The Artistic Triumph Of New York

The future of Western art, wrote Greenberg, “depends on what is done in this country” by a small group of “advanced” artists.

Greenberg identified the avant-garde artist as a painter, and necessarily an abstract painter, for the subject of an abstract painting is implicitly itself. This was a good thing, since it would help liberate art from the traditional task of slavishly reflecting the world of appearance. In the act of encompassing a world, the artist would have to renounce the world. Art itself would have to take the place of religion in our spiritual lives: “It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at ‘abstract’ or ‘nonobjective’ art—and poetry, too. The avantgarde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape—not its picture—is aesthetically valid; something given , increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.” This barrage of pronouncements can be read as uncannily accurate prophecies—or as imperatives with prescriptive force, heeded by artists or disobeyed at their peril. What Greenberg is formulating is one of the fundamental paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism: It does away with subject matter, rejecting the idea that the artist must communicate something, yet proclaims the spiritual and even religious value of the statements it makes “on its own terms,” as if it did have subject matter after all, only it happens to be invisible. The paradox enlivens the work of Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman, who issued statements insisting on the primacy of subject matter in their art. In a sense they were rethinking the whole concept of subject matter; they also elevated the importance of titles and altered our understanding of the relation between the title and the work it names. Newman has a series of paintings called The Stations of the Cross , though nothing that meets the eye would necessarily make a spectator think of Christ’s ordeal.

The American avant-garde succeeded beyond Greenberg’s wildest predictions, though it could not have done so without them. Greenberg, the Bronxborn son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, was not only a fearlessly opinionated critic but a highly persuasive rhetorician who made his boldest claims with blunt self-assurance. Between October 1947 and March 1948 he wrote a series of articles announcing the coming supremacy, the global supremacy, of American abstract painting. He aired his maverick views in highbrow journals of opinion, such as The Nation (whose art critic he was), Partisan Review , and the British Horizon . Time and Life rebuked him, but this worked to his advantage since it had the effect of circulating his views to a much wider audience. “Americans,” he wrote in January 1948, were “the most advanced people on earth, if only because we are the most industrialized.” And the best, the “most advanced” American painting was abstract—and was better of its kind than anything turned out in Europe.

Grasping the importance of the sea change taking place, Greenberg became part and parcel of the change. The future of Western art “depends on what is done in this country,” he wrote, and the future of American art depended in turn on a small group of “advanced” artists. He was specific about the makeup of that small group: It consisted of Pollock and the sculptor David Smith —the only two American artists Greenberg considered major—and approximately “fifty people” who had studied painting with Hans Hofmann in New York City. They painted, these fifty, in bohemian isolation, in cold-water flats on the upper floors of seedy walk-ups in Greenwich Village west of Seventh Avenue. They suffered from “the neurosis of alienation.” The “ferocious struggle to be a genius” together with the “frantic scrabbling for money” made it difficult to get along with them. Their paintings went unsold, and they were often broke, but they were serious, very serious, about art. And they possessed a capacity for “rigor and correctness” unmatched in Paris or London. In short, they were the American avant-garde. They were eccentric, isolated, desperate individuals. “What,” asked Greenberg plaintively, “can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?”

Quite a lot, evidently. In Greenberg’s analysis, cubism, the dominant European art movement, was in a state of irreversible decline. The disarray in Paris afforded an unmistakable opportunity for the American artist. What was more, the terrible “isolation” of the avant-garde artist in New York was a blessing in disguise, for isolation (wrote Greenberg) was “the truth, the natural condition of high art in America,” “the condition under which the true reality of our age is experienced.” In degrees of isolation America was miles ahead. “The alienation of Bohemia was only an anticipation in nineteenth-century Paris,” Greenberg wrote. “It is in New York that it has been completely fulfilled.” He wrote that in January 1948; by March he was willing to up the ante. “The main premises of Western art have at last migrated to the United States, along with the center of gravity of industrial production and political power.”