Florence Rubenfeld begins her biography of Clement Greenberg with the story of how she approached this formidable critic in his declining years, seeking his cooperation for a biography that would reveal not only his towering stature as an interpreter of modern art but his pugilistic personality.
Rubenfeld’s beginning achieves what is often lacking in modern biographies: a sense of both the biographer and the subject. Perhaps because Rubenfeld approached Greenberg in a genuine spirit of inquiry, he became less combative. After all, he was used to controversy and to attack, not to disinterested biographical narrative. Rubenfeld is sympathetic while never minimizing Greenberg’s aggressive, even authoritarian, methods.
Rubenfeld puts Greenberg’s life and work into a pleasing, compact form. She does not slight his sexual affairs, his harsh treatment of his only son, his cruel bating of younger critics, yet she also gives succinct explanations of Greenberg’s key essays and the controversies they engendered. She treats his physical and mental decline—days and days of drinking, beginning as early at 10:00a.m.—quickly, although she does not minimize the damage it did to himself and to others.
Rubenfeld’s biography is an important contribution to the history of American art and art criticism, and it is also a revealing look at the world of the New York intellectuals, especially of that group which clustered around the PARTISAN REVIEW. One of the last of that New York generation, Alfred Kazin, who died just before the biography was published, endorsed Rubenfeld’s approach, pointing out that she had captured both the competitiveness of the art world while also providing a profound portrait of Greenberg, who, in Kazin’s words, “really cared about art.” In achieving such a sensitive balance between the subject and his times, Rubenfeld has produced a model biography.
Sources for Further Study
Artforum. XXXVI, March, 1998, p. 13.
ARTnews. XCVII, May, 1998, p. 102.
Booklist. XCIV, March 15, 1998, p. 1194.
Commentary. CV, June, 1998, p. 57.
The Nation. CCLXVI, June 29, 1998, p. 33.
National Review. L, May 18, 1998, p. 56.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 29, 1998, p. 8.
The New Yorker. LXXIV, March 16, 1998, p. 70.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 2, 1998, 73.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1998, p. 22.