RUSSELL BINGHAM PHOTOGRAPHY
THE GREENBERG INTERVIEW
First printed in THE EDMONTON CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS' SOCIETY NEWSLETTER Vol 3, Issue 2 & Vol 4 Issue 1, the interview with Clement Greenberg was recorded over a two-day period during the critic's last visit to Edmonton in 1991. In the first section, Greenberg talks with Russell Bingham, Graham Peacock, and Michel Smith in an informal evening discussion in his room at The Four Seasons Hotel. The conversation continued later alone with Russell Bingham while chatting in the car during a tour of artists' studios in Edmonton.
An interview with artists rather than art-journalists or critics, it starts with a bang with a characteristic disagreement about a revered old master...
CLEMENT GREENBERG The trouble with Michelangelo's sculpture is that it's too slick. He was damned good, but he was too arty. He introduced artiness, and I could have said – that that wouldn't have been talking precisely about Michelangelo – that European sculpture began to slope downhill after Donatello (who was a better sculptor than Michelangelo). After Michelangelo there was Giambologna, who was ok, and the famous sculptors who came after: Canova, Thorvaldsen in the early l9th century...
RUSSELL BINGHAM. Rodin?
CG. Rodin began it all over again – somewhat. Rodin, Maillol, Despiau. Kolbe in Germany. And then of course there was the great rebirth of sculpture with Picasso's 1913 construction "The Guitar" in the Museum of Modern Art that started sculpture on a new trajectory. OK, let's look at famous Michelangelo. The best Michelangelo I've seen are the unfinished “slaves” in the Bargello. They're the best. In order to be good as a sculptor, Michelangelo had to leave things unfinished. And they're still not as good as Donatello. (Note: Greenberg situated the “slaves” in the Bargello. Michelangelo’s “slaves” are actually in the Accademia.)
RB I'm curious. Around the time of Michelangelo, painting didn't drop off?
CG Oh no! It got better. Well, I won't say it got better. It kept going; it wasn't a question of getting better. There's no progress in the arts, except within a tradition. Within a tradition there's a certain kind of progress, although I'm not sure that it's progress. We see Giotto as the beginning of the Renaissance naturalist tradition; I happen to think Titian and Raphael are better painters than Giotto, but I'm not so ready to say there was progress. That's tricky… A tradition does get itself fulfilled, or whatever. Whether or not it gets better… It evolves, which doesn't necessarily mean progress. The Modernist tradition in painting started with Manet.
RB Can you define what you mean by Modernism...
CG You point to it. You don't define it. A lot of people have done that, anyhow, and I don't want to rehearse my own words. A piece I wrote, “Modernist Painting”: "Self-criticism through the means of art itself". God, it”s fancy, but I'll stick by it.
Manet, I think, was the beginning of modernism in painting, as I think Flaubert and Baudelaire were in literature. To say there's been progress since then? No, there's been evolution since then, but not progress.
RB Is the issue really less about making progress and more about putting pressure on art to maintain standards?
CG Right! Well put: to maintain a level. Baudelaire, Flaubert and Manet felt that literature and painting were falling off. That there was a threat of decadence – they used the word “decadence” – and the avant-garde became a rescue operation; the notion of modernism, innovation for innovation's sake and all that. But the great innovators in literature and the visual arts at that time were reluctant ones. Their hands were forced. They wanted to create art or literature that would come up to the level of the great masters of the past. And they found they couldn't get to that level without innovating.
MITCHEL SMITH And they were keen to continue a tradition, as you were saying before.
CG Not keen. They had no choice. They looked back at the old masters and they thought “Look how inferior the salon art is in comparison.” They saw that they had to meet the level of the old masters. But they couldn't imitate them. So if you couldn't imitate them you were forced to innovate.
And Mallarmé was a reluctant innovator. Monet certainly was, and Cézanne. Cézanne didn't put it into words, but it's implicit in the reverent way he spoke of the old masters. Manet said he was fed up with the 'soups and gravies' of the salon painters, meaning the shading, the grays and browns and the neutral colors which academic painting did abound in. He thought it shut out color. He saw a small picture in the Louvre that was attributed to Velásquez – it turned out to be by his son-in-law Mazo – and that's when he made this remark: “No more soups and gravies.” And then he went to Spain to see more Velasquez and he caught on to Goya... That, as I said, was the beginning of modernism in painting.
It worked differently with Flaubert and Baudelaire. It's harder to put your finger on just what occurred, but they were dissatisfied with the literature around them in their time. This was all in the 1850's, 1860's. And in France, nowhere else. Although you could say the Pre-Raphaelites decided to go back before Raphael because they wanted color too, but somehow they didn't have the boldness of the French. And color does come out in Pre-Raphaelite painting, but they kept on shading and modeling as before. They stayed more academic.
GRAHAM PEACOCK More linear in their draughtsmanship.
CG And more conventional, though I think that some of the Pre-Raphaelites were good. Cézanne was going to get the effect of volume without having to shade with neutral tones. He was going to do it with the Impressionist method, with color, so he innovated perforce, trying to get the effect of volume with color--all those facets. Late Cézanne was probably the best Cézanne. He was already quasi-Cubist and all he meant to do was to get the effect of volume, the illusion of the third dimension by using color
RB This brings up the idea of innovation. We tend to look at the history of art in terms of the innovations. Is that maybe a modern notion? I'm wondering if innovation was so important during the Renaissance and before that.
CG I don't know enough to say, but reading Vasari, he doesn't talk about anything but... He talks about increasing verisimilitude, progress in verisimilitude, for example. In spite of himself, though, he often praised artists that weren't always the more realistic ones.
RB So in a way he was finding an explanation, but it didn't necessarily…
CG Apply. He had too good an eye to just accept the fact that these were more lifelike.
RB Now to get back to this idea of modernism, are you saying that it really does not have as much to do with the way of structuring the picture or setting up the space in the picture?
CG What did happen was that Manet started flattening the picture. Fromentin said he was painting playing cards. And Cézanne said about Gauguin and Van Gogh that they painted Chinese pictures because they didn't deal enough with the illusion of the third dimension, that they were too flat. Cézanne, who wanted to get that third dimension, turned out in his last paintings to get terribly flat. And then the Cubists came along, and then the Fauves. The Fauves... ah, that's a special chapter. And it happened... well, it's this way: you painted to make as good a picture as you could – no program – you might have a program for making good pictures but no program beyond that. You wanted to paint as good a picture as you could, as all painters try, and you found that it wasn't good enough if you continued to shade and model. That's what happened. I mentioned before: Pollock wanted to model and shade and he found out he couldn't; it didn't come out good; he had to go flat relatively. Nobody wants to paint flat pictures, it's tougher to make them good...
RB Where did “literalness” fit into all this?
CG What “literalness” do you mean?
RB Well, having the picture look more like what it physically was, not what it was about.
CG Nineteenth century. In about the mid-nineteenth century. In the pursuit of literalness, I think... Courbet and after that, Fantin-Latour's wonderful flower pieces. But then the Impressionists wanted to do light the way it actually was, to be true to light for the first time. And they got flat, too.
RB So almost in spite of themselves they became less illusionistic.
CG Yes. Their hands were forced by their desire for quality.
RB But why did quality push them in this direction and not in another direction, in the direction of deep space and illusion?
CG Why did Giotto break with the kind of Byzantine painting that was there in Italy in his time. I think because the pictures didn't look good enough unless he modeled them full of sculptural relief.
GP How were the Fauves a separate case?
CG They took off from Gauguin and Van Gogh, going flat with high color. Matisse didn't admire Gauguin, by the way. He shocked the Germans when he said Gauguin was overrated. The Fauve way of – alla prima, no underpainting, no glazing, and so forth – became the lingua franca by 1910. In South America when I was there in '64, the best painting I saw was not the hot shot modernist stuff but landscape and figures done in the essence of the Fauve manner. Like all alla prima painting, it was Fauve. And the same thing in Japan. Their efforts to do Western painting weren't so hot except when they went Fauve. I should have written about that. And when painters around here and elsewhere do landscape they paint in essence the Fauve way. I haven't reflected on that I'd have to reflect in order to write about it. There was this Fauve landscape show at the Metropolitan and I thought this is my chance to really deal with the Fauves. But no, I'm too lazy.
RB John Elderfield wrote a book about the Fauves in which he discussed the symbolist content of the paintings or the sort of pagan aspects, which makes me think about how preoccupied in this century a lot of the early abstract painters were with Surrealism.
CG That's a different chapter- Surrealism. The abstract painters took their Surrealism from Miro and Masson... and that seemed a liberty for them. And then they didn't paint like Surrealists. But, oh, automatic writing, oh sure. You start off free with a scribble and a few marks... you got started from that. And that was a Surrealist method.
RB So it was just a way to get going?
RB Karen Wilkin did a show called “The Collective Unconscious” that included people like Gottlieb with the "pictographs" and things like that... But that made me think that the impulse to go that way was really just a way to find for artists to…
MS and images that weren't tied to conventional representation. That still had some connection to it because they hadn't found a way to be completely abstract.
CG That's partly true. They wanted to invent and so they would sit down, as Gorky did, and do Picasso. That's putting them down, because when Gorky did Picasso it turns out he did some damn good stuff. Automatic writing, automatic painting became almost a matter of course in New York on 8th Street at the end of the '30s. It was a way of working up invention, as it were, without worrying about figuration, representation, or symbols. The Surrealists were a great encouragement in that respect.
RB So it was a case of minor art inspiring...
CG Well Miro wasn't a minor artist and Masson wasn't a great artist but he wasn't a minor one.
RB To get back to narrative...
CG Courbet alludes to narrative and so forth, and certainly Delacroix, but for an ambitious painter by the 1860's... who cared about telling a story in visual art?
RB I sometimes wonder whether the fact that photography came along at that time somehow took the burden off of painting to tell a story because photography could do it so much better.
CG I think that's exaggerated, too. I think that if you did a still life or a figure, or a landscape, whatever, what did you need to dress it up with narrative for? That's where the question of painting well lay. And even Courbet... all right, 'The Burial' or his “Painter’s Studio” which is a great painting... You painted what you saw before you and that was it. You were sophisticated. Fantin-Latour was and Courbet. And Manet was, too. He didn't want to tell stories. Maybe he did in his prints, and it's true Cézanne wanted to tell stories in his youth, but nobody could recognize them as stories. I can put myself in the place, presumptuously, of an ambitious painter in the 1850's who could look at salon art with all its narrative as sort of hoked up and not really about painting. And the salon painting, and all its narrative, was unsatisfactory. As it was for Manet for formal reasons – too much neutral shading that swathed and muffled color.
The artists I've known – I use the word “positivist” – they've wanted something that would hit your eye, the way Titian hit your eye. Or Velasquez. Or Goya, or Ingres, or Delacroix. They wanted to hit your eye whether they were painting narrative or not. And when I say hit your eye, I don't mean that they had spectacular innovation or anything. It's the same thing the gentlemen here mean when they like something in painting, You like it, that's all, whether it's a landscape or abstract. You like it. It hits you. You don't have to read it. The work of art – sculpture or painting – forces your eye..
When you're young and you maybe can't see art, you're interested in the story. Sometimes, though, there are great story-tellers, like Bruegel in “The Procession to Calvary.” The way Bruegel paints the two thieves in their separate carts. He's such a great illustrator and illustration can be great. And you see the monks anachronistically preparing the thieves for death, and you see on their faces they want to believe and they can't quite. God, does Bruegel do it well. Or there's the picture in the National Gallery in London of The Death of St. Peter Martyr. It has a lot of green on one side and then the martyrdom on the left hand side of the picture : it's great illustration, and a great picture at the same time. That's Bruegel*. But you'll see pictures, especially in the 19th century where good narrative is done by painters that are not that good. (Note: Terry Fenton points out that “That's not Breugel, it's Bellini or ‘attributed to,’ but Greenberg's argument still hold's. His memory of the name failed. As he admitted, attribution wasn't his long suit.”)
RB Are there any good narrative painters now?
CG I don't know of them, but I won't exclude the possibility. Can you think of any?
RB No I can't, but I sometimes think that the best photography has narrative.
CG Oh, I've written that already! I've got to write it again, got to do it better I said that photography depends on its content, as it were. No, content is the wrong word. It's got to, not tell a story, but not compete with painting. Or else if the photographer wants to compete with painting he's got to be a good painter.
RB Who would be an example of that?
CG Man Ray was a pretty good painter. His photography is too modernistic, though. It's not good enough photography.
RB Ben Shahn was a better photographer than a painter.
CG No! Well, yeah, he was a good photographer and he could be a good painter. Now – after the 60's – I think better of his painting. I used to think he was too minor. That's part of the fun of watching art: you change your mind.
RB Do you think photography is art.
CG Of course it is! You're making me rehearse things I've already written. Anything can be experienced aesthetically and the line between art and non-art is so indefinite
RB Major art, would you say ? Have you seen any photography that is major art?
CG I've never been asked that question before. I don't know. The photographer I admired most in my own time was Walker Evans because in a manner of speaking he told a story. The other was Atget, in the early part of this century, who everybody admires, and they're right to. His pictures don't exactly tell a story, but what I've noticed about good photography is that a good photograph always has some evidence of humanity in it. So you can get a good photograph of a road because humans have built the road. And here's where the subject matter determines everything and not formal qualities.
RB I'm trying to think of some examples of photography that don't have humanity in them...
MS Well what about those Edward Westons like the “Green Pepper”...
CG He's too arty. I don't like his stuff.
RB Did you say before that you're not writing any more?
CG For the time being. When you say “any more” it's too final. I stopped writing about ten years ago or more, and I love not writing
RB But you still like going to studios?
CG And looking at art, yes.
MS What do you think about the contemporary scene?
CG More good sculpture and painting are being made right now than in my time back in the '30s and '40s and '5Os.
GP Doesn't that make you feel a need to write about that or participate in that, because you're seeing it?
CG All I can say – and this is not because I'm talking to you here – I say when I'm talking in public that the best painting and sculpture now are being done in western Canada. And in Syracuse – and there's no sculpture in Syracuse, just painting – and of course the audience say 'What do you mean, western Canada? Who's ever heard of it?' They don't even know where Edmonton or Saskatoon are. I have fun saying that because it's the truth. I'm not being provocative.
MS And if there's more good painters and sculptors working today than there was in your time it indicates that this is a very healthy situation.
CG I think so. And then I...
RB Why doesn't it look that way, though, you know when you look at the art magazines and you look at who sells art and who...
CG And then I come out with my standard lecture. You forget that that's the way the best new art has fared since Manet's time. The best new art is rejected. Manet, the Impressionists, they had to wait ten, fifteen years before being accepted. And that pattern has been repeated ever since. The fact is the best new art gets rejected now as it did in the 1860's and ever since, and it waits its time out and after a dozen years or twenty it goes over. There are exceptions. Picasso was an early success, I read. For some reasons in those marvelous years before1914 things happened. But Picasso didn't get well off until just before 1914. And there was Matisse whose wife had to keep a millinery shop to keep him going until just before 1914. And then in my time, there were Pollock and David Smith, the best artists of their generation, who were hard up for money for oh, so long. Pollock until just a year or two before his death, and Smith up 'til his death, hard up for money. That was standard and it was taken for granted; the artists complained about it. The first Abstract Expressionist to get into a Whitney was in '49. And it was only in the early 50's that the others began going in and by that time the afflatus was out of Abstract Expressionism. And all these guys were in their 40's by then.
RB Before, when you explained this phenomenon, you said it had something to do with middlebrow taste... Do you still feel that way?
CG I didn't feel it had to. I said that's what seemed to have happened.
RB Because the audience for art is larger now than it's ever been.
CG That's true. But not for the best new art.
RB So then, how do you feel about your role, then? Do you feel that you and people like you who go to studios and give artists feed-back, do you feel that you play an important role to help to maintain standards?
CG No. No I certainly don't. I've had no effect at all. Despite the myth...
MS Do you think it's important for artists to get critical support ?
RB Yes, or criticism or critical feedback.
CG Whether you're a writer or a composer you need critical feedback.
MS And if you're not getting economic support, as we've talked about, maybe this critical support is more important?
CG No. No. First money. Artists are as human as anyone else. You have to eat.
RB So you don't see what you do as being something essential?
CG Essential? No. I think writing about art livens things up. Zola said if you keep repeating an artist's name long enough, as I did Pollock's – now I don't claim credit for Pollock's success – but if you keep insisting, as Zola said, those who insist win out in the end. I kept repeating Pollock's name and it had some effect in the end, I'm told. But the artist has to live long enough, and Pollock didn't live long enough.
RB So the act of art criticism is more of an intellectual activity?
CG No, don't put it that way. No – intellectual nothing
RB ... or an aesthetic...
CG No! Oh, it's keeping the activity going. Not keeping the art going, but directing attention. Look, I could say “Olitski's the best living painter” over and over, and people will say “Isn't it sad. He once liked Pollock. Isn't it sad. And now it's Olitski.” (laughter) And all the same, Olitski's prices are going up. So. I get more opposition when I talk and I get asked from the audience "who do you think”s good” and I say “l'll just give you one name. Olitski.” And I get more opposition... People get up with confidence and say “You're all wrong.” And the confidence they have in saying I'm all wrong impresses me.
MS Didn't that happen with Pollock ?
CG I wasn't asked to talk so much then. (laughter) I wasn't in demand then. Not that I'm in demand now, but with seniority you outlive a lot of things so you get asked to talk.
GP But if criticism plays an encouraging role in the development of things now... there are very few people who can write about art now.
CG There never were many... There's one good art critic for every ten good artists.
RB There's that many good art critics?
CG One for twenty. You're right, you're right. Because if you look back, I can think of writers... We'll include Baudelaire, Thoré-Bürger, Fairfield Porter, Felix Feneon and we won't include Apollinaire because he's not a good art critic – he's a good drumbanger.
RB And not Ruskin ?
CG Ruskin was great, but when it came to contemporary art he was nowhere. He was for the Pre-Raphaelites, and all that. He couldn't see what was going on in France. As I said before, the Pre-Raphaelites got underrated, but compared to what was going on in France they were minor, so minor.
MS “Major” and “minor” – do you see them as very distinct categories, or do you see them as having shades of grey in between?
CG Oh, there should be shades of grey, of course. But I insist on the distinction in order to say that, well, David Smith was better than... no, I don't want to name names. David Smith was a major artist just as some others in England weren't. And in France.
MS Does being major have anything to do with having an influence on what's happening?
CG No it doesn't.
GP Henry Moore wasn't.
CG Henry Moore wasn't. He was overrated, he's still overrated.
GP He was very important in the development of sculpture but not...
CG No, he's not important in the development of sculpture. I don't think so. I think a major artist like Caro was helped by Henry Moore, working for him, but had to go far away from him in order to become major. And that's how it happened.
RB What about Rodin ? He was a major artist, but he didn't influence sculpture.
CG No he didn't. He was the end of something, and yet a kind of beginning. I haven't thought about it. I think Maillol was a better sculptor in the showdown. Maillol came out of Rodin all the same.
GP How do you see Gonzalez in bringing forth Picasso?
CG Picasso was the inspired one. Gonzalez wasn't as good as Picasso.
GP He came first; he had the ideas; he pointed the way.
CG Gonzalez had the craftsmanship; Picasso had inspiration, not Gonzalez.
RB It's interesting when you say that Olitski is the best contemporary painter, but the second level of painters after him, the painters almost as good, don't live in New York, where Olitski is more or less based, and Caro is the best living sculptor but – in my opinion – aside from Caro, the best sculpture isn't in England.
CG And then the next best is Peter Hide. And there's other good sculptors here. I tell people that it's extraordinary in Edmonton. And then Saskatoon next – they've got sculpture there, too. Whereas in Syracuse they've just got painting.
RB What about the painting here in Edmonton ?
CG The painting, too. This is an extraordinary archipelago of “formalism.”
RB Do you see any stylistic similarities within the sculpture made here, or the painting made here?
CG I don't go into that. It's like calling David Smith an Abstract Expressionist. He was nothing of the sort. And the Abstract Expressionist painters couldn't see Smith – they liked late Giacometti – and he took their judgment seriously about sculpture. I wouldn't take Pollock seriously about sculpture. Pollock had a good eye for painting, but not when it came to sculpture. Let the artists in Edmonton and Saskatoon live long enough, that's all.
RB Do you think the best abstract painting is like Olitski's painting: close-valued...
CG No, No!
RB I'm playing devil's advocate, here...
CG The best abstract painting... Some of it is, some of it isn't.
GP What comes after Olitski?
CG I never predict.
GP No, but now, what exists after..
CG Painters here...
GP You spoke of Caro and Hide... Where does it go from there... Is sculpture easier, or...
CG Sculpture's easier because there are fewer sculptors and there are so few good sculptors. None of the great ones stand out like peaks. What I've noticed about the proliferation of good artists today is how many women there are. That's a new thing, the proportion of women. And I can't stand feminists, but it's a fact, that's all.
MS I've had this discussion with Peter Hide about sculpture today being more fertile ground than painting because there's more left to do in it. Do you think there's anything to that?
CG He's got a point, but so far the good sculptors are so few and far between, and the good painters are not so few and far between.
RB Are there any good figurative sculptors?
CG Yeah. Sort of. There's Robert Graham, and there are others. But it's like the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Once you got below the level of the best painters, then the better painting was representational, as I found out going on juries. And you found that little old ladies in tennis shoes doing flower pieces were better than the big attack abstract artists, the second generation Abstract Expressionists. Corruptio optima pessime, as the Catholics used to say about the Jews: 'the corruption of the best brings out the worst.' In abstract painting in the '40s and '50s, unless you were great you were lousy.
RB Is that still the way?
CG Not so much. Not so much.
RB There's better abstract painters now?
CG Better middle level... I haven't juried much lately. But on the whole, I'd say representational painting tends to be better once you get below the highest level. Like the landscape painting you see here, or you see wherever you go – the representational painting. An abstract painter has to be damn, damn good.
MS Before, when you were talking about sculpture and painting and there being fewer sculptors... do you think you can compare across mediums that way? Can you compare how good a sculpture is to a painting?
CG You talk about level. I thought David Smith was on the level of Pollock, that's all. And David was so uneven but he needed his unevenness.
GP Do you think Cubism has sort of left a legacy for sculpture more than it has for painting?
CG No, I wouldn't say that. No. Picasso's bas relief sculptures started sculpture on a new trajectory, that's all I can say, and it's something extraordinary. I used to write “post-cubism” and all that... I was wrong. Cubism is still the foundation of a good abstract picture – somewhat. Kandinsky didn't go through Cubism and that's why his later abstract pictures when he finally departed from nature are no good.
GP Yeah, he was a failed painter. A great writer. I mean, the writings are more interesting than the paintings.
CG Kandinsky? I don't read him. It's my fault – it's no putdown. I don't read Paul Klee, either, who was a way better painter than Kandinsky.
MS Is Paul Klee major?
CG Yeah, in his funny way. In a pamphlet I called him a “keinmeister.” He's major all the same.
RB What does “keinmeister” mean?
CG "Small master", because he painted so small. When he went big in his last ten years he'd lost his stuff. Yeah, in the 30's. Bill Rubin touched on this... Picasso, Gonzalez, early Giacometti for abstract sculpture, which wasn't large scale but was major in spite of its size. After that there was a gap and then the next major push came from David Smith. He kept the line going. Only David. And after David came Caro and the “good” Englishmen. And I don't include Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth in this category. But Smith kept it going until Caro. One line, that tenuous line. Bill Rubin touched on that.
RB I want to change the subject. When many people talk about Goya, they often talk about the "content" of his art. I'm thinking particularly about “Horrors of War.”
CG That's what they do about all the old masters, especially Goya. But Goya looks good; that's what makes him great.
RB You don't feel that the subject of them, or how the subject was expressed...
CG in his case I don't.
RB When I saw that Goya show at the Met, and that series of etchings, I was impressed by how originally he composed. In particular, I was struck by how he rendered these piles of bodies as massed forms.
CG He's so damn good, Goya
RB ...but I wasn't moved in an emotional way, or...
CG You're not supposed to be. You're supposed to get the aesthetic thing...
RB ... whereas people I was with told me that they were moved because of the way the content resonated on an emotional level.
CG They didn't have aesthetic distance. I'm not ready to pronounce, quite. I'm writing my book on home-made esthetics and I've been in "the middle of the ninth" for the last three years. I've got three more chapters to go. There's a thing called "aesthetic distance" and it's inhuman, almost.
CG When Nero watched Rome burn he said “What a spectacle.” That's aesthetic distance. We don't have to drive it that far, though. But if the artist hasn't made a good picture, then…
MS A good example of that is all the pictures of the crucifixion, and they're all the same subject and some are good and some are not.
CG Yes. They just have to look good, in the same way that a poem has to sound good.
RB Good opera is often very much about expressing emotional states, and all of this.
CG When it sounds great, when it sounds great, though…
MS Opera's a funny hybrid art, though, isn't it?
RB I'm just wondering if modern art is more detached from those emotions, whereas art from a different time was more connected to them.
CG Well, we look at art of the past and we're totally aesthetic about it. Aren't we? Come on. These questions are journalistic questions... You're cold when you look at art; you're cold when you listen to opera; you're cold when you read poetry. And it hits you; it hits you aesthetically. So Wordsworth writes about daffodils: "I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high over hills and hills and all at once I saw a crowd" – and then he corrects that – "a host" he says, “of golden daffodils”, ah, dancing in the breeze, hundreds of them. You like it. It hits you. It just hits you.
GP Aren't we made differently. I mean, some things hit some people; some things hit others?
CG As Kant said, when it comes to aesthetic experience we're all one. He implied that, I should say. He didn't have enough guts to come out and say it.
MS But what if some people don't have a sympathy for it, you know. It isn't for everyone, is it?
GP Like you don't have a sympathy for the Fauves...
CG I didn't say that! When they're good they're good. Did I say that? See how artists misunderstand you.
GP You find it difficult to talk about them...
CG Difficult because I have to figure out what went on. But I think they're damn good when they're good.
GP But you're more outspoken about the Cubists and you're more focused on them than you are on the Fauves
CG I find it easier to explain Cubism. That's all.
GP Uh huh, whereas I find my empathies more with the Fauves
CG I'm not talking about empathy! It's easy to see how you get misunderstood! I didn't say I prefer the Cubists. The Fauves are a problem, but not because I like them less, dammit! They're a problem to explain – the genealogy, or whatever – that's all.
GP That's why I'm saying we can be made different in that I find it easy to deal with the Fauves and…
CG We have differences but we're not made different. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong. (laughter)
GP Well I can accept that. (laughs)
MS But we can't be made that different when things that are two thousand years old and older are still relevant. People haven't changed.
GP Things that are distant from you are a lot easier to deal with than the things that are closer to you.
CG No. Proximity makes people overrate Jasper Johns. We know that. That's old history – not ancient quite, but old – and, sure, there are different temperaments. But if you don't like Titian when he's good you can't see art, you can't see painting. There are touchstones. If you don't like Shakespeare, you can't read English poetry.
GP So the consensus, you come back to the consensus.
CG Yes. We come together on these things. In liking Shakespeare we come together.
MS Many different temperaments appreciate Shakespeare.
CG Yes. Yes! And the sophisticated – the philosophers of aesthetics, who are usually sophisticated – they know that. They don't argue about personal differences; they argue about irrelevant things, too, but not that irrelevant.
RB Clem, you used to write about literature. What made you change to art?
CG Art got more interesting. Contemporary art got more interesting.
RB Was it better?
CG No. I won't say that. There was more life in it, I found.
RB Were you always interested in art?
CG I was a child prodigy. But I couldn't see worth a damn. I couldn't see. I could draw photographically, and people marveled at it. In visual arts, prodigies don't count. In music and literature, yes, but not in art.
MS Do you have any theory why that is?
CG No. Except Aristotle said the eye is the most intellectual of all the senses. And the eye has a tendency to conceptualize, to identify what it sees. The ear doesn't insist. And so children take to music, and they take to literature – stories and rhymes. They like the stories they see in paintings and so forth, but they don't see paintings as art. And in my case, as a kid I drew and drew obsessively. I went to museums, but I wanted the story. I couldn't see the art.
RB When did you begin to see the art?
CG Late. In my twenties.
RB Was there any particular experience?
CG Experience? Yes. Paul Klee's “The Twittering Machine” in the Museum of Modern Art.
RB How old were you?
CG I'm ashamed to say, twenty-four, twenty-five. I couldn't see art before that. Well, I'm a slow developer, always came late.
RB I would think that's common. Now that I think of it a lot of people that make art started seeing art late.
CG That's a different story. Since the war visual artists have developed later than they used to. I think of Newman, Still, Rothko. They didn't reach the maturity of their art until they were past forty. And nowadays I don't believe any artist until he or she is past thirty. I don't care how good you are before then.
RB Let's talk about sculpture. Do you think that most of the good sculpture being made today is somehow grounded in pictorialism?
CG Oh, I won't say. It took off from pictorial art with Picasso's “Guitar” in the Museum of Modern Art, but
RB But volume and mass still haven't effectively found their way into modern abstract sculpture. Do you think?
CG Volume and mass: there's some, but it's minor compared to a Caro or Smith, now; alas, alas
RB And as much as Caro has tried to bring volume and mass to his sculpture, for example when he used these great big enormous parts, boiler ends and...
CG The Grand Manner, yes. He's a Jew, but he's so English; he's so damned English. The Grand Manner haunts English art.
RB What's the Grand Manner?
CG Edmund Burke was the one who started the thing. Looking at Michelangelo's painting he said, "this is the Grand Manner."
MS It's an effort at the sublime, or something...
CG It's an affliction of the English. It is! Francis Bacon is Grand Manner, and he's not much good. He's too packaged.
MS You told me before that Francis Bacon said that...
CG "Abstract art is incapable of grand feeling." Yes, that was a wonderful observation.
MS And it makes great sense. But doesn't that imply that he wants to express, or thinks he wants to express, something sublime?
CG Grand feeling. Grand feeling. Oh, lets leave out the sublime.
RB Clem, what about William Blake?
MS Well that's the grand manner isn't it?
RB The grand manner in miniature, wouldn't you say?
CG Well put! Well put! I'll have to quote you. Yes, the grand manner in miniature. The prophetic... the boring blank verse stuff that he wrote. And he was great in...
RB But his paintings wouldn't have been good if they had not been small.
GP The same thing's true of the Pre-Raphaelites, too. That's an attempt at the grand manner.
CG No, I wouldn't say that they tried for the grand manner. Maybe Hunt did, but the others didn't. We can argue about that; we can have a discussion. Oh, the grand manner. Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, and...
GP Jasper Johns?
CG Oh, he's an American. But no, he didn't try for the grand manner.
GP Who would you say among the modern painters? Rauschenberg?
CG No, no! Over here we don't do the grand manner the way you British do.
RB Is Rothko grand manner?
CG I think it's an attempt at it.
MS Do you?
CG Yes. But they didn't think they were grand manner. They thought the were... Newman and Still were megalomaniacs, both a little crazy. Rothko wasn't. He was the most decent of the bunch. He was very much influenced by Still. Still was good in the late forties and in the early fifties; he painted some good pictures when he painted small. As long as they stayed small, usually vertical, narrow. After that he was blasting off these blustery pictures, and you saw him being influenced by Gottlieb and by Louis, you know?
RB Would you say that Still was an original painter?
CG Sure was.
RB Where was his originality?
CG He had this ragged leaf drawing, but he made it work because he kept everything dark so you didn't mind the bad drawing. That darkness, which Ad Reinhardt caught on to, became a drug on the market; it's still around. I saw it here in Edmonton. When I had to criticize a painter today I said get close-valued, high up. That was the chance Vuillard took in the early l900's: he stayed close-valued, high up with pinks and yellows. Nobody has the guts to do that. They're afraid of looking too pretty and it goes against the grain of anyone who knows how to paint.
RB Looking decorative?
CG Looking pretty. You can't bring yourself to put a yellow next to a pink, or a light red. You can't. And when that's done consistently by the next painter, he'll be the great one. It's very easy to go close in darks. Go close when you're high, light.
GP I had a pink and yellow one but I put green in it
CG You would. You would. You don't follow your gift. You don't follow your gift
GP Maybe it comes with age and time, we hope.
CG It comes with I don't know what. If I knew what I'd go into business and write about how to be a great painter.
RB Olitski makes dark paintings that are pretty good.
CG It doesn't matter with Olitski. He transcends the whole thing.
(The discussion In Greenberg's hotel room ended here, but continued alone with Russell Bingham on Wednesday, April 3)
RB The question I wanted to ask was, when abstract art hit in the forties and fifties did people at that time speak about art in what we call formalist terms?
CG Nothing but, nothing but. Jacob Kainen, a Washington painter, said he ran into Gorky and John Graham at a show of old masters at Knoedler, and he noticed that they talked just about the form – I won't say technique – of what they saw, and not about meaning or anything like that. And you didn't... it was considered pretentious and irrelevant to talk about “meaning” and “spiritualism” and all that.
RB what about Barnett Newman?
CG Well he could gas... He had a great eye by the way, and when I talked with him it was nothing but good and bad, good and bad.
RB So the talk about spiritualism was saved for the ...
CG Oh yes... saved for print.
RB The last time, when we did an interview at the Edmonton Art Galley, you said that Gorky had a good eye.
CG He did... and then when he saw Pollocks for the first time in the mid forties he said that's not art, that's not painting.
RB He didn't like it?
CG No. He snorted. I wasn't there, but I was told. And Pollock's stuff at that time... Oh it's a story. All abstract painting had been hard-edged more or less up till that time with a few exceptions – early Kandinsky – and, after synthetic Cubism, flat, hard-edged. But here was Pollock smearing paint in the context of abstract art... It looked a mish-mash, chaos. Speaking for myself, there were people back then whose eyes I respected. When I disagreed with them, I was given pause. I've known few such people since then, except some people who I'm close to more-or-less personally.
RB Who are some of the people...
CG The artists; the ones who are called “formalists.” People like Michael Steiner, Ken Noland, like ...
RB Any critics?
CG Valentin Tatransky; Ken Moffett, certainly; Michael Fried; Terry Fenton; and Darby Bannard, who writes very little now.
RB I wanted to know if you've ever made any big mistakes as far as your take on art, or anything you've seen in studios, or the art you saw in galleries.
CG Yes indeed! One of the first ones was underrating Stamos – Theodoros Stamos – in the mid-forties. I recognized that mistake when I saw the paintings again in a show four or five years ago at the Whitney called The Formative Years, about American art in the forties. He had some of the best pictures there. That was a mistake. Wow! And I wrote about Stamos' show at the time and scorched him. Now I'm eating my words. Another mistake was more positive: I overrated Mondrian's “boogie-woogie” pictures. I was cowed, and it was a lesson. Everybody was in awe of Mondrian, the people whose eyes I respected at that time. And the “Boogie Woogie” pictures – “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” and “Victory Boogie Woogie” – they were bad. I saw that Mondrian's art had been going downhill since the mid-thirties, but it wasn't said. We thought, “Maybe we're wrong in not liking them.” You must never look at art that way; you have your take and that's it. I consider that one of my big mistakes. I didn't put it in print, but I still over-praised them. Mistakes that I don't mind were when I praised artists who didn't come to much in the end. That's all right... You learn more from your mistakes than from your non-mistakes cause you take your mistakes to heart when you recognize them, and that helps.
RB When you go to the artist's studio, what do you feel is your role? What do you say to the artist or what do you tell them?
CG I don't have a formula or a program when I visit an artist's studio. I give myself a rule based on my first studio visit back in ‘44-‘45 with the Pollocks, Lee and Jackson. We visited a painter who was living on, I think, 8th Street in Greenwich Village... I've forgotten his name; I didn't keep a diary in those days. He took his pictures out one by one and showed them to us, and I wouldn't take the lead expressing my opinion. I waited for the Pollocks. And they greeted each picture with dead silence and that was that; I didn't speak up. When we left I didn't take the trouble to notice the expression on the artist's face, but when we got downstairs my imagination began to run and I said “God, he must feel awful.” I resolved, later, that when you go to an artist's studio you can't greet the art with silence. If you don't like anything you must find something – you can always find something – that you like more than anything else in the studio. You point to that and say you like it best and then you talk. What you have to watch out for, especially with younger artists, is the tendency to think, "if you don't like what I'm showing you you're more or less concluding that I'm no good; you're summing up my capacity as an artist." You must not leave that impression. I want to more-or-less convey that if I haven't liked what I've seen, that that -doesn't necessarily define the artist's potentiality. Who knows what's going to happen next? You've got to leave the artist thinking it's open. Say I haven't liked anything here – that doesn't mean I have an idea what you amount to as an artist or are going to amount to.
RB Do you ever give advice, do you ever tell an artist to try this or do that?
CG Yes... Like twice, or I've seen artists painting abstractly and because I've seen some of their figurative work I've decided they're better there than they are in abstract art. I tell them that, and that's a form of giving advice. That's happened here. I hadn't seen an artist's representational figurative work, but I had a notion that she was being abstract against her deepest inclination and I said that. Now she's working from nature, and I was gratified to hear her say that now she enjoys painting again.
RB So when people accuse you of telling artists what to paint they're misunderstanding the process...
CG Yes they are, and it's bad faith. They haven't been there in the studio. Oh, maybe one or two artists have said, “Oh, Clem wants me to do this, or...” The artist is talking out of bad faith too, or he's misunderstood. I'll give you an example. I was alone with de Kooning in the studio (Fairfield Porter reported it as though he had been there); de Kooning had done a painting where he had introduced the face of a woman – this was, oh, a couple of years before his "women" series – and I said to him that in that context you can't do this any more, because it was a bad picture. I didn't explain myself well enough, and Bill's appreciation of English wasn't that good, so according to Fairfield Porter he had me saying that you can't paint from nature any more. Well, how do you explain that I've praised representational artists all along? When you visit an artist's studio, you see where he or she is strongest and you go along from there. Your remarks follow from what you see, not because you're coming in with preconceived ideas of what art should do or what this particular artist should do. No. You see where he or she is going, and that's about it.
RB Thank you.