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Post #1121 • February 5, 2008, 12:59 PM • 40 Comments

Ever since seeing The Birth of the Cool, I've been thinking about the California Modern painters, especially John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley. McLaughlin lived here in beautiful Dana Point, painting minimal abstractions that Clement Greenberg characterized as "oddly Oriental." The quote comes from a McLaughlin catalogue for a 1996 show at the Laguna Art Museum, via Susan C. Larsen, who writes:

Clement Greenberg, chief architect of much of the critical discourse on abstract art at mid-century, once stood before a group of John McLaughlin's paintings in the company of Nicholas Wilder, the artist's long-time friend and dealer. "There is something oddly Oriental at work here," Greenberg remarked, according to Wilder. This intuitive reading of McLaughlin's art was correct, but Greenberg did not greet this revelation as a positve validation. It signaled for Greenberg the presence of something extraneous, perhaps ready to displace his own vision of advanced abstract painting, which even then he was projecting onto a new generation of American painters. Greenberg had indeed recognized McLaughlin's aesthetic sensibility as it was played out in the sophisticated language of his quite personal abstraction. However, being committed to his own critical program, the perceptive Greenberg saw McLauglin as an oddity, or even perhaps as a threat, and would not extend to his art the kind of critical support he gave so willingly to artists working within his carefully tended domain.

I can't separate Greenberg's feelings about McLaughlin's work from Larsen's Clembashing, and it sickens me a little that the bald attributions of motive, statements that presuppose Larsen's ability to read the minds of the dead, pass as serious art history. But whether Greenberg meant the remark as a compliment, there is something oddly Oriental about them. Wonderfully so, in my opinion. I recognized McLaughlin's desire to do something modern and simple with the exquisite order of ukiyo-e, because I had attempted it myself.

I'd like to say that I rushed home from Birth of the Cool and made a bunch of new works in my flat style. Instead I spent three months making occasional and failed attempts at new works in my flat style, punctuated with ruminations about what I was trying to do. In doing so I violated the rule that I've long been telling students: do your thinking on paper, not in your head. I may have that tattooed on my forearm for future reference.

Speaking of which, it turned out that unlike for the 2006 works, I needed to shoot some reference. Once in the computer, I traced some of the shots in Illustrator and recombined the paths, altering colors on along the way. A new painting is in progress.

Study for Dog Park, digital, 2008

And when a new painting is in progress, especially after a long unproductive break, I have few thoughts on the wretched state of the art world. It melts away like a dream in the daylight. I do this just to do this. I think of Zeami Motokiyo: "Now what is called 'art,' because it appeases the minds of all people and arouses the emotion in the great and humble alike, could be the starting point of increased longevity and happiness, a way of prolonging life." Who cares if he's right; in the act of mixing a grassy green, life is happy and long right now.




February 5, 2008, 1:46 PM

Susan who? If this is representative of her work, I'm afraid it's not worth considering. I mean, yet another tiresome, useless instance of Greenberg bashing? Who the hell needs this warmed-over tripe? Honestly, you'd think these people could find a slightly less predictable bogeyman.



February 5, 2008, 2:05 PM

"do your thinking on paper, not in your head"

You just helped me out of a cul-de-sac with that line...



February 5, 2008, 2:40 PM

I forgot to say thank you.

Stuart Davis used to wander around Gloucester and draw the ships and stuff, then go back to the studio and wrestle the chunks into compositions. The visible world made into floating flat. I think Davis would have loved vector drawing.



February 5, 2008, 7:39 PM

Knowing Clem, that statement was nothing more than a vagrant thought which popped into his head and out of his mouth in a relaxed moment, a mere rumination, not a value judgement. We all do this, all the time, of course.

Furthermore, it was related by Nick Wilder, whom I liked a lot but would hardly say was the world's most accurate reporter.

No, the interesting part of the story is Ms Larsen, assuming, as she apparently does, that Greenberg is the evil godhead whose every fleeting utterance must be wrestled into an affirmation of his "critical program".
They hate him, they get him wrong, they seethe at the very name, but they compulsively and unwittingly grant him an absolute power and dominance he never claimed, wanted or had. It was people like this who made him say " I have an argument with my reputation".


Margaret Gonzalez

February 6, 2008, 2:40 AM

I love your new work, Franklin!



February 6, 2008, 4:32 AM

"... Greenberg is the evil godhead whose every fleeting utterance must be wrestled into an affirmation of his "critical program". They hate him, they get him wrong, they seethe at the very name, but they compulsively and unwittingly grant him an absolute power..."

Greenberg as Sauron. (Actually the way he was depicted in the LOTR films as a giant flaming eye is pretty appropriate for their caricature of him)



February 6, 2008, 6:14 AM

wwc- that's really funny!



February 6, 2008, 6:51 AM

I like the new work as well, Franklin. I'm also excited that Birth of the Cool is opening at the Addison Gallery of American Art in a little over a week. I've heard about more than seen most of the artists in it, so it should be interesting.



February 6, 2008, 6:54 AM

Thanks, all. I hope the painting itself measures up to the study.



February 6, 2008, 7:17 AM

Larsen was evidently set to pounce on even the most trivial bit of Greenbergiana to force it into (self)service, even if she had to blow it up like a giant balloon for Macy's New York Thanksgiving Parade.

These people are ultimately sad. They're incapable of distinguished work of their own, so they latch onto whatever they can to compensate. It's a kind of parasitism. If they'd just left Greenberg alone, by now he'd be scarcely more of an issue than Ruskin.



February 6, 2008, 8:05 AM

I think there should be a book written about this imaginary Greenberg, this martyr of the POMO crowd, who only exists in the nasty imaginations of bitter writers. A very small sampling of critical quotes about Greenberg follows.

"Greenberg got it "wrong,"

"Greenberg, it would seem, was jealous of everyone in the art world's upper reaches..."

"Greenberg's jealousy of Barr..."

"Greenberg was not a nice man and was proud of the fact."

"Greenberg not only understood how to get power by bravado, he knew how to husband it by the same means."

"Greenberg "masterminded the campaign which triggered the process that unseated Paris and made New York the capital of the art world."

"Clem, in fact, constructed a closely reasoned, essentially airtight theoretical system based on unstated assumptions common among the New York Intellectuals"

"Misanthrope, drunk, drug addict, cultist, artist abuser and all-around shit..."

"master puppeteer Clem, as slackjawed, cold-blooded and self-loathing as the Grandest Guignol."

"Greenberg admitted to the author that this and other Oedipal acts he committed on not so innocent artists were really attacks on the aging, immigrant businessman Pere Greenberg, who lived eight blocks away from Clem for most of his life with little intimate contact. Clem was unjustifiably ashamed of him."

"Greenberg's sadistic dictations about flatness, objecthood, nongestural strokes and the other of creation."



February 6, 2008, 8:28 AM

Wow, I never saw the "all around shit" quote. That's a real winner.

With 3 books and countless articles and interviews to draw on we could probably make a list 10 times as long. And this does not even touch on the general tone that pervades all the writing done between the overtly nasty statements.

It is a remarkable record and one which some enterprising social scientist PhD candidate should tackle.


Marc Country

February 6, 2008, 9:21 AM

"I think there should be a book written about this imaginary Greenberg..."

Didn't Flo Rubenfeld already write one? I'm sure there must be others...



February 6, 2008, 9:27 AM

I think I mean 'imaginary' in a different way. In other words there should be an analysis of Greenberg as POMO straw man with the full understanding on the part of the author that the Greenberg they are presenting is an arbitrary construct.


Marc Country

February 6, 2008, 9:31 AM

It's a kind of parasitism.

"But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?"

My custom Google News section under Clem's name is quite a good resource for this sort of thing. For a critic so "out of it", it's surprising how often a new article comes up, invoking the name of the Art Critic of Mordor. Here's a recent snippet from the Seattle P.I.:

"...Geelhold wants to know why nobody wrote a treatise on art criticism's shifting ethical grounds. What about Clement Greenberg? Where's our historical awareness? Why pick on Viveros-Faune, when Greenberg was so swashbuckling?"



February 6, 2008, 11:42 AM

Eric said:

"I think I mean 'imaginary' in a different way. In other words there should be an analysis of Greenberg as POMO straw man with the full understanding on the part of the author that the Greenberg they are presenting is an arbitrary construct."

What a fascinating concept. A book about Greenburg’s place in the culture of criticism could be both damning and illuminating. It seems to me that there needs to be more criticism on the state of criticism…more analysis of its mores and strictures…bring a cultural anthropologist in to take a look. Its almost more interesting as a society then it is as a body of work.

Was Greenburg still around as he was demonized? Did he relish it like Harold Bloom does? I’m more familiar with the lit world, and I figure Harold Bloom would be a counterpart to Greenburg. Bloom loves defending literature from the PoMos….and he loves being their spoilsport.



February 6, 2008, 12:12 PM

There is a recent book, Raphael Rubinstein's 'Critical Mess', which is about the current state of art criticism, but it sounds - from description from others etc (I haven't read it) - just like a bunch of second raters whining. Most of these people can't see art and don't understand it and I have no use for them. They are all contributors to the mess and are unlikely to do anything about it.

Yes, there should be a book about the whole loony art world by someone from the outside,

Greenberg lived well past the time of his "demonization", which began in earnest in the '70s. He was not happy with it, but he was smart enough to know that antipathy at that level and volume simply confirmed his stature & importance as a critic.



February 6, 2008, 12:17 PM

"the Art Critic of Mordor"

and the One Ring is, of course, a Noland painting.

and that makes the pomo ankle-biters hobbits.

It is interesting how the Greenebrg piñata gets dragged out so often, and I would hope he would enjoy still being the boogeyman.



February 6, 2008, 12:34 PM

The Hobbits at least had some honor. More like a whole band of Golems.



February 6, 2008, 1:26 PM

One 'eye' to rule them all, One 'eye' to find them,
One 'eye' to bring them all and in the darkness b(l)ind them
In the Land of Mo(dernism) where the Shadows lie.

i'm sorry to perp this on all of you. i couldn't resist.

who would the nazgul be?



February 6, 2008, 1:37 PM

there were nine undead man-kings...

these might suffice and in no particular order.

but seriously, what a list.




February 6, 2008, 1:38 PM

that's olitski.



February 6, 2008, 2:05 PM

greenberg is so tied in with the golden age of american art from the 1940's to the late 1960's early 1970's that his stock can only go up from here once everything shakes out. it is difficult to open any book or magazine that surveys modern american art in this time period and not see him as one of the largest figures other than the artists themselves.

although we can find plenty of off the cuff back hands to his position and so called stance, the broader all encompassing surveys generally give him respect and have to include him. it is also much more difficult to find print in which the great artists put him down rather than build him up. for these reasons and the prevalance of his name coming up so often in varying context will only build upon the legacy he has already attained. if greenberg was a stock, i'd be a buyer.



February 6, 2008, 2:51 PM

Caro's not undead yet, knight though he be.



February 6, 2008, 3:02 PM

I'm halfway through Karen Wilkin's essay accompanying the hardcover catalogue, "Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Collection". It seems a perfect antidote to all the poison and corrective lens to all the astygmatisms.



February 6, 2008, 5:02 PM

I think this is the first time this many pro-Greenberg people have gathered in one place in years.

We will have to be careful of the Senate Committee on Unprogressive Minorities (SCUM).



February 6, 2008, 5:54 PM

His skill as a writer, far superior to any critic or academic working nowadays, his critical apparatus and his insights, are completely ignored, while all of this other bullshit,the cherry picked quotes, the distortions and fabrications, all done in the name of rampant and utterly rank careerism, have somehow replaced the actual life that was lived and the gifts he gave to all visual artists. That is the ultimate insult.



February 6, 2008, 6:04 PM

I don't think it's so much being pro-Greenberg per se as understanding and sharing the principles he stood for, seeing the contrived and self-serving demonization scheme for what it is, and being utterly repulsed by what his detractors generally stand for and promote.

No critic has ever been or ever will be infallible, or beyond reproach, or unchallengeable. That's not the point. What matters is the basic core, the passion for art as such, the motivation and dedication, the honesty, the individuality and own-ness, and of course the quality of the eye (even though that can never be perfect).

I suppose all that can be summed up by saying that Greenberg was the genuine article, and he was also very much himself. Hearing all these legally blind trendoid pygmies carry on about how horrible he was is insufferable, not because of "poor old Greenberg," but because they're mostly worthless and useless.



February 7, 2008, 1:35 AM

A resounding yes to all of that Jack. (Sorry I know arguments are more fun but...)



February 7, 2008, 11:25 AM

I think you should work more on the inventions of forms (heads, legs,dogs etc.) and color instead of doing such plates... ;-)) (I have the same problems often...) Hans


Chris Rywalt

February 7, 2008, 1:54 PM

I got a Christmas card last December with an ukiyo-e print on it and I loved the subtlety and texture so much I spent a week or so researching woodblock prints on the Web. I fell into Dave Bull's site and even wrote to him. Then I went looking for some materials and ended up with a lino block; halfway through carving it I realized I just annoying myself. I haven't gotten back to it. But the thoughts are still there.

I think I'm more of a sumi-e guy, but when it comes right down to it, I don't have the stamina to attempt any Japanese craft. I'm far too much the short-attention-span instant-gratification lazy-ass American.



February 7, 2008, 2:54 PM

It's worth noting that classical ukiyo-e was very much a collaborative process. The designer always got the most credit, and still does, partly because his name is nearly always on the print. The woodblock cutter, whose skill was critical to the technical success of the print, was virtually always a different person (whose name sometimes appears, but very often doesn't). Then there's the printer, another critical element in the process (printing quality can make a huge difference in the outcome, naturally enough). Then there are variables like the quality of the paper employed, or the coloring used for a particular run, or special printing features like the use of lacquer, mica, embossing, metallic pigments and so on. High level, meticulous craftsmanship was required and, amazingly, more or less routinely available. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that such wonderful, even exquisite work was meant for a popular audience and not regarded as high art in its time. The Japanese only began to take their prints seriously after the West enthusiastically did so from the latter 19th century on.



February 7, 2008, 3:15 PM

Well sure. Taking the great stuff for granted is in the same neighbourhood as taking everything for great. Neighbour of the beast, if you will.



February 7, 2008, 4:05 PM

Ahab, I wouldn't equate the two.

The major ukiyo-e designers were known and appreciated in their time at a popular level; there were even periodic rating books numerically ranking the leading designers of the day. The popularity of the designer obviously influenced sales figures, and higher demand meant more prints commissioned from those designers (in some cases, predictably enough, this was detrimental, as with Hiroshige's latter work). It's not that the work wasn't appreciated, or that there was no discrimination made between one designer and another, but that the status given to ukiyo-e was never what it would become in the West (until the West discovered it and fell hard for it).

The level of craft that was traditionally more or less the norm in Japanese culture was quite high, and one could argue that the general Japanese aesthetic sensibility is or was remarkably fine. That does not mean there was no room for vulgarity (serious print people tend to find most 19th century prints far coarser than earlier ones, especially after very bright German aniline dyes were introduced in the 1860s). However, there was always a poetic, refined vein and an appreciation for quality and nuances of line, coloring and pattern.


Chris Rywalt

February 7, 2008, 6:17 PM

Ukiyo-e is certainly traditionally collaborative, and, to go by Dave Bull's site, still very much alive, unlike many crafts in the West. Modernism, for all its virtues, killed a lot of crafts and their lines of secrets passed from generation to generation. Just try casting bronze these days, or finding an expert in patinas.

On the other hand, we have MTV.



February 7, 2008, 7:04 PM

Actually, Chris, traditional Japanese woodblock prints as a popular form essentially died with the 19th century (the usual endpoint given is the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, which saw the last great burst of printmaking activity for a popular or mass market). After that, such prints were primarily made for collectors, mainly Western ones, in much lower numbers (deliberately limited editions) and at much higher prices. Yes, the skills were maintained, but the whole thing became much more of a self-conscious niche aimed at a very different audience, and hence with rather different motivations and goals. In other words, it became an export business, heavily focused on an idealized vision of a mostly vanished Japan aimed at foreigners. The work is still technically superb, if not more so, and often quite beautiful, but there's a certain "potted" quality to it, a certain preciousness or artificiality, a certain loss of vitality, energy and realness, if you will.


Chris Rywalt

February 7, 2008, 9:11 PM

At least they're keeping the craft itself alive. I don't know much about it, though, so maybe even that isn't what it used to be.


Marc Country

February 8, 2008, 5:28 PM

"The Hobbits at least had some honor."

Not to mention curiosity...

"No critic has ever been or ever will be infallible, or beyond reproach, or unchallengeable."

One of my favorite bits of writing from Greenberg (a juror's statement, if memory serves) consisted of three words: "Man is fallible". Respect...

"...traditional Japanese woodblock prints as a popular form essentially died with the 19th century (the usual endpoint given is the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, which saw the last great burst of printmaking activity for a popular or mass market). After that, such prints were primarily made for collectors..."

I'm very thankful that my wife's grandmother collected a small portfolio of shin hanga, which passed into our hands, out of the bristol-board folder of miscellanea they sat in for years, and finally into frames on the wall, where they belong...


Marc Country

February 8, 2008, 6:44 PM

"Taking the great stuff for granted is in the same neighbourhood as taking everything for great."

"Ahab, I wouldn't equate the two."

Not an equation, I don't think: more like pointing to two sides of the same lead penny. The great is taken for granted, and the granted is taken for great...



February 8, 2008, 8:02 PM

By the time the shin hanga ("new prints") movement started in the early XX century, traditional ukiyo-e was dead. The driving force behind the movement was not an artist but a publisher, Watanabe Shozaburo, who was a good businessman and successfully targeted European and American print collectors. The prints incorporated Western stylistic devices while sticking to traditional Japanese themes known to appeal to the target audience (landscapes, birds, beautiful women, kabuki actors and the like). They were conceived as collector's items, so production standards were very high because the customers were paying for that, as well as a very traditional, idealized vision of Japan. As I said earlier, they are generally technically superb and designed to be beautiful, like something out of a fantasy or a dream world, but they're not really ukiyo-e.



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