Clement Greenberg “Modernist Painting” Short Summary

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In his essay “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg explores the development of painting from the 14th to the 19th century, emphasizing differences between Modernist painting and earlier art forms like those produced by the Old Masters. Greenberg suggests that Modernist art is akin to Kantian philosophy in its use of reason to explore its own limitations, with Modernist artists employing techniques that highlight their art’s inherent nature.

The author highlights the importance of self-examination, drawing parallels to Kant’s reflection on Philosophy. Without this introspection, art risks becoming a therapeutic and valueless form of entertainment similar to religion. Furthermore, the author emphasizes the need for painting as a medium to distinguish itself from other art forms and reconnect with its original essence.

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According to Greenberg, the uniqueness of each form of art lies in its medium. He argues that painting is distinguished by its flatness as a two-dimensional medium and its focus on the optical rather than the tactile. Greenberg highlights that Modernist painting separates the illusion of three-dimensionality from its two-dimensional surface, reserving it for sculpture.

Unlike the Old Masters of paintings, Modernist paintings have a different goal. Their aim is to emphasize the nature of painting by maintaining its purity and avoiding any representation of recognizable objects that would detract from the flatness of the canvas. This approach, which was first seen with the Impressionists, diverges from the Old Masters’ intention to create depth and challenge the two-dimensionality of the medium.

According to Greenberg, Modernist paintings do not completely break away from past art. He asserts that while realist, naturalistic art used art to hide art, Modernist paintings are not entirely different from this approach. Greenberg also mentions Avant-Garde art, which similarly emphasizes the medium over the content. However, unlike Modernist paintings, Avant-Garde art challenges the definition of “art” by focusing on recreating the form of art itself.

According to his analysis, paintings by Old Masters and Modernist artists are in conflict, with contrasting principles that create a fragmented continuity rather than a seamless transition. Greenberg celebrates the Modernist movement’s pursuit of self-criticism, which I find intriguing because it sets this form of painting apart from its predecessors by working within the limits of the medium and emphasizing its value.

However, I believe that solely focusing on the flatness of the medium disregards other aspects of painting that can be valuable to viewers. It is possible for a viewer to appreciate the reflection and meaning behind the content of a painting. According to Greenberg, this may classify the viewer as someone who does not appreciate “real” art and only appreciates Kitsch art. Greenberg heavily criticizes this style of painting that prioritizes content over form, in comparison to Avant-Garde painting in his work “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”. Considering Greenberg’s perspective, if we reject the depth and realism that the Old Masters strived for, the viewer may no longer perceive the painting as a window that provides a glimpse into another space, creating a disconnect between the artwork and the viewer.

The Old Masters’ paintings offer the viewer the opportunity to become immersed in the illusion of depth created by the painters. This reflects how these painters sought to challenge traditional painting by pushing beyond the defined boundaries of the medium.

In contrast, Modernist paintings emphasize the flatness of the picture plane, allowing viewers to navigate through the artwork solely with their eyes (as seen in Manet and Impressionist paintings). However, Greenberg argues that being self-critical does not mean that extreme abstraction is the solution for Modernist painting (he cites Kandinsky and Mondrian as examples).

Taking extreme cases of abstraction into account, such as Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” (1950), we understand that the visual result is primarily influenced by the scientific principles of gravity that allow paint to be dripped and poured onto a horizontal canvas. However, when we move around or walk on the canvas, we can challenge Greenberg’s interpretation and suggest that the artist may actually connect with it, becoming immersed in the process and becoming one with the painting as they mechanically pour paint onto the canvas.

Despite the painter’s effort to emphasize the flatness of the painting instead of its content, and despite being physically separate from the canvas, there is still an emotional connection established during the process of creation. This emotional link inevitably adds meaning and substance to the painting, specifically relevant to the individual painter. Another form of abstraction is seen in the works of painter Rothko, who adopts the Color Field painting technique featuring vibrant colors, distinct shapes, and a careful balance between the various elements.

To him, the emphasis on the lack of depth in the two-dimensional artwork uncovers the idea that the painting merely presents what is visible. However, it should be noted that achieving complete flatness in a painting is nearly impossible. Even Greenberg acknowledges that “the flatness that Modernist paintings strive for can never truly be absolute” as soon as paint is applied to the canvas. Furthermore, it appears that whenever a substance is added to a surface, it creates a composition within a frame for the viewer to observe.

There is a creation of space, which disputes the flatness of a painting. Additionally, when considering abstract painters and their focus on the medium rather than the inner depths of a painting, it seems that the painting becomes reduced to an object. This contradicts modernism’s rejection of three-dimensionality. As a result, painters have gone beyond Greenberg’s definition of Modernist painting.

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

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