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While there are many factors that have contributed to the current situation — where painting is marginalized in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways — the roots of it go back to Clement Greenberg and his 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” With this text, Greenberg began to develop his brand of formalist theory regarding innovative modern art and to advance the concept of art’s historical progress.And while it is easy to say that Greenberg is no longer as relevant and that formalist theory and its doctrinaire condemnation of subjectivity, subject matter, relational composition, drawing, and spatiality are no longer regarded as dominant, it seems to me that his formulations continue to be a powerful presence in one guise or another.In his introductory essay to Vitamin P, a survey of contemporary painting first published by Phaidon in 2002, the poet and critic Barry Schwabsky takes pains to point out the variety of stylistic positions available to a contemporary painter.
But Pop reversed this flow, suggesting a redemption of the low by the high.
In this respect, the absence of a sustained account of Pop by Greenberg is a bit more curious.
Mimicking casualness or employing a machine or fabricators to make one’s work — as many critical darlings are busy doing — might be this generation’s way of shucking responsibility.
Previous generations of artists, critics and curators bought into a constricted definition of what art could be, believing that history had brought them to an inevitable endgame and that any aesthetic alternative was spurious at best.
In his desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting, Greenberg insisted “upon the real and material plane.” This insistence led directly to the literalism of Minimalism and to the literalist readings of Pop Art, particularly the “flag” paintings of Jasper Johns.
Although Greenberg rejected Johns’ paintings, his followers did not, in part because they saw in Johns a way to distinguish their viewpoint from Greenberg’s while adhering to his model of historical progress.We know that the author of "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" was no fan of mass culture, nor of the "middlebrow" poetry and fiction published in journals like the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post.Kitsch, in Greenberg's sense of the word, denoted a watering down of modernist innovations, a pilfering of the high by the low.Greenberg’s Formalist theory was understandably attractive to younger critics and art historians because he seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method, with a variety of materially verifiable ways by which one could evaluate art.In doing so, he is claiming to be objective rather than subjective.According to Greenberg and those he influenced, painting could only be about itself — a viewpoint that artists as diverse as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol heeded, and which Johns seemed to do, in his early paintings.Certainly, Warhol — who relied on photographs for his subject matter — is acknowledging Greenberg’s insistence on painting’s flatness when he famously states: And Frank Stella’s position is not so far from Warhol when he states: “What you see is what you see.” Despite their avowed differences, here is a moment in the mid-1960s when Greenberg, Stella, and Warhol all agree with each other on a central issue: the flatness of the picture plane must be upheld.Second, in the search for its irreducible identity, advanced painting clarifies its essential uniqueness as a two dimensional, flat surface where the optical takes precedence over such traditional elements as subject and pictorial space.Third, abstraction is more advanced than representational art.In Greenberg’s view, it was Impressionism and, in particular, Claude Monet that advanced painting the furthest, and not Pablo Picasso and George Braque during their Cubist phase.In his next important essay, “Toward a New Laocoon” (1940), Greenberg further details the historical progress of painting: But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas: where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other.