Florence Rubenfeld begins her impressive 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 certainly reveal not only his towering stature as an interpreter of modern art but his pugilistic personality that frightened and angered the New York intellectual and artistic community. When Rubenfeld met Greenberg, he had behind him five decades of participation in the heady, competitive atmosphere of Manhattan. He had made a name for himself in 1939, writing about “Avant-garde and Kitsch” in an essay that explored how high art became vulgarized in modern mass society.
Steeped in the writings of great modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Greenberg sought to keep the tradition of high or elite art sacrosanct—in other words, completely separate from developments in popular culture, which tended to debase the complexity and profundity of great or classical art. Greenberg knew that no such rigid distinctions could be enforced; rather, he argued for a constant vigilance among those concerned with upholding the standards of high art and for a school of criticism that sought in America (not in Paris, then the art capital of the world) new forms of art that continued the great Western tradition. In subsequent essays and appearances on public panels, in sessions with collectors and gallery owners, Greenberg campaigned for his notions of high art. While many embraced his standards and his tastes, others grew to dislike what they deemed his ruthless methods of promoting the art he liked.
Rubenfeld knew that she was approaching a critic who would be wary of a biographer. Indeed, Greenberg at first declined to cooperate with Rubenfeld. Yet when his friends asked him if they should talk to Rubenfeld, Greenberg did not try to dissuade them. Rather, he refrained from expressing enthusiasm for Rubenfeld’s project. As she gathered material, the persistent biographer sought Greenberg out again. Gradually, he began commenting on her information—sometimes rebutting what her sources said, sometimes amplifying positions he felt she did not grasp completely. Although Greenberg was not an easy man to deal with, it is a tribute to both him and his biographer that they were able to carry on a sustained—if sometimes tense—dialogue. A courageous man, Greenberg evidently was not afraid of having his less flattering sides exposed. He feared misrepresentation of his person and his views, but he did not try to thwart Rubenfeld or cut off her sources of information.
Thus, Rubenfeld’s beginning achieves what is so often missing from 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. The tone of Rubenfeld’s biography is sympathetic, but it never minimizes Greenberg’s aggressive, even authoritarian, methods.
How did Clement Greenberg achieve his legendary status as the arbiter of art in postwar America? He combined an unusual number of talents. The son of Jewish immigrants, he learned early on to defend himself with his fists. Just under six feet tall, he was not a physically impressive man, but he was quick to strike out at an opponent. He got into several brawls with critics and artists. Indeed, his physical assaults on his opponents became part of his swaggering persona—as were his affairs with women such as Helen Frankenthaler, who became one of the greatest of the abstract expressionist painters.
Greenberg was not just tough and intimidating. He was tenacious. When he broke through to fame in New York’s intellectual circles with “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” he had already spent a good decade immersing himself in the artistic and intellectual currents of his time. He had graduated from Syracuse University and gravitated to the center of intellectual debate at the renowned Partisan Review. There he befriended editor William Phillips, who gave Greenberg the opportunity to hone his erudite and precise style. Unlike many New York intellectuals, Greenberg could combine his interest in literature and art and write about both...
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