Clement Greenberg: Modernist Painting

By Alexandra A Jopp


“I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant,” 1 the formalist critic Clement Greenberg writes in his 1965 essay “Modernist Painting.”  I am inclined to agree with Greenberg that Kant and his ideas provided a revolutionary introduction to the self-critical power in philosophy. Kant, who hated Romanticism, detested every form of extravagance, fantasy, exaggeration, mysticism, vagueness and confusion. His philosophy asserted that it is our reason that invests the world we experience with structure. In his works on aesthetics, he argues that it is our faculty of judgment that enables us to experience beauty and understand our experiences as being part of an ordered, natural world with a purpose. While Kant focuses on perception, Greenberg focuses on painting, and he sees enormous potential in the concept of essential limits when applied to the history of painting. Greenberg argues that there is logic to the expansion of Modernist art and, in particular, Modernist painting, which he sees as innovative, autonomous and experimental. To Greenberg, these “external things” that both establish the limits of the act of painting and enable painting to become “an independent power” have an ideal value. The conceptual place of these external things is occupied by the medium in Greenberg’s system; a medium that itself has a limit because a flat surface such as a canvas forces an image to become two-dimensional. In other words, Modernism confirms the two-dimensionality of the picture surface. First, we see the work as a painted surface, and later as a picture. Thus, the history of Modernist painting, as constructed by Greenberg, consists of bringing together the act of painting with its intrinsic limitations.
Although Greenberg’s main ideas about formalism and the way that art progresses are somewhat dated, he remains something of a historical phenomenon. He focuses much of his analysis on flatness, an essential element of Modern painting, and he discusses the limitations of painting as a medium. The Old Masters, according to Greenberg, were trying to liberate themselves from these limitations and add depth to their art. “The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture,” Greenberg wrote. “Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.
In his essay, Greenberg redefines Modernism, moving it from a system of formal novelty toward an experimental exercise. Its style originated with Kantian philosophy and Enlightenment principles, and its values of color and flatness were most clearly expressed, in Greenberg’s view, in the Neo-Classical portraiture of David and Ingres. However, this movement in which Western art questioned its own underpinnings did not have any subversive purpose. Instead, as Greenberg writes, 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 … to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”
1. Greenberg, Clement, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1960)
2. Pisarro, Joachim, “Greenberg, Kant, and Modernism,” Notes in History of Art
Vol. XXIX No.1, pp 42-48, 2009.

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