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Clement Greenberg papers, 1928-1995

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Greenberg (Clement) Papers

Biographical/Historical Note

Clement Greenberg, born in 1909 to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, was raised in New York City, Norfolk, Virginia, and Brooklyn. As a child, Greenberg drew from nature with unusual accuracy, and as a teenager he joined the Art Students League, but by the time he attended Syracuse University his interests had shifted to languages and literature, and upon graduation he set out to become a writer. For nearly a decade Greenberg wrote poetry, short stories, and a novel (never finished) while also reading extensively in English, German and French. To earn a living, he worked in his father's businesses, which gave him opportunity to travel and live in various parts of the U.S. During this period he published two stories, one poem, and two book-length translations. He was also briefly married, fathered a son, and divorced.

He returned to New York City in 1936 and found employment as a clerk, first for the Civil Service Comission, then for the Veteran's Administration, and finally for the Customs Service, Department of Wines and Liquors. His interest in art re-emerged as he began taking drawing classes at a WPA studio and consorting with Greenwich Village artists, including Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock. At the same time, Greenberg met the circle of writers around Partisan Review, with whom he shared an interest in socialist politics on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other. In 1939 Partisan Review published Greenberg's "Avant-garde and Kitsch," to great acclaim.

Soon thereafter, Greenberg joined the editorial staff of Partisan Review, and was employed primarily as a literary reviewer. In 1941 he wrote his first art review for The Nation and, resigning from Partisan Review, served as The Nation's regular art reviewer from 1942 to 1949. He was also the associate editor of Commentary from 1944 to 1957. Greenberg wrote four books: Miró (1948), Matisse (1953), Hans Hofmann (1961), and Art and Culture (1961). The latter, a classic of American art criticism, has influenced artists and critics alike.

Greenberg is most remembered for having recognized the achievements of Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and other abstract expressionists at a time when few others could perceive them, and still fewer could explain them. Greenberg offered clear, concise explanations in formalist terms, situating these painters squarely within the Western tradition. These painters' unprecedented success assured Greenberg's success; he became America's leading art expert.

In his personal life, Greenberg carried on numerous amorous relationships with women, among whom were intellectuals and painters known in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. From 1950-1955, Greenberg was romantically involved with the much younger Helen Frankenthaler, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. In 1955, as that relationship ended, Greenberg began his lengthy psychoanalysis. He married Jenny Van Horne, an actress, in 1956, and they had a daughter in 1963. The marriage floundered soon thereafter, and the couple eventually divorced but then remarried in the decade before Greenberg's death.

In the 1950s Greenberg abandoned regular reviewing in favor of occasional articles for major reviews and catalog essays. He also began organizing exhibitions on such painters as Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Newman and Hofmann. He gave lectures at museums and universities, served as a consultant for galleries and museums, and from 1958 to 1960 was employed by French and Company. Greenberg's ties to artists, critics, dealers and curators gave him unequalled influence in a booming American art market, influence that endured through the 1960s and 1970s, even though others did not always endorse the artists he championed, such as Ken Noland and Jules Olitski.

Greenberg's reputation began to decline in the late 1970s after it was discovered that, while serving as the executor of David Smith's estate, he had had the paint stripped from six Smith sculptures. The resulting scandal fueled a kind of revolt against what some saw as Greenberg's tyranny over the New York art world. A new generation of critics emerged who questioned Greenberg's connoisseurship, his view of art history, and his character. Magazine articles referred to him as "the most hated man in the art world."

Despite this growing opposition, Greenberg continued to publish articles, though less frequently, to give talks in the US and abroad, and to advise certain artists, dealers and curators until his death in 1994. His Collected Essays, published in 1986 and 1993 was highly praised, offsetting to some degree the years of disrepute.

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