay for Art News entitled "Action Painting: A Decade of Distortion," in which he hit back at Greenberg. He argued that his rival's focus on form was academic and ignored the importance of the historic rupture that had come about with the advent of action painting. He also attacked the roles Greenberg had increasingly come to fill in the 1960s as an advisor to prominent galleries, suggesting that his criticality was compromised by commercial gain.
While Greenberg wrote an essay for a 1953 show in which several of de Kooning’s Women paintings were shown, he was never enthusiastic about them because of their reliance on the figure. In his 1962 essay, “After Abstract Expressionism,” Greenberg singled out de Kooning’s Women paintings as the prime example of “homeless representation,” by which he meant abstract art that flirted with the representational, a trend he thought better to avoid. Rosenberg was never so closely aligned with a single artist as Greenberg was with Pollock, but his admiration and support for de Kooning never waivered. He penned an important monograph on the artist in 1973 and stood squarely behind the painter who most clearly embodied his notion of Action Painting.
Greenberg began to evolve a historical understanding of the origins and development of Modernism as early as the 1930s and elaborated it - and at times significantly altered it - in the following decades. He saw modern art as driven forward by a need to entrench its individual media more solidly in its own particular area of competence. In the medium of painting, this encouraged abstraction, since everything that was extraneous to the medium – three dimensionality and narrative — had to be purged from it. In particular, Greenberg understood Modern painting moving towards pictorial flatness, since Greenberg saw the flatness of the canvas support as the overriding fact of the medium. Rosenberg regarded Greenberg's attention to the historical character of Modernism as academic. While Rosenberg did acknowledge formal stylistic similarities between the Americans and their European predecessors, Rosenberg believed that the Abstract Expressionists initiated a radical break with all that had gone before by having a new attitude toward the canvas and their subject matter. In this respect, Rosenberg understood Abstract Expressionism as pursuing the dream of earlier avant-gardes - like Dada and Surrealism - of integrating art with life.
Greenberg's writing sought to elucidate the development of modern art and to demonstrate that a logic governed the progress from one movement to the next. Although his premises were often challenged - and many of his arguments are now discredited - the rigor that he brought to the criticism of art, both in terms of the practical analysis of individual works and in terms of historical perspective, has had a huge impact both on art history and on art itself. While they eventually distanced themselves from his strident formalism, he inspired a new generation of critics that included Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried, who went on to play important roles in shaping contemporary American art history. Although Greenberg's legacy has been immeasurably more fruitful for art history than Rosenberg's, the latter not only left behind one of the most useful and persuasive descriptions of Abstract Expressionism but also sowed the seeds of new understandings of painting. In arguing that artists such as de Kooning had transformed the canvas into an "arena in which to act," Rosenberg encouraged a rethinking of the act of painting. This would be picked up by Allan Kaprow in 1958 when he suggested that Pollock might have an important legacy for performance art, and in more recent times the idea has echoed contemporary artists' attempts to further expand the medium of painting beyond the boundaries of the traditional canvas.
Les Demoiselles d'AvignonThe GateNumber 1Mountains and SeaShoot
Les Demoiselles d'AvignonThe GateNumber 1Mountains and SeaShoot
Pablo PicassoHans HofmannJackson PollockHelen FrankenthalerKenneth Noland
The Liver is the Cock's CombWoman IElegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110Onement IJohn F. Kennedy
The Liver is the Cock's CombWoman IElegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110Onement IJohn F. Kennedy
Arshile GorkyWillem de KooningRobert MotherwellBarnett NewmanElaine de Kooning
"Avant-Garde and Kitsch"
Partisan Review, 1939

"The Crisis of the Easel Picture"
Partisan Review, 1948

"'American-Type' Painting"
Partisan Review, 1955

"Modernist Painting"
Originally delivered as a radio broadcast on The Voice of America Forum Lectures: The Visual Arts, 1960

"After Abstract Expressionism"
Art International, 1962

"The Fall of Paris"
The Partisan Review, 1940

"The Herd of Independent Minds"
Commentary, 1948

"The American Action Painters"
Art News, 1952

Arshile Gorky: The Man, the Time, the Idea

"Action Painting: A Decade of Distortion"
Art News, 1962


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