Greenberg’s Formalist theory was understandably attractive to younger critics and art historians because he seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method, with a variety of materially verifiable ways by which one could evaluate art.In doing so, he is claiming to be objective rather than subjective.The great champion of Abstract Expressionism never published an essay on the subject, and occasional remarks in interviews and texts in John O'Brian's indispensable anthology of the critic's writings suggest a definite disdain for the phenomenon (the early work of Jasper Johns being a decided exception).
But Pop reversed this flow, suggesting a redemption of the low by the high.
In this respect, the absence of a sustained account of Pop by Greenberg is a bit more curious.
Where the painter still tried to indicate real objects their shapes flatten and spread in the dense, two-dimensional atmosphere.
A vibrating tension is set up as the objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes.
Rather, it revolves around one fundamental question: how does an individual go about making work when a significant part of the art world believes that painting and drawing are dead?
Clement Greenberg Essay Abstract Expressionism
Or, to put it another way: after the death of the author, how does an individual reinstate the mantle of authorship and take responsibility for what he or she makes?Mimicking casualness or employing a machine or fabricators to make one’s work — as many critical darlings are busy doing — might be this generation’s way of shucking responsibility.Previous generations of artists, critics and curators bought into a constricted definition of what art could be, believing that history had brought them to an inevitable endgame and that any aesthetic alternative was spurious at best.According to Greenberg and those he influenced, painting could only be about itself — a viewpoint that artists as diverse as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol heeded, and which Johns seemed to do, in his early paintings.Certainly, Warhol — who relied on photographs for his subject matter — is acknowledging Greenberg’s insistence on painting’s flatness when he famously states: And Frank Stella’s position is not so far from Warhol when he states: “What you see is what you see.” Despite their avowed differences, here is a moment in the mid-1960s when Greenberg, Stella, and Warhol all agree with each other on a central issue: the flatness of the picture plane must be upheld.In his desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting, Greenberg insisted “upon the real and material plane.” This insistence led directly to the literalism of Minimalism and to the literalist readings of Pop Art, particularly the “flag” paintings of Jasper Johns.Although Greenberg rejected Johns’ paintings, his followers did not, in part because they saw in Johns a way to distinguish their viewpoint from Greenberg’s while adhering to his model of historical progress.In Greenberg’s view, it was Impressionism and, in particular, Claude Monet that advanced painting the furthest, and not Pablo Picasso and George Braque during their Cubist phase.In his next important essay, “Toward a New Laocoon” (1940), Greenberg further details the historical progress of painting: But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas: where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other.The need to undo the damage and to learn to see for ourselves continues.We do not often associate Clement Greenberg with Pop.