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Clement Greenberg and Modernist Painting

Updated on July 23, 2011

This is a response to an article by the art critic Clement Greenberg

In an article titled “Modernist Painting,” renowned art critic Clement Greenberg strives to describe how the Modernist trend applies to the discipline of painting. Citing the work of key artists and comparing them to parallel facets of Modernism in Art and Philosophy, Greenberg clearly explains why the flattening of painting was essential to the survival of painting. According to Greenberg, the essence of Modernism as applied to painting is the acceptance and utilization of painting’s most basic foundations: the flat plane of the canvas and the transparency of medium and technique. Greenberg makes a one-sided argument, comparing the trends of Modernist painting to self-critical movements in other disciplines, and relying on historically significant movements to support Modernist thoughts, with no alternate interpretation presented.

Greenberg relates painting mainly with the arts of sculpture and philosophy to explain why Modernist painting was necessary. In order to understand the formation of Modernist Painting, it is important to understand the context leading up to and surrounding the movement. Painting was not the only medium that was transforming itself by way of self-criticism, in fact, “the essence of Modernism lies…in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself." Therefore it is not surprising that other forms of arts and sciences would be using similar methods to reinvent themselves. Greenberg acknowledges that painting is not the only great Modernist invention; indeed without the preliminary ideals explored by Kant in the realm of Philosophy the self-critical tendencies of Modernism might not be so well defined. Discussing how the Modernist self examination lead to the assimilation of religion to the domain of therapy, Greenberg points out how easily art and painting could have simply been reclassified as entertainment, had not each zone of art specified itself to its most vital characteristics, proving that it was “valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind activity.”

Greenberg seems to deliberately argue only one decisive point of view on the subject of painting; mainly that painting had to specialize and separate itself from other art forms and return to its roots. Greenberg leaves no room in his article for other reasons or methods for the evolution of painting. According to Greenberg, “realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art." The goal of the Old Masters of painting was to create the illusion of space, trying to hide the flat nature of painting. The Old Masters also viewed revealing the techniques of painting as negative and distracting. Greenberg argues that Modernism does not represent a complete break with the past but rather Modernism more entirely embraces the limitations of its art and reveals more truthfully the bare nature of it. Thus Greenberg relies on historical master of art to prove his argument, giving it a more authoritative context.

Outside of reverting to its completely naked nature, in order to be truly Modernist, painting also needed to show a clear separation from other spheres of art. Greenberg argues that this does not necessarily mean that all paintings must be abstract to the point of the loss of all identity of any known forms. Greenberg cites the Cubist movement as an extreme form of thought. Rather, the object was to reach a purer stage painting had to sever its relationship to sculpture and literature. Relating back to these other art forms Greenberg is again trying to prove why Modernist Painting came to be the way it is. Sculpture had taught painting how to create the illusion of dimensionality within a confined space, and literature had given painting the task of narrative. In the eyes of Greenberg, Modernist Painting doesn’t need to be abstract so long as it freed itself from both the presence of sculpture and the use of narrative. Painting was to instead treasure the values that were purely painting’s alone, which was that of the optical journey. Where the old style of painting had invited the mind to believe in a space beyond the flat surface Modernist Painting was to focus on creating interesting forms that could lead and delight the eye with no pretext to offer depth beyond the surface of the painting.

Greenberg’s argument concludes, “art is, among many other things, continuity." Modernist Painting then is intrinsically painting that does not deny its history but rather moves constantly forward beyond its past. It strives in fact to not deny anything of itself, but rather showcase everything at once about the art of painting. Modernist Painting reveals the inherent flatness of painting as well as the process in which it was created and struggles to separate itself from the conventional use of sculpture and narrative within it. In this way Modernist Painting has reduced the art of painting to its most essential and pure forms. Greenberg established this conclusion based on the historical and contemporary contextual trends in art, science and philosophy; which to Greenberg proves why Modernist Painting came to be the way it is.


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    • profile image

      Moo 5 years ago

      How much are his paintings worth?

    • Plaid Red profile image

      Plaid Red 6 years ago from Fargo ND

      Yeah, I'm not a huge fan of Modernist Painting, but reading some of Greenberg's essays really helped me at least understand it. He was an incredible art critic, I recommend reading any of his stuff.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I've never been a big fan of Modernist Painting. But then everyone has their favourite eras. I haven't read the original Greenberg article. I will have to look for it.