“The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic
methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order
to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of
The words are Clement Greenberg’s, and a half-century later, it
curious that the most eloquent champion of Jackson Pollock—the
of the leap-into-the-void, paint-slinging artist—wrote in such
clipped, school-marmish prose. Greenberg, however, was probably the
twentieth century’s most influential art critic, and certainly
the most formidable
advocate of a certain kind of formalist theory, as forceful and creative
in his verbal medium as the Abstract Expressionist painters were in theirs.
Who else could make a notion like “firm entrenchment in competence”
sound exalted? Since the peak of his influence in the ’50s and ’60s,
for formalist artists has been: what comes after Greenberg?
Greenberg’s view of Modernism as a self-criticizing discipline
actually rooted in Kant’s theories of aesthetics and the perception
starting with Manet and Courbet in the mid-nineteeth century, artists
increasingly acknowledged painting’s essential, two-dimensional
Cubism, in its tinkering with the picture plane, held a special place
Greenberg’s heart, and for him it was not only the last great European
movement but also the launching point for the new American painting that
came of age in the ’40s.
Besides the brilliance of his argument, Greenberg’s point of view
another formidable aspect: its moral stance. We were to understand that
there was, inherently, a logical progression to art, that artists were
judged in its light, and that this evolution was to be towards an ever
embrace of art’s unique and elemental properties.
Pop Art and succeeding postmodernist movements resoundingly rejected
this argument, but such was his authority that formalist artists of the ’60s
aligned themselves either with or against his viewpoint. Jules Olitski,
Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis won his seal of approval; he never
warmed to the way that Frank Stella and Donald Judd tried to add their
own links to his chain of thought.
Viewed as a whole, Greenberg’s writings are nevertheless full of
observations and roving interests—and more than a few contradictions.
1940, he sees form and expression as separate attributes—“I
am still able
to enjoy a Rembrandt more for its expressive qualities than for its achievement
of abstract values—as rich as he may be in them.”2—but
they are one and the same: “Where art is sure of itself, formal discipline
and expression operate as one—as much in Rembrandt as in Mondrian.”3
Which Greenberg should a formalist artist take as a model?
Greenberg’s arguments indeed have limitations as roadmaps for making
art, and even for its appreciation. He loved logic—and the possession
it—no less than art itself, and sometimes he seems to deduce rather
perceive. Occasionally even the logic wobbles. In 1962, he asserts that
forms and thinly painted, non-tactile surfaces are the most conducive
to what he calls “color-space,” and continues: “[Color]
speaks for itself by
dissolving all definiteness of shape and distance. To this end—as
the first to show—it has to be a warm color, or cool color suffused
warmth.”4 Bad news for thick-painting de Kooning, and countless
accomplished colorists who used a cool hue or two.)
And in 1960 there’s: “The limitations that constitute the medium
painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties
pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that
acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly.”5 And here we’re
finally throw down our Collected Greenberg and say “Oh, really,” because,
judging from Rembrandt’s drawings and paintings, this artist positively
thrived on such “limitations.” Everything memorable in Rembrandt’s
work—everything that makes him that one painter in ten million—
depends upon his exploitations of those most fundamental elements of
painting: those flat bits of line and color, and, yes, their rectangular
Like other great masters, he was a formalist—though the conventions
his time (and ours) may make this difficult for modern viewers to perceive.
Upon closer examination, however, Rembrandt tells us more about the
actual working of lines and colors than Greenberg.
During the course of long walks around Amsterdam, Rembrandt produced
hundreds of drawings that capture the landscape with remarkable
intensity. Often they do this with startling economy as well. If the seven
wide View over the IJ with ‘Het Baluwhoofd’ (c. 1645-49) feels
larger than its actual dimensions, it’s because simple locations
and directional impulses of lines work complexly to elasticize our experience
space. Layered horizontals will always lead the eye, step by step, into
distance, but here Rembrandt’s pacing of their intervals gives a
land rolling rapidly to the horizon, where they become the launching
point for the sky swelling slowly and luminously through the sheet’s
upper two-thirds. In the mid-distance, boats huddle, releasing delicate
rays of masts abruptly into this charged air. Observed in isolation, the
ground plane’s horizontals hover crazily forward and back of the “picture
plane;” there’s nothing logical about their function, only
coherence in their interactions. Mere implications of contours turn areas
of blank paper at the bottom to solid ground, and others at the top to
Approaching art as a mobile experience of static elements, Rembrandt
works in tensions, not signs, to produce an image far more persuasive than
a passive, point-by-point recording. In short, he draws rather than illustrates.
The easiest way to measure his achievement is to compare it with a
lesser work: leaf through a book of Dutch drawings and compare to the
skillful but less eloquent efforts of, say, his contemporary Philips Koninck.
The term “Formalism” today usually applies to modern, geometric
abstractions, and suggests an aura of austere and cerebral purpose. But
some modern abstractionists capture much of Rembrandt’s vitality,
demonstrating the permeability of the divide between abstraction and
representation, and showing as well that a lively temperament can reside
within an ascetic style. Mondrian brought to his geometric paintings the
same sense of wonder and mysticism that’s apparent in the early landscapes
marking his long, incremental journey to abstraction. His Composition with
Red, Blue, Black, Yellow, and Gray (1921), in MoMA’s collection,
is an arena
of minutely adjusted intervals. It shows, as directly as possible, the
retiring, interruptive, elusive, arresting—multiply every impulse
drawing, deflecting or accelerating their rhythms. At the right, two compact
events—a weighty, radiant orange-red pressed to the very top, and
small bright yellow rectangle shouldering an impenetrable black at the
bottom—stretch and contain an airy column of gray. The left side
reverses this, with a blue holding the middle portion. The grays
in-between, quietly humming in varied pressures, are more than mere
background; like every other element, they hold particular colors and
intervals. While it is the most retiring of the colors, the blue is also
darkest and covers the most ground, and it deftly counterweights the farflung
brighter hues. Colors condition the relationships of lines, and vice
versa, in a climactic rhythm of tensions.
A Rembrandt painting presents the incomprehensible: a vastly greater
number of elements of line and color, and their countless interdependencies.
But even though we can’t count them, we still sense their workings—
in fact, we do so all the time in museums, when we register the remarkable
columnar presence of a figure, the conviction of an extended arm, or the
intensity of the figure’s gaze, and know that these were all communicated
by Rembrandt with singular vitality. We find, too, a quality that Mondrian
only partly exploits: startling shifts of internal scale, in which broad
prepare for moments of minute focus.
1. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in
Clement Greenberg: The Collected
Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969,
ed. John O’Brian
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 85.
2. Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” in vol. 1,
Perceptions and Judgments,
1939 -1944, p. 37.
3. Greenberg, “Picasso at Seventy-Five,” in vol. 4, Modernism
with a Vengeance, 1957-
1969, p. 32.
4. Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” p. 130-131.
5. Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” p. 86.
JOHN GOODRICH is a painter who exhibits at Bowery Gallery in New York
City. He has also written regularly on art for Review
Magazine and The
York Sun. In the mid-1970s he attempted to copy several Rembrandt paintings
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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