Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” originally given as a radio broadcast in 1961 for the Voice of America’s “Forum Lectures,” was printed in 1961 in the Arts Yearbook 4 of the same year, reprinted in 1965, ’66, ‘74, ’78, and 1982.   The article achieved a canonical status and served as one of the definitive statements of formalism as a mode of visual analysis and of formalism as a critical stance, and possibly, of formalism as a mode of making art.   In his 1961 essay on “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) defined “Modernism” as the period (in art) roughly from the mid-1850s to his present that displayed a self-critical tendency in the arts.

Greenberg considered Immanuel  Kant the first Modernist.  The essence of Kant’s thesis was the employment of the characteristic “methods” of the discipline to “criticize the discipline itself.”  According to Greenberg, Kant used logic to establish “the limits of logic.”  The Modernist goal of self-criticism grows out of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment philosophical system which was based upon the belief in the power of rational thought and human reason. “Critique,” as a method, analyzes from the inside, from within the object being examined and does not judge from the outside, according to external criteria.

Painting must analyze itself to discover its inherent properties. Painting, according to Enlightenment methodology, must be interrogated according to its inherent purposes.  The key term here would be “inherent,” for analyzing an object according to its essential definition must preclude bringing forward any non-essential or external criteria. In other words, a painting telling a “good story” is not necessarily a good painting.   In this article, Greenberg carries on his attempt to “save” and to define “high art,” and “Modernist Painting” of 1960 can be compared to “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939.  Two decades had passed and Greenberg had progressed from being an up-and-coming art writer to being the arbiter of fine arts in New York, enjoying a truly hegemonic position.  His crusade was all the more urgent in 1961, as territory of the avant-garde was being invaded by popular culture and the forces of disrule, exemplified by Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Fluxus.  Greenberg had also shifted his political position, from being an intellectual Marxist, to being a Kantian formalist, a far safer situation which removes the critic and art from current cultural considerations.

Greenberg stated that art can “save” itself from being entertainment by demonstrating that the experience it provides is “unobtainable from any other source.” It is the task of art to demonstrate that which is “unique” and “irreducible”, particular or peculiar to art and that which determines the operation peculiar and exclusive to itself.  All effects borrowed from any other medium must be eliminated, rendering the art form pure.  “Purity” becomes a guarantee of “quality” and “independence” of avant-garde art.  All extrinsic effects should be eliminated from painting.

One could say that it is not the essential to the definition of a painting that it re-create the world realistically.  Today, that role can be fulfilled by photography or film.  Film and theater are defined by storytelling and narrative, enhanced by illusions of everyday reality.  Following Greenberg’s line of reasoning, realism and story telling and illusionism should be eliminated from painting.   For Greenberg, art was used to call attention to art.  Clement Greenberg logically worked out the limitations and peculiarities of painting, which are a flat surface, the shape of the support and the properties of the pigment. These physical and material limiting conditions became positive factors.

Once suppressed by artists through under-painting and glazing, these material aspects of painting were now acknowledged by Modernist painters.  Because he appeared to have considered and taken into account the limitations of painting as the application of paint upon a flat surface, or a stretched canvas, Édouard Manet is designated by Greenberg as the first Modernist artist.  Manet “declared the surface;” his follower, Paul Cézanne, fit the drawing and design into the rectangle of the painting.  In Modernist painting, the spectator is made aware of the flatness and sees the picture first, before noting the content.

Modernist painting abandoned the principle of representation of Renaissance illusionistic space inhabited by three-dimensional objects, giving the effect of looking through the canvas into a world beyond. Modernist painting resists the sculptural, which is suppressed or expelled.  The question is that of a purely optical experience.  With Greenberg, flatness alone is unique to painting.  For this critic, “art” carries within itself its own teleology.  As art seeks self-definition and determines its own uniqueness, it becomes more pure, more reductive in its means.  More is eliminated—subject matter, content, figuration, illusionism, narrative—and art becomes independent, detached, and non-objective, that is, abstract.  Content becomes completely dissolved into form.  Greenberg, in looking back selectively at the history of art, presented a map of progress and evolution of painting, away from representation and toward purity, abstraction, reductiveness; to flatness, to pure color, to simple forms that reflected the shape of the surface.

The essay noted that Modernism “resists sculpture” or three-dimensionality and reminded the reader that this “resistance” was by no mean recent. The critic pointed to Jacques-Louis David as an example of an artist whose work was flat and surface based.  Greenberg insisted that the scientific method justified the demand that painting (and art) limit itself to “what is given in visual experience.”   Greenberg equated the artist to the scientists, both of whom “test” and experiment.  The equation of art with science, replaces his earlier equation of the avant-garde with politics:  “…a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.”  One can “only look” at a work of visual art, which is discernible only to the “eye.”  Poetry is “literary,” art is not and should not attempt to be, for as Greenberg reminded us, any translation of the literary into the visual “loses” the literary qualities.

Like Avant-garde and Kitsch, Modernist Painting, had a subtext, Enlightenment philosophy, especially that of Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  The 1939 article concerned itself with aesthetics but more with the “experience” of the aesthetic.  In Avant-garde and Kitsch, it is possible to believe that Greenberg was writing of the experience of the aesthetic in terms of the placement of art in the culture, in other words, it is not so much the “how” of the experience but of the “where” of the aesthetic.  In Modernist Painting, the experience of the aesthetic is located in the realm of the how one looks at a work of art.

The proper attitude of the spectator was important to Kant who recommended a posture of detachment from personal desire and indifference to artistic content in search of a universal means of judging the efficacy of art.  The Enlightenment philosophy cherished the idea of the universal or the absolute, for some kind of standard had to be erected to replace the all-knowing presence of the now-banished God.  Kant was not interested in defining what “art” was but in establishing the ground for the judgment of art.  Working in the new philosophical field, aesthetics, Kant attempted to establish the epistemology of art, based, not in individual works but in a method of knowledge.

Greenberg’s understanding of Kant led him to use the methodology of critique but the critic took “critique” in a rather different direction.  Writing two centuries after the German philosopher, Greenberg looked backwards in time and implied another favorite Enlightenment idea, that of progress.  Modernist art, if one understands the essay correctly, seems to “progress” and move forward in time, away from manifestations of extrinsic properties and towards a purity of means.  “Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”

The ground has shifted away from a means of judgment (Kant) to a theory of the evolution of art along telelogical lines with a goal in mind: purity.  Even though as Greenberg pointed out, “The first mark made on the canvas destroys its virtual flatness,” purity seems to imply a historical rejection of representation and a validation of abstraction. The point of noting Greenberg’s development of Kantian theory and its application toward Modernist Painting is that, without the notion of progress, the critic’s theory of artistic development would have to include some of the masters of flatness, such as William Bourguereau and some of the masters of the surface such as Thomas Kincaide, both of whom Greenberg would have excluded from the family tree of modernism.

While Kant would at least judge these two artists (and perhaps find them wanting), Greenberg seems to imply a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde and establish ground for exclusion of the unworthy. The oppositions of the dialectic are implied: those who did not follow the path of Modernist reductionism were, like dinosaurs, left behind.  If one reads in a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde, even if only through the names of the canonical artists Greenberg mentioned and thought his previous articles, then the conflation between the continuity of art and the avant-garde, which supposedly breaks with the past, becomes rather awkward.     Indeed, Greenberg does not mention the avant-garde, he uses the term “authentic art,” instead.

“Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity.  Art is, among many other things, continuity.  Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as modernist art would be impossible,” Greenberg stated.

However, as pointed out in his earlier work, Greenberg refused to connect the avant-garde with a rejection of the past: “…the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving…” (Greenberg’s italics).  The underlying continuity of the two articles can be seen in the precursor remark in the 1939 writing on the role of the avant-garde artist: “’Art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’ appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like the plague.” Given the openness of the construction of this essay and the plurality of texts mobilized by Greenberg, it is no wonder that “Modernist Painting” lent itself to so many causes, whether as a rallying point or as a bête noir.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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