Why Art Critics Need Love Too

In the art world there is no character who is less loved than the art critic (cue sad violin music). When we’re not artists, art critics inhabit a strange sometimes alienating space in the unholy alliance that is the art world (i.e. artists, galleryists, curators, directors, collectors, academics, critics).

So imagine how wonderful it was to see the Clement Greenberg/Harold Rosenberg love fest at the Jewish Museum. Entitled “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976,” the show (curated by Norman Kleeblatt) makes a convincing case that critics are as important to an art movement (in this case, Abstract Expressionism) as artists and others.

Post-WWII American art seems unimaginable without the ideas of Greenberg & Rosenberg. Would Pollock have been propelled to fame without Greenberg? Probably not…though some may argue yes.

The Jewish Museum show is particularly worth the trip because of the smattering of masterpieces (most at the beginning) from Buffalo’s amazing Albright Knox Museum. From Pollock’s “Convergence” to Arshile Gorky’s “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb” (pictured below) and de Kooning’s “Gotham News,” it’s incredible that such a provincial gallery would house some of the best (yes, BEST) works from that pivotal American school of art. Fortunately, the Jewish Museum had the vision to trot them downstate to help make the argument that critical frameworks are crucial to art. When critics disagree they invigorate art and artists, the exhibition seems to suggest.

It is great to see Abstract Expressionism sculpture included in this show since it is often overlooked, unjustly. People like David Smith and Seymour Lipton are crucial to the history and in retrospect their work seem closer to their painters in the movement than they probably did back then.

I think it’s hard to deny that Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s ideas have a timelessness about them. Not to say they were perfect though…far from it…they both overlooked female, LGBT and black artists of the 1940s and 1950s. Looking at Grace Hartigan’s lovely “New England October” (1957) I think it is fair to say it is as fine as any work dating from the same period by Phillip Guston or Clyfford Still. But on the other hand, the inclusion of a rather dull painting by black artist Norman Stone (definitely not one of his best) doesn’t help make the case that he is underappreciated.

The biggest problem in the show is the second floor. One room is devoted to the artists Greenberg championed post-Ab Ex (one and a half actually), while another is reserved for Rosenberg’s picks. The diversity of the two rooms is quite amazing. From Helen Frankenthaler to late Guston (pictured below), from Anthony Caro to Claus Oldenberg, these artists created work in many styles and mediums and some of it quite remarkable (Kenneth Noland check)–though other pieces are so-so (Saul Steinberg for instance).

After the breakout of Pop Art, both Greenberg and Rosenberg seemed to part ways in their critical visions. If in the 1940s and 50s they were arguing for roughly the same school of artists, a decade later it was clear they were both interested in different things (late Guston is a world away from Jules Olitski).

I don’t want to try to distill Greenberg and Rosenberg’s ideas down to slogans since I think there has already been to much damage to their reputation because of people’s desire to dumb them down. So if you’re interested in what they have to say I suggest picking up the show’s catalogue, or better yet, buying copies of their books (Art & Culture by Greenberg and The Anxious Object by Rosenberg are good places to start).

I hope this show encourages others to look at critics who played pivotal roles in artistic movements. It’s obscene that critics like the post-impressionist-loving Félix Fénéon are little studied and practically unknown today.

If you know an art critic, I suggest you give him or her a hug. It’s a thankless job that no one gets rich from…and some of us even love it.

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Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 continues at the Jewish Museum until September 21, 2008.

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