I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “Action/Abstraction”, partly because the show recently landed at its second venue, the St. Louis Art Museum. It’s about Abstract Expressionism and the the various kinds of abstraction that followed it, as seen through the lens of the rivalry between Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the Scylla and Charybdis of postwar American art criticism. Earlier this year I saw it at the Jewish Museum in New York, which organized the show with the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, where it makes its final stop next February. If you like art historical polemics — and hey, who doesn’t? — “Action /Abstraction” is the world’s greatest classroom slide lecture, except that it’s been done with real paintings and sculpture, some of them of the first order. What I mean is that it’s a very entertaining exposition of what was once a momentous intellectual battle, one that now feels somewhat, forgive the expression, abstract.
Even in the ’70s, when I was a student and their influence was in decline, Greenberg and Rosenberg were inescapable — the “bergs” as Tom Wolfe called them in The Painted Word, his snarky account of the rise of Modernism. As young men they were both Marxists — anti-Stalinist Trotskyists to be exact, though in the fullness of time Greenberg ended up as a Vietnam hawk. When the Marxist future didn’t materialize, except in the threadbare and murderous Soviet version, a disillusioned Greenberg took the dialectic, the idea of an historically inevitable path, and applied it to painting. He saw (and urged on!) in the work of Pollock, de Kooning and Clyfford Still a final distillation of developments he identified as having been in motion since Manet. Those were chiefly the expulsion of all representational imagery and an advance towards pure flatness, the basic condition of “the picture plane”, also known as the canvas. No more paintings as “pictures”, as windows into a scene. From now on paintings would be arrangements of color and form on a flat surface. Abstract Expressionism — not his term but he had to live with it — was a fulfillment of the march of art history for anyone who could see which way the march was going. What this meant was that the barricades could be mounted again. But the barricades would be built around the galleries of Greenwich Village.
Rosenberg, who also loved Pollock, but for different reasons, saw the new abstraction not as a fulfillment of art history but as a break from it, a fire that broke out at a combustible moment. Rosenberg was steeped in the existentialist philosophies that infatuated the post-war era. Art wasn’t an arrangement of forms that locked into a pattern. Art was action and he famously decided that: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or “express” an object, real or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
The artist was a toreador waving his/her cape at the bull of the ineffable — or maybe just at him/herself. The painting was what was left behind after the bull charged.
One way or another, the “Bergs” were both sure that abstraction was the only road that art could go down. Now that we know that art didn’t end up painting itself into the abstract corner that both men were guiding it into, it’s their polemical certainty — the idea that painting had only one legitimate direction to go, abstraction — that seems so strange. What looked to them like iron clad destinations look to us as just idioms, the expressive languages of their moment. No surprise — the rise of Pop Art in the ’60s struck them both as a terrible detour. One thing they shared was contempt for popular culture. It was Greenberg who popularized the term kitsch.
After the first generation of AbEx painters like Pollock and de Kooning, Greenberg was able to promote Color Field painters like Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler, who poured diluted pigment directly onto canvas — a new (and hey, lyrical) way of doing the flatness thing. As for Rosenberg, eventually a younger generation took his ideas about art as action, combined it with John Cage’s ideas about the role of chance in art, and came up with Happenings and performance art.
But the endless proliferation of practices that we live with now would have horrified them. (They both lived long enough to see it get underway, especially Greenberg, who died in 1994.) They both swore they were dedicated to freedom, but in their different ways they were fundamentalists. The artists that Greenberg and Rosenberg loved were right. It was the critics, by their need to organize them into narrow categories and send them marching down the road of art history, who made the mistake.