Few things raise our artistic ire more than reading Clement Greenberg on abstract art and about Jackson Pollock in particular. On the page above, scanned from an art history textbook, one can enjoy the most incomprehensible nonsense that poses as art criticism. It sounds kind of smart, sure. It has a lot of big words and academic mumbo-jumbo. But, it doesn’t really say anything.
Well, that may be exaggeration. It does have one meaningful thought: Jackson Pollock’s most famous works were not pictures or drawings of anything. Right. Well, we could have figured that out for ourselves. But then, art critics would be out of a job, wouldn’t they?
Though most biopics inject their subjects’ lives with some fantasy to make it play well on the big screen, Ed Harris’ film remained true to the known facts without romanticizing. It presents only what you would read in Pollock’s biographies. The film reveals a bit of what seemed to plague the relationship between Greenberg and Pollock: Greenberg made quite a name for himself as an advocate of Pollock’s painting. And, Pollock garnered much acclaim from the fame Greenberg’s writing brought him.
Pollock struggled with self-doubt, though, and having Greenberg put self-important words in his mouth for interviews and statements about the “meaning” of his painting only made him feel like a phony. The critical acclaim helped support him financially, but fame pressured him to put on a bit of a show – a show he was poorly equipped to handle. A show in which he never really believed.
To judge Greenberg as either a parasite or a promoter oversimplifies how the writer and the painter needed each other for success. But in the end, Greenberg failed to take his own advice. When you strip away the confusing language, his writing urged people to understand modernist art as a thing unto itself, without referents to anything other than itself – the pure visual experience on the canvas. But, he failed to give us an understanding of Pollock’s paintings on their own. He injected them with theory and abstract concepts. He used them to paint his own ideas instead of showing them to us as they were. In the end, he painted a false portrait of Pollock the man, for Pollock’s intent was never Greenberg’s. Pollock made pretty splashes. Greenberg turned them into grandiose art theory.
Pollock liked Pablo Picasso. He aspired, perhaps, to be a great painter like Picasso. But Pollock knew exactly what he was receiving accolades for: a very simple, physical, messy approach to decorating a big surface with color. He knew this took nowhere near the technical skill of the Renaissance masters. It troubled him to be hailed in Life Magazine as “America’s Greatest Living Painter,” for he had his own opinion of great art, and never fully believed he had earned the hype.
So when we read passages by Greenberg, we should understand that he is painting over Pollock’s canvases with his own words. If you really want to see Pollock, just look. Don’t read. Don’t theorize. Just look. It is what it is: splashes of paint on a giant canvas. You either think it would look cool on your wall, or you don’t. We consider Pollock’s paintings big, awesome, and fun to look at. Maybe you don’t. Modernist theory will not change that, and it certainly won’t add anything to your enjoyment.
– from Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective, 13th Edition, Vol. 2; by Fred S. Kleiner, 2010.