ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      How much are his paintings worth?

    • Plaid Red profile imageAUTHOR

      Plaid Red 

      7 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


      7 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.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)