New York Times critic Roberta Smith describes the Jewish Museum’s Action/Abstraction...1940-1976, an exhibition arranged from the perspectives of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg (including a lot of their writing), as “a series of lavishly illustrated talking points,” while Peter Schjeldahl at the New Yorker describes the show as “more a perambulatory essay than an art exhibition.” Though the reviews themselves are largely positive, both statements imply a certain wariness about presenting art through the eyes of its critics — I can’t say that I agree with this, though, if only because it seems a little absurd to pick on an exhibition just because the wall labels are better than usual.
Probably the most illuminating thing about the highlighted writing is that even in a period when movements were aptly named, the artists didn’t necessarily fit squarely into these critics’ theories. “At a certain moment in time, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than a space in which to reproduce, re-design, or ‘express’ an object,” Rosenberg writes, aptly describing the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the first room of the exhibition, while ignoring the properties of Hans Hoffman’s carefully painted square fields of color displayed in the next gallery. Greenberg’s message also aptly described Pollock and de Kooning’s work, though it was similarly exclusive, and ultimately his undoing. “The essence of Modernism,” he wrote, “lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” He wasn’t wrong of course, but he never did come to terms with the fact that not all painters would want to define their art purely through formalism.
Sadly, Greenberg went on to sink his reputation in the ceaseless promotion of color field painters, though an upstairs gallery exhibiting the work of major artists working in this vein, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Lewis, Anthony Caro (a sculptor), Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, goes a far way in demonstrating why he might have become fixated on such work. And here’s the crux of the exhibition: while the art itself certainly represents a powerful force as both object and communication, it initiates a dialogue that does not end with the painting. Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were the kind of critics who pushed ideas back at artists and were instrumental in catalyzing the kind of conversations necessary to understanding any work.