The Most Important Art in Medium Specificity and Flatness
Full Fathom Five (1947)
Clement Greenberg came to prominence as a critic during and after World War II as he was championing the Abstract Expressionists and, in particular, Jackson Pollock, who in 1947 embarked on his infamous drip paintings. In his 1948 essay, "The Crisis of the Easel Picture," Greenberg introduces the term "all-over" to describe a manner of handling pictorial space and surface in paintings, an approach he sees as an emerging tendency in American abstract art. For Greenberg, Pollock's drip painting were the epitome of the all-over technique, which continued Modernist painting's evolution toward flatness and its emphasis on its material support. According to Greenberg, the "'decentralized,' 'polyphonic,' all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other..." The picture was dissolving into "sheer texture, sheer sensation." Greenberg argued that this answered to "something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other."
Pollock created a web of paint skeins that extend over the entirety of the canvas. No single area is highlighted as more interesting than any other, and the viewer's eye roams over the whole surface. While there are discrete areas of interest found amidst the composition - nails, tacks, buttons, cigarettes, etc. - the overall effect was of utmost importance to Greenberg. The immediate sensation of the texture of the painting, of its seemingly infinite repetition - that it could continue beyond the edges of the canvas - constituted Pollock's breakthrough for Greenberg.
Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc. - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Return (1956-58)
This abstract painting shows uneven shapes of blue, brown, and gray, punctuated by red and green, against a pale blue and pink background that is opaque and yet atmospheric. The gestural and visible brushstrokes and the slashes of red and green create a sense of movement and, simultaneously, make the irregular shapes seem like a crowd of figures glimpsed on a street, the setting hazy behind them. Subtly, Guston undercuts both the flatness of the pictorial plane and its medium specificity, as the abstract work nonetheless suggests forms materializing out of something like a landscape, even as the physicality of his painting, the pigment applied from different directions, emphasizes the surface and plane of the canvas itself.
While Greenberg had championed Abstract Expressionism, by the mid-1950s he felt that the artists had gone astray, citing what he called "homeless representation" in the works of Pollock, Guston, and, particularly, Willem de Kooning. For Greenberg, the representational and quasi-representational compositions defeated painting's specificity by suggesting narrative content, which Greenberg had deemed anathema.
Eventually abandoning abstraction altogether, in the late 1960s Guston began creating figurative paintings that were more cartoon-like and teemed with humor, unrest, and disjunctions. Emphasizing his artistic independence, Guston directly challenged the concept of medium purity, then saying, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting IS 'impure.' It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image makers, and image ridden."
Oil on canvas - Tate Modern, London, England
The Conjurer (1959)
In this abstract painting, color itself becomes "the conjurer," as irregular forms materialize energetically in the spatial relationship between intense primary colors and white and black. Profoundly influenced by Hofmann's teaching and artistic practice, Clement Greenberg noted the "intensity of color" in his work, which he saw as the exemplar of what he called "American-Type Painting." In his essay of the same name published in 1955, he wrote, "By tradition, convention, and habit we expect pictorial structure to be presented in contrasts of dark and light, or value. Hofmann, who started from Matisse, the Fauves, and Kandinsky as much as from Picasso, rejected value contrast as the essential building block," in favor of color, creating "a fully chromatic art."
Hofmann was a formative influence upon Greenberg. The artist's belief that "each medium of expression has its own order of being" was foundational for Greenberg's insistence on medium specificity. Equally important was Hofmann's concept of "recreated flatness." Acknowledging that the application of paint disturbed the flatness of the surface, Hofmann felt that the artist's challenge was to achieve what he called "recreated flatness," as texture, form, and color created, interdependently, a spatial "push and pull." Importantly, this "push and pull" created an optical space, not an illusionistic space that one could imagine inhabiting. Greenberg acknowledged the artist's importance in 1955, when he wrote, "Over the past fifteen years, a body of painting has emerged in this country that deserves to be called major. Hans Hofmann's art and teaching have been one of its main fountainheads of style.'
Oil on canvas
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959)
Part of the artist's pioneering series Black Paintings, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor employs a simple geometric pattern. The inverted U-shapes on each side are arranged concentrically around a central single line of unpainted, raw canvas. As the artist explained, the "regulated space" pushed "illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate." The impersonal flatness of the image and its simple, almost grid-like forms was a radical departure from gestural and emotionally tinged work of the Abstract Expressionists and reflected Stella's view of a painting as "a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more. "
Stella's series, emphasizing the painting as a flat object, had a notable influence on Minimalism, as it emphasized art as a material object with which the viewer interacted. This painting was made for MoMA's 1959 exhibition Sixteen Americans, where it was shown along with three of his other black paintings. At the time, Stella stated what became his most famous maxim, "What you see is what you see."
In his influential essays Michael Fried praised Stella for emphasizing the flatness of the painting's support, writing, "Stella's stripe paintings ... represent the most unequivocal ... acknowledgment of literal shape in the history of modernism." He saw the artist as representing "a new illusionism [that] both subsumes and dissolves the picture-surface."
Enamel on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
In Gift, concentric rings of white, blue, and two shades of green are centered in an off-yellow background. Varying in thickness, the rings both suggest a pattern and evade it, as the thickness of the white outer ring disrupts the pattern of the other rings that widen toward the larger light green orb at the center. Noland began making his target series in the late 1950s, as he concentrated solely on the formal device, while eschewing any hint of personal expression. In the early 1960s, Greenberg wrote, "Painterly Abstraction has collapsed because in its second generation it has produced some of the most mannered, imitative, uninspiring and repetitious art in our tradition." He felt Noland's work was a vital new direction putting "the main stress on color as hue . . . Harking back in some ways to Impressionism, reconciling the Impressionist glow with Cubist opacity." He aggressively promoted the artist's work, seeing it as a leading exemplar of a "newer abstract painting [that] suggests possibilities of color for which there are no precedents in Western tradition."
The two men first met in 1950 when Noland was studying at Black Mountain College and began taking Greenberg's advice, as he said, "I would take suggestions from Clem very seriously. More seriously than from anything else." This work, originally titled Clement's Gift, was a kind of homage to the critic's sensibility and taste, as Noland explained, "I think judgment's crucial ... and that has something to do with taste. Taste: we use it in the negative sense, but there is the best taste, you know. There's the right taste. There's the real taste." Greenberg hung this painting in his apartment, just above his desk, so that the monumental work dominated his study.
In 1963, Greenberg included this work in his exhibition, Three New American Painters: Louis, Noland, Olitski, where he used the shortened version of the title. Subsequently, he loaned the work for the 1964 Venice Biennale, where it was included with twelve other paintings by Noland. Noland's work was widely viewed as representing the traditional modernism and abstract painting that Greenberg promoted in contrast to the radical challenge of the proto-Pop Art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and critic Gene Baro described Noland's work as "more enshrined than exhibited." When Rauschenberg's work was awarded the Grand Prize at that year's Biennale, the moment was seen as marking the diminishment of Greenberg's primacy.
Oil on canvas - Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom