Clement Greenberg “Modernist Painting” Short Summary

Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” In his text entitled “Modernist Painting”, Greenberg focuses on the development of painting between the 14th and 19th century and emphasizes on what distinguishes Modernist painting from previous forms of painting, particularly those of the Old Masters. Greenberg begins by relating Modernist art to Kantian philosophy claiming that, the same way Kant used reason in order to examine the limits of reason, Modernist art is when art became self critical because it uses the technique of art to draw attention to its status as art.

Indeed, he explains how without this self-examination similar to that of Kant’s reflection on Philosophy, art would’ve been “assimilated to […] therapy” like religion, because it could’ve very simply valueless and reduced to simple entertainment. Pushing it further, he adds that “what had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general”, but also the subject of painting specifically had to detach itself from other art forms and return to its own roots.

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Greenberg was then able to identify that what characterizes the uniqueness of each form of art is the nature of its medium: What he characterized as wholly unique to painting is the flatness of its two dimensional medium, and the purely optical rather than the tactile too. Indeed, he stresses on how Modernist painting separates three-dimensional illusion from its two-dimensional surface, reserving it for sculpture that is an art of three-dimensionality.

Therefore, unlike the Old Masters of paintings whose goal was to create depth of space and challenge the flatness of the medium, Modernist paintings focus on the nature of painting by reinforcing the medium’s purity and rejecting any “suggestion of a recognizable entity” that would subvert the two-dimensionality of the plane (This had started with the Impressionists).

Greenberg continues by arguing that, although he claims “realist, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art”, Modernist paintings do not represent a complete rupture from past art (unlike Avant-Garde art for which he similarly mentions that it’s the medium that is significant rather than the content, but it differs from Modernist paintings because it challenges the definition of “art” by stressing on re-creating the form of art itself).

But based on his analysis though, it seems that paintings of Old Masters and Modernist ones are conflicting, clashing in principles and creating a completely fragmented continuity between them, rather than a smooth transition. Greenberg celebrates Modernist painting’s attempt at being “self-critical” which in my opinion is interesting because working within the “limits” of a form of art’s medium and emphasizing on its value differentiates this form of painting from previous ones.

But it seems to me that focusing solely on the flatness of the medium erases other values that painting could provide to its viewer. Indeed, we can consider that a viewer might appreciate reflecting on the painting’s content. But, would this make him a non-connoisseur of “real” art, and even maybe one who is simply reduced to appreciating Kitsch art in Greenberg’s opinion? Greenberg highly criticizes this form of painting which focuses on the content rather than the form, vis-a-vis Avant-Garde painting in his “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” text) Going back to out text if we follow Greenberg’s point of view, by denying depth and realism that the Old Masters were attempting to achieve to perfection, I think that the viewer would no longer think of the painting as a window that opens up a space for him to look into, creating a gap between the painting and the viewer.

An Old Master’s painting provides for the viewer the possibility of being part of the space created as an illusion of depth by the painters, and this in itself characterizes how these painters found their own different way of challenging painting compared to what it previously used to be, by breaking the limits of painting defined by the medium.

And on the contrary, Modernist paintings focusing on the flatness of the pictorial plane give the viewer the possibility to travel through the painting “only with the eye” (experienced by Manet and Impressionist painters). But, Greenberg insists that being self-critical doesn’t suggest that leading painting into the extreme abstraction is the answer to Modernist painting (he gives the example of Kandinsky and Mondrian).

Taking following extreme cases of abstraction, when speaking of Pollock’s work such as his ”Autumn Rhythm” (1950), we realize how the visual formed is fully based on science and gravity that permits the dripping and pouring of the paint on the horizontal canvas. But, by walking around/on the canvas we can argue Greenberg’s analysis and suppose that the painter possibly connects with it, he gets drowned in the act and merges inside the painting while mechanically pouring paint on the canvas.

This means that even though the painter tries to focus on the flatness of the painting rather than the content and is physically detached from the canvas, this focus cannot erase an emotional link occurring while he works, undeniably creating meaning and content to the painting, relevant to the painter himself individually. Another case of abstraction is the painter Rothko who bases his style on Color Field painting characterized by strong colors, shapes and balances between the elements.

To him, focusing on the flatness of the two-dimensional painting reveals a truth of the painting being “what you see is what you get”. But firstly, maybe flatness in painting cannot be entirely obtained. Even Greenberg later declares that “the flatness towards which Modernist paintings orients itself can never be an absolute flatness” because this flatness is broken the instant paint is applied on the canvas. In addition, it seems to me that whenever something is applied on a plane, it corresponds to the creation of elements inside a frame for the viewer to look into.

There is therefore creation of space, which inevitably disputes the flatness of a painting. Secondly, if we look at all these abstract painters’ work and accept their emphasis on the medium rather than deeply looking deeply “inside a painting”, it appears to me that the painting becomes reduced to a mere object. And, doesn’t this idea in itself contradict modernism’s three-dimensionality rejection? By doing so, painters have pushed the definition of Modernist paining mentioned by Greenberg too far.

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Clement Greenberg “Modernist Painting” Short Summary. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from