Rereading Abstract Expressionism: Clement Greenberg and the Cold War | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Rereading Abstract Expressionism: Clement Greenberg and the Cold War

Rereading Abstract Expressionism: Clement Greenberg and the Cold War
Daniel Neofetou

Bloomsbury Visual Arts, New York, 2021
240 pp. Trade, eBook, & PDF, $72.45.
ISBN:‎ 978-1501358388.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
March 2022

Although one can “read” a picture, the title word “rereading” has to be taken here in the very literal sense of the word. The author of this book, which does not contain a single illustration (but the cover is a beautiful one), does not really focus on visual objects (paintings), but on texts (more precisely art-critical texts with strong philosophical underpinnings). There is little room neither for visual analysis, nor for the viewer’s experience, and thus for observations such as the following comments, here quoted on page 98, by Peter de Bolla, totally different from Neofetou’s theoretical concerns and own writing style: “This is Abstract Expressionism’s greatest late work. Form, structure, and content are interrogated and transformed by so vast a repertoire of techniques of pigment, application that you lose count: look up close and you will see paint squeezed, trowelled, flicked, smoothed. Mitchell uses and invests with absolute conviction the swirl, smudge, scrub, swipe, smear, swish, scribble, drip, drag, dribble, scrim, splatter, splash, squiggle, wash, wipe, blot, dab, stab” (wonderful sentences, which remind me of Ad Reinhardt’s definition of painting: “Painting is special, separate, a matter of meditation and contemplation, for me, no physical action or social sport). As much consciousness as possible. Clarity, completeness, quintessence, quiet. No noise, no schmutz, no schmerz, no fauve schwärmerei,” etc.–sentences that I can never refrain from quoting, my apologies for doing so).

The scope and ambitions of Rereading Abstract Expressionism is very different, but also very clear and powerful. It aims at challenging the negative reception of Clement Greenberg in recent scholarship, where the great defender of medium-specificity is systematically accused of having paved the way for the political and ideological recuperation of avant-garde painting. Many postmodern radical critics (Neofetou brings them together under the umbrella term of “revisionist historians”) have claimed that it was thanks to Greenberg and his refusal of figuration and his defense of pushing the boundaries of painting that it became possible for US capitalism to use abstract expressionism as an instrument of CIA supported soft power to present American in the Cold War era as the logical endpoint of historical evolution, eventually realizing all the promises of the no longer vital European avant-garde, as well as the acme of human freedom, as crudely denied in the patronizing and constraining rear guard codes of social realism (not to speak of the sinister Socialist Realism in the Soviet bloc). Rereading Abstract Expressionism offers an excellent survey of these debates, addressing them from very different points of view and abundantly quoting and commenting both Greenberg, his critics, and his defenders.

Neofetou’s pro-Greenbergian plea does not aim to “save” Greenberg, but to draw attention to the complexity and ambivalences of his position and writings. Neither is the author interested in Greenberg himself. What matters is the rereading and new interpretation of abstract expressionism, which the author examines, quite successfully I think, as a painterly movement going against the propagandistic use American foreign policy used to make of it. Yet this new appraisal of abstract expressionism is only possible via the rereading of Greenberg, whose supposedly simple and simplifying views of the movement are generally seen as the theoretical alibi of the practical misuse and abuse of Pollock, De Kooning, and many others touring the world in the 1950s as a showcase of US supremacy and liberal free enterprise.

Neofetou’s argumentation relies on two major lines or strategies (none of them, however, based on actual reception studies or formal analysis, unless via episodic quotations as the one by De Bolla).

First of all, this book offers a careful historical recontextualization of Greenberg’s major writings, starting with the famous essays of the Partisan Review on kitsch and the newer Laocoon. Neofetou reads them very pertinently in light of the Trotskyist perspective of the journal and in the wake of Trotsky’s move toward a kind of “art for art’s sake,” that is a form of art that rejects the backwardness and political regimentation of social realism but that also appears as a truly revolutionary form of art destructive of capitalism, since the radical forms of experimentalism that it foregrounds prove incompatible with the spirit and practice of instrumental reason and business calculation. Neofetou aptly underlines the links between Greenberg and Trotsky (as well as Breton), aesthetically as well as politically, not only in the 1930s but much beyond, while no less aptly disclosing the political and ideological recuperation of social realism (the most important name here is Ben Shahn) by US foreign policy, which in the Cold War systematically showcased social realism alongside abstract expressionism in order to underscore the fundamental place of plurality and debate in the free world. This historical reframing is important, for it dismantles quite some stereotypes on the automatic link between abstract expressionism and the ideology of free enterprise and US democracy.

Second, and this is the key part of the book, Neofetou also rereads Greenberg in light of two philosophical perspectives, that of Adorno and that of Merleau-Ponty.

The former helps stress the place and role of abstract expressionism, which Adorno himself hardly addresses, in the elaboration of an aesthetic theory based on the tension between “autonomy” and “heteronomy” and the possibility of reconsidering the social and political responsibility of “formalist” art thanks to the distinction between “Inhalt” (content matter, subject matter, which revolutionary art has to supersede, for it inevitably confirms the status quo) and “Gehalt” (“content in the sense of import, essence, or substance of a work”, as Adorno defines it -and this is of course the central point in non-representational, revolutionary art). Abstract expressionism’s refusal of “Inhalt” is therefore not to be understood as a refusal of social and political commitment, as pure formalism highlighting the dynamic of capitalistic free enterprise and permanent innovation, but as the possibility of questioning, via its often overlooked “Gehalt”, the commonly accepted frames of reference and understanding in the field of art as well as the field of society and life.

The latter is lauded as an artistic theory helps disclose the importance of the sensorial dimension of revolutionary art, a dimension that enables the embodied experience of the world as liberated from the constraints of capitalist labor. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of ocularocentism and study of the multisensorial experience of the living body do find many echoes in Greenberg’s writings, which make room for the historical particularity of the spectator –contrary to what is often claimed of his supposedly disembodied, generalizing, transhistorical way of looking. Abstract expressionism appears as a form of painting that stresses the role of the actively perceiving, interacting body and thus enhances the emancipatory aspects of the work’s “Gehalt”, which can never be reduced to the expression of the individual freedom of the artist and certainly not to the symbolic position of the artist as spokesman, willingly or not, of a free enterprise ideology.

Rereading Abstract Expressionism is an important contribution to the study of abstract expressionism and its one-sided reception in post-Greenbergian years. It is now time to go back to the paintings themselves and to check the validity of his very stimulating new interpretations of the discourses that have “made” abstract expressionism what it was and today no longer is, namely the promise of an absolute and absolutely liberating art.