Clement Greenberg: A Life by Florence Rubenfeld, Scribners, $30.
This is a deeply depressing book. Misanthrope, drunk, drug addict, cultist, artist abuser and all-around shit, Clement Greenberg doesn't even come off as the worst person in his own biography!
As portrayed by Florence Rubenfeld in prose that never really comes alive, Dore Ashton is a ninny; Irving Sandler timorous; Hilton Kramer a coward; Ken Noland vain and needy; Jackson Pollock mentally retarded; Lee Krasner a greedhead for free art; Jules Olitski grandiosely self-obsessed; and Alfred Barr tasteless.
All of that would be forgivable, if their vaunted lives weren't so boring, at least in this telling. Booze, shrinks, dull wife-swapping between Plain Janes and their ugly men, and, above it all, master puppeteer Clem, as slackjawed, cold-blooded and self-loathing as the Grandest Guignol.
The book's best chapter, by far, is the first one, the great David Smith caper of 1974.
Nine years after Smith expired on the wrong end of a tire, legend-in-her-own-mind Rosalind Krauss and news-hound Betsy Baker, just beginning her Victorian reign at Art in America, conspired to expose Clem's stripping of Smith's monumental outdoor sculptures of paint (rather like Napoleon stripping one's epaulets!).
Of course, Baker and Krauss conveniently elided the key fact that the paint was only primer.
Always transparent in his own self-regard, Greenberg admitted to the author that this and other Oedipal acts he committed on not so innocent artists were really attacks on the aging, immigrant businessman Pere Greenberg, who lived eight blocks away from Clem for most of his life with little intimate contact. Clem was unjustifiably ashamed of him.
Belying his personal sensuality, Greenberg's criticism grew out of a Puritan strain of '30s Communism. His condemnation of "kitsch" was the typical denial of pleasure characteristic of a '30s left winger, and his adoration of work for its own sake, obsessing on the picture plane, the application of paint, the gesture, etc., also grew out of Communism's worship of the work ethic.
According to Rubenfeld, Greenberg discovered Pollock, Still, Rothko, Newman, all the greats, before he even set foot in Washington, D.C., Color Field land. But as Irving Sandler told this reporter, it was Harold Rosenberg who was the star in the '50s, not Greenberg.
Greenberg was a firm believer in Duchamp's maxim "Le peintre est bête." Only Clem would journey to the D.C. barn for dumb animals like Morris Louis and Noland, tramping through the studios where the grapes of wrath are stored, turning out Color Field art like wine.
Think of all the idiotic swerves in Noland's dumbed-down career, the chevrons, the stripes, the groops, the globs. They're all just portraits of Clammy Clem!
Personally I enjoyed partying with the old boy in 1992, at a Washington Square bash arranged by a female chum.
The ratio was Clem, seven chicks and your scribe. At age 82, Clem easily smoked a carton of Camels, sending me into the street to buy more, and sucked up a whole fifth of Jim Beam.
His hands worked tirelessly to tactilely assess a 25-year-old redhead's curves. What about her "career"?
At 3 a.m., when I meekly put out my hand to get Clem a taxi, he thrashed me with his cane --
"I can get my own cab!"
Yet Clem apparently couldn't control his own life and, in Rubenfeld's most sensational revelation, turned over its management to a cult formed around the behavioral ideas of Harry Stack Sullivan.
Rubenfeld doesn't discuss Sullivan himself, a pederast who focused his research on teenage boys, whom he desired to cut off from nuclear family ties. Unlike Freud, who regarded a son and his mother as the perfect relationship, Sullivan saw nirvana in two teen boys in what he called a "fugue state." In its infinite wisdom, the U.S. government put Sullivan in charge of all psychological testing of U.S. military draftees during World War II!
Rubenfeld picks up the story in the '50s, when the Sullivanians lived commune-style on the Upper West Side, around the corner from Clem's Central Park West digs. As in most cults, women cooked, cleaned and were expected to swap 'n' fuck on demand, one of its main appeals to Greenberg, who managed to suck one Bennington coed after another into the Sullivanian clutches.
Rubenfeld convincingly argues that the entire Bennington art faculty became Sullivanians at Clem's command!
By all means read this book to disabuse yourself of "the good old days of the New York art world." Things are a zillion times more pluralistic today, on the surface.
Yet, paradoxically, the twin obsessions of Gen X and Gen Y artists are, at their core, totally Greenbergian!
The fixation on childhood dysfunction that occupies so much art today is so Sullivanian that it's creepy.
And the neurosis of labor-intensive process art (Charles Ledray, Tom Friedman, Ann Hamilton, et al.) owes so much to Greenberg's sadistic dictations about flatness, objecthood, nongestural strokes and the other of creation.
The Clem Colossus even lives on biologically. Greenberg's only daughter, Sarah Greenberg Morse, writes in a letter published in last week's New Yorker that she named her daughter "Clementine," after her old man.
Sarah should have called her "Helena" after Helen Frankenthaler, the only person ever to bring Greenberg to his knees. He kept wanting Franky's yoni, but she spurned his desperate marriage proposals, dumped him and is still building a lucrative career on one allegedly good painting, reified by Greenberg.
Clement Greenberg: A Life doesn't pack a lot of pop, but it's the only place you'll find a lot of this poop. Besides, the photo of young Rosalind Krauss nuzzling her typewriter is worth the price alone!
CHARLIE FINCH is the New York editor of Coagula Art Journal and has coauthored the forthcoming Most Art Sucks from Smart Art Press.