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Fundamentalism

Post #1250 • October 30, 2008, 10:07 AM • 24 Comments

This started out as a comment at Looking Around, but I'm not going to create a uniquely named Wordpress account just to comment on a blog. Sorry.

I respectfully challenge Richard Lacayo to provide any writing of Greenberg's that says that "abstraction was the only road that art could go down." One of the astonishing things about Greenberg's oeuvre is the enormous extent to which it is known (if you can call it knowing) in the form of canard.

One of the main canards is this notion that Greenberg tried and failed to direct art history in a particular direction. Lacayo says at the article linked above that he sublimated his Marxism thusly. His actual writings, however, evince an author with an aversion to prescription that only ever grows more acute. What he calls "polemical certainty" is really a certitude of aesthetic judgment that can be quite unkind to polemics. Greenberg was passionately untheoretical. Given the dependence of much contemporary art upon theory, what has happened to his reputation is not terribly surprising. You can see a similar sort of thing played out when fundamentalist Christians try to characterize certain vocal atheists as equally fundamentalist in their way. It doesn't work because atheism is not a belief that there is no god, but skepticism that there is one. It's this refusal to believe that angers them so.

Temperamentally empirical and skeptical, Greenberg paid attention to what his eyes told him and wrote accordingly. He had plenty of opportunity to witness the "proliferation of practices that we live with now" (1994 was only 14 years ago, and we're not being subjected to anything more outré than we endured the decade before then), and if they "horrified" him he never noted as much in his writings. They sometimes amused him and often disappointed him. He observed that later art, even later abstraction, was largely not measuring up to masterpieces of postwar painting and sculpture. One may disagree with that, but for fundamentalism and horrified reactions you have to go look among his detractors, among those who believe that ideas have aesthetic value.

Comment

1.

Jack

October 30, 2008, 11:31 AM

Franklin, the guy is safe and he knows it. He's writing to affirm the current party line, and it's only that party's approval he cares about, not ours. Did you like the cutesy little "I'm not stuffy" touches? The piece is otherwise unremarkable.

2.

ahem

October 30, 2008, 11:32 AM

Yeah, cause the choir around here don't sing the same old song, no sir!

3.

MC

October 30, 2008, 11:55 AM

Choir? Songs? Ahem, back to reality...

One can add to Lacayo's challenges (though I see no reason to do so respectfully) to explain how he thinks Grenberg could possibly suggest anything like 'No more paintings as "pictures"', when "PICTURES" was precisely Greenberg's pet phrase for any two-dimensional artwork. Or whenther Lacayo really thinks Greenberg was refering to the art of the '60's when he wrote about Kitsch in 1939.

I shudder to think of (and read) all these misguided nitwits, still locked in their painfully comic oedipal struggle to kill the art critic who still haunts them (and outwrites them) from his grave...

4.

MC

October 30, 2008, 11:59 AM

Time Inc. restructuring could lead to 600 layoffs... Well, it's been a slice, Richard... good luck in your future endeavors.

5.

John

October 30, 2008, 12:16 PM

I could say how does something like this make its way into TIME. But I won't. It's got many facts seriously wrong, as F points out, but it does get one thing right: The two "Bergs" liked the same artists, but explained their preferences very differently.

It's gotten so that I am grateful when anything that appears in print gets something right.

6.

Jack

October 30, 2008, 1:12 PM

Lacayo (which, btw, means lackey in Spanish) should stick to photojournalism, about which he's presumably better informed and with which he has greater affinity. TIME, of course, can't possibly be expected to provide better art writing than the New York Times, and we all know how good that is these days.

7.

Chris Rywalt

October 30, 2008, 1:49 PM

Now that I've read some Greenberg, I'm positively amazed at how few people seem to have actually read what he wrote. I just finished Homemade Esthetics a little while ago and was so struck by this passage I bookmarked it:

Let me say I would hail the return of great representational art because if I have a prejudice, it's for photographic realism in art, in painting as well as photography. If I had my way, the best painting of this time would be close-focus realism. It would fulfill the dreams of the pre-Raphaelites. But you don't have your own way in art, you can't choose what to like and, alas, the best painting of our time isn't like that. Alas, I say. I mean it.

Now, in "Art and Kitsch" Greenberg does discuss that all arts, in the Modernist age, with the advances in mass culture and communication, all arts sort of folded themselves back into their basics, into the aspects of their art that only they could do. So painting became as flat as possible because inasmuch as it's not flat, it's closer to sculpture. Meanwhile sculpture dropped color and natural forms because those bring it closer to painting and real life. And so on. So he had the idea that historical forces pushed the arts in this direction, which in painting was the direction of abstraction.

But at no point, I don't think, did he claim it had to be that way, only that it was. Why do people so often mistake description for prescription?

8.

Bunny Smedley

October 30, 2008, 1:52 PM

I'd be fascinated to know how much of Greenberg's writings Lacayo has read, and in what context — i.e. decontextualised paragraphs in textbooks, exhibition catalogues and so forth, versus actual whole essays?

One of the delights of reading Greenberg's actual prose lies in discovering how very different he is from the way he's usually portrayed - absolutely full of surprises, in everything from the breadth of his literary and art-historical references to the artists whose work he admires - as well as a much better writer than extracts from his writings tend to imply.

In other words, that 'fundamentalist' line would surely not be able to survive even ten minutes' exposure to 'The Collected Essays and Criticism' - which is why I feel pretty confident that Lacayo's 'knowledge' is in this regard at very best second-hand, with all the depth and subtlety and richness that usually implies.

9.

Jack

October 30, 2008, 2:09 PM

The fact Lacayo is an art writer for a major publication (which presumably has major resources with which to secure major, or at least more respectable talent) only makes things look worse. Again, TIME can't really be expected to do better than ostensibly more exalted entities, including the "major" art mags, but this is pretty flimsy stuff. Of course, the art world in general is pretty flimsy, so it fits. Robert Hughes is not Greenberg, but next to Lacayo, he looks positively Olympian.

10.

George

October 30, 2008, 2:19 PM

Hi folks just passing by.

I think the exhibition Richard Lacayo is reviewing was at the Jewish Museum earlier in the year. On my first visit I really didn't pay much attention to the Greenberg-Rosenberg dialogue because ,on entering the museum, the first room was one of the best experience I've ever had with a group of paintings in a single room. It's a very intimate space, more like a large living room than a "room in a museum". I spent most of four hours looking at the paintings and talking with other viewers.

I wrote a little on my blog - click url above for link

I had intended to write about the other paintings but I didn't get a chance to make a second visit and spend a bit more time with the other works.
The one impression I did have was that Mountains and Sea by Helen Frankenthaler, is vastly overrated at least in its current faded state which is all one can see. The same goes for Morris Louis, both paintings are very faded, dull and desaturated and not faithfully reproduced in the jpegs which overstate the color by 50%.

Gorky's painting "The Liver is the Cock's Comb" was a knockout, better than it looks in reproduction. There was a nice Hans Hoffman, but even with 75 square feet of saturated color it wasn't as luminous as "Convergence" by Pollock. I have a good/accurate jpeg of the Pollock in the blog post but even so, the brilliance of this painting doesn't come across in reproduction very well.

I not interested in an argument over Greenberg, people obviously have different misunderstandings over what he said, but to me it doesn't matter. What matters are the paintings, that's enough.

cheers.

11.

opie

October 30, 2008, 2:22 PM

This guy is just a pop hack working with the received ideas about Greenberg. I doubt he has read any, or, what's worse, didn't get it if he did.

This is why I don;t trust History, which seems to be about 10% fact and 90% what is easier to believe. Most people find any insistence on facts rather irritating. It messes with their beloved systems of denial.

12.

Chris Rywalt

October 30, 2008, 2:32 PM

That Jewish Museum show is over? Damn, I wanted to see it!

The Greenberg stuff I've been reading talks about the canvas-staining of Frankenthaler and Louis. The technique worries me. I'm concerned because canvas isn't exactly durable, and if you're staining it -- I mean, when the canvas starts to go on a full-coverage style painting, conservators carefully remove the canvas, leaving the paint film like a thick sheet of rubber, and then attach a new ground to back it up. If the canvas is stained, though, how can you do that? So what happens when it starts to fall apart -- more likely in the presence of the acids in the linseed oil?

From what you say, George, time has already taken its toll.

This is of more than academic interest to me, since on the last few paintings I've done, I wiped the paint off leaving a very thin layer on the panel. Now, for these works I'm using Gessobord, which is primed with some kind of acrylic surface. Presumably when the Masonite starts to go they could remove it and re-line the primer, leaving the surface intact. But what if the primer starts to go? I worry about this kind of thing.

I wouldn't wipe back and leave it if I didn't like how it looks. It's working for me right now. I could say, hey, let someone else worry about it -- except, if paintings are dying within my lifetime, like Frankenthaler's....

13.

opie

October 30, 2008, 2:53 PM

George may not realize that "Mountains and the Sea" was "faded" to begin with. Staining and pale colors tend to look that way.

14.

George

October 30, 2008, 3:02 PM

Chris,

I hadn't thought about all the reasons why but coming out of the shower it dawned on me.

First read Mayer Artists Handbook about pigment permanence and pay attention to the info on the tubes. Fugitive colors really do fade badly, others less so when used as a mass tone but fading when used as a tint.

Frankenthaler and Louis worked on unprimed canvas, that's a no-no. I've saw Louis's paintings 35 years ago and they look different today. The canvas turns yellowish/brown and that can't be reversed. It tints all the washy colors on top of it

Mediums. Oil turns brown with age and will stain the canvas, acrylic seems to stay clear maybe it gets a bit chalky but whatever it's less of a problem.

Dirt. Those washy paintings on raw canvas are never going to be like they were when they were first painted. The canvas will darken, the colors may fade, but worse the paintings get dirty and CANNOT be cleaned. You cannot reverse the yellowing of the canvas, it's hard to get the dirt out of raw canvas and in the process you are likely to remove pigment, thus reducing the intensity of the color.

Oil/acrylic washes on a decent ground are less likely to suffer these problems, they can be properly varnished (with a removable varnish) to protect them from dirt and if the pigments aren't fugitive they will fade less.

15.

George

October 30, 2008, 3:09 PM

opie, I don't think so. Maybe it was pale at the start but it looks nothing like
any of the available reproductions.

What I saw was a not so hot painting in a context where there were some hot paintings. It's not a criticism of Frankenthaler but of her working method, the painting might have been nice once, it isn't now.

The same for the Morris Louis who, as I noted, I have seen a number of examples of over the years, it was dull dull dull.

16.

Chris Rywalt

October 30, 2008, 3:35 PM

I use Gamblin paints pretty much exclusively so I don't worry too much about fugitive pigments. I used to worry more back when I used gouache, but I'm okay now. I do worry a little about interactions between pigments if I mix colors, but there's only so much worrying one can do.

You're right, I think, about the rest of your points. That's exactly what I was thinking while reading Greenberg wax rhapsodic over stain painting. It's like reading about surgical techniques during the Civil War, you want to shout, "Don't you know what you're doing?!"

17.

Jack

October 30, 2008, 5:36 PM

"Pop hack" pretty much covers it, OP. I wonder how long a similarly lightweight sports columnist would last in a major publication.

18.

MC

October 30, 2008, 6:05 PM

I wonder how long major publications will last, considering they're generally similarly lightweight...

19.

1

October 30, 2008, 6:31 PM

as i have written here before, my experience to the louis solo show here in atlanta last year was similar to how bunny felt about morandi. before i even finished the complete show, i felt a bit bored and letdown. it was funny because just a few months prior i was at the thyssen in madrid in a room that had a louis which held it's own against pollock, hofmann(one yes, one no), rothko, miro,klee, still and dekooning pics. a 1914 kadinsky was the only picture in the room that i felt definitely had it beat. still, in response to george, the pictures from that louis show and many others that i have seen, still seem very vibrant to me. sure some are more muted than others, but most seem to still maintain strong color.

20.

Franklin

October 30, 2008, 6:36 PM

Lacayo is not a hack. He's a perfectly able writer whose take I agree more than half the time, although this is not an instance thereof. He's certainly a lot stronger on architecture than I ever will be.

As for his name meaning "lackey," mine means "objection." We all have our crosses to bear.

21.

Franklin

October 30, 2008, 6:36 PM

agree with

22.

Jack

October 30, 2008, 9:25 PM

Franklin, being a technically able writer (or painter) is certainly preferable to being an inept one, but that's not what we're talking about here. I think you know what OP and I are referring to, and it's not this guy's syntax.

As for his architecture chops, so what? Does that mean I should have been overjoyed when MAM (Miami Art Museum) named architecture wonk Terence Riley as its new director? I beg to differ, and I do. I fully expect Lacayo's even stronger on photojournalism, certainly more than I am or ever care to be, but again, so what?

I certainly haven't been following Lacayo's work for TIME, but I know he's come up here before, a good while back, and while I forget the details, I remember the verdict was not a favorable one then, either.

23.

opie

October 30, 2008, 10:58 PM

It's not a matter of "disagreement", it is a matter of sloppy, inaccurate writing. Strongly expressed wrong opinions which could have been rectified by a little research is what hack writers do, in my experience. If you want to use another term that's fine with me.

24.

Chris Rywalt

October 31, 2008, 1:03 AM

My last name means...um...Rywalt. Maybe it translates from some obscure Polish dialect as "fat slob."

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