The Most Influential Theory of Modern Painting
How Clement Greenberg defined the work of Monet, Cezanne and other modern painters
It was the modern painters who first grabbed my attention when I began learning about the history of art. Paintings by Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne, and not long after, the abstract works of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.
I was fascinated by them, perhaps because I was also learning how to paint myself and I could see in these works of art something open and explicit about their technique. They didn’t have the illusionistic grandeur of an Old Master. They were made with loose, tangible brush marks, which meant you could see them as objects made by real people with whom you could feel a direct relationship.
Some years later, I came across the writings of Clement Greenberg — one of the most influential art critics of the twentieth century. His famous 1961 essay Modernist Painting, explores the nature of modern painting and distills its essence into a single theory.
To give a brief summary, Greenberg argued that the hallmark of modern painting was the recognition of its own inherent properties, those of flatness (being painted onto a canvas) and of being made up of actual pigments of coloured paint. In one sense, Greenberg saw these as limiting factors. But when artists explore them explicitly — as he thought modern painters did — then these physical and material limitations became positive factors in their own right.
What did Greenberg mean by this claim, that the key attribute of modern painting was in its willingness to examine its own limitations?
Using an example such as the painter Édouard Manet, Greenberg argued that he made his pictures with a “frankness” about the surfaces they were painted on. Manet refused to go to great lengths to represent physical reality precisely. He didn’t disguise the fact that he was painting a picture, with paints and brushes, on a flat surface. Instead, he happily drew the viewer’s attention to the visual experience of the work, the tactile quality of the brush marks, made with paint — as Greenberg put it — “that came from pots and tubes.”
According to Greenburg, the Impressionist painters that followed Manet adopted the same values. More broadly, they worked within what Greenberg described as the unique nature of the medium. So instead of attempting to blend their brush marks so as to be invisible to the viewer, they applied their paint in broad and unmixed strokes. And instead of attempting realistic illusion by painting in a strictly three-dimensional style, they were more interested in the tonal values of colour and the visual interest of irregular compositions. As Greenberg said, “the Impressionists set themselves to undermining shading and modeling and everything else in painting that seemed to connote the sculptural.”
Greenberg‘s argument is that Modernist art became self-conscious of its own limiting factors and became successful by explicitly drawing attention to those limits. “Modernism used art to call attention to art.”
It is important to note that Greenberg saw the work of modern painters not as a rejection of traditional art but as a continuation of the work of previous generations. He was concerned in showing the link between artists of his time and artists of the past, connected through a shared interest in formal design.
In this way, Greenberg’s analysis of modern painting uses the Old Masters as a backdrop. He suggests that traditional painting, whilst also aware of its limiting factors, went to great lengths to “resolve” those factors with techniques that made the work of art appear to share the same physical space with the viewer. Hence why Old Master painters worked so hard to soften their brushmarks and blend the colours in a way that removed all evidence of the painters’ hand — as best they could.
The hallmark of modern painting, in contrast, was to forgo this resolution and to embrace the very materials of their construction. In doing so, modern painters supplied evidence of self-awareness and the means of self-criticism. And it is in this willingness to self-examine that Greenberg saw the great strength and uniqueness of modern art as it moved through the 20th century. Painting becomes more independent as subject matter and narrative are eliminated and it progresses towards the purity of abstraction. As a champion of Abstract Expressionist painting, Greenberg was a strong advocate of artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, whom he saw as fulfilling the purpose of painting and its deepening emphasis on the inherent properties of the picture plane.
Greenberg’s theory is not without detractors. One of its shortcomings is its insistence that true art is concerned with the exploration of form, to the point where a painting’s subject matter becomes irrelevant. In Greenberg’s model, Modernist art sought to explore its own limits and in doing so it achieved a sort of autonomy, a “hermetic world” sealed off from society.
For those historians interested in the social history of art, Greenberg’s argument falls short on contextual analysis. His account failed to look at the economic or cultural setting of an art movement; nor did it make any acknowledgment of the social reality of individual artists in terms of gender, race or class. According to the renowned feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, Greenberg’s theory of modern painting was a gender-biased narrative designed to conceal a protectionist agenda of masculine dominance in art history.
Despite these criticisms, Greenberg’s theory has remained persuasive because it addresses the difficult question of style: why do modern paintings look so different to traditional paintings? Greenberg’s central claim, that the essence of Modernism is “the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself” is an idea worth spending time considering. For as a theory of painting, it offers a vivid and thought-provoking perspective on the development of modern art.
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