Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg by Alice Goldfarb Marquis. MFA Publications, 2006, $35, 321 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Clement Greenberg dominated the American art scene and is still considered the most influential American art critic of the last century. He almost single-handedly established Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists and set the standard for art criticism.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"A complex, highly nuanced portrait of America's most controversial art critic. A masterful biography of Greenberg (1909-1994)... a rare combination of meticulous scholarship and crisp, vivid prose." -- The Brooklyn Rail
"Formidable." -- Bookforum
"Bracing...a biography that reads more like a novel, one that will no doubt excite and unnerve many readers...a benchmark...the life and legacy of Clement Greenberg." -- Wall Street Journal
"Fascinating." -- John Russell, New Criterion
"A rich, incisive, and even-handed portrait of this groundbreaking arbiter of aesthetics." -- Art & Antiques
"Marquis writes engagingly, making a reasonable case for Greenberg's enduring importance." -- Wilson Quarterly
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Alice Goldfarb Marquis is an award-winning journalist and historian. Her previous books include Marcel Duchamp, Alfred H. Barr, Hopes and Ashes,The Art Biz, and Art Lessons, recipient of a San Diego Book Award for best nonfiction.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I almost want to ask Alice Goldfarb Marquis, how did a nice person like you choose such a bristly, irascible, antisocial, hidebound, pugnacious sexist like Clement Greenberg for the subject of a critical biography? But I suspect I know. He was also intriguing, mischievous, and wrote like an angel, albeit fallen. What I say is: "Clement Greenberg, you point out, was very attracted to women -- liberated women, sexually experienced women -- and had an affair with Jean Connelly, the wife of Cyril. And had an affair with Mary McCarthy [author of The Group]. After they'd broken up, McCarthy told someone that he was mad at her for his not having fallen in love with her."
"It was strictly like a tennis match between those two," says Dr. Marquis.
"They stayed friends for a long time."
"They did, they did," she says, almost wistfully.
"With slightly younger, weaker -- intellectually weaker -- women, and with less experienced women, he actually gets physically abusive."
"He just couldn't express his rage verbally," says Alice Marquis. "I think he saw women in one way: as being weaker. When he couldn't control them, he would see them as a menace of some kind."
"He doesn't slap Mary McCarthy," I point out. "He realizes there's something else there. He might get slapped back. But for all of his immense socializing -- going out all the time to posh dinners in Manhattan and political drinking sessions -- he was really a loner. I mean, his idea of a good time was to have dinner by himself and go to a movie."
"Which he did frequently," she says.
"You describe an incident where he almost comes to blows with critic Lionel Trilling at a party. He actually punches a romantic rival at another event. For an unathletic bald guy, he was certainly into fisticuffs," I say. "He's quite imposing. I mean, he's very physical and often gets into actual fights in somebody's living room, like a Norman Mailer, two-fisted artiste."
Dr. Marquis considers for a moment before speaking: "He always had to be on top. And that's one reason that he didn't have really close friendships with anybody."
"He even stayed mad at his parents," I interject, "for always throwing away his artwork when he was a child."
"Yes," says Dr. Marquis. "At the Getty Museum in L.A. there are quite a few drawings and sketches of Greenberg's. I was surprised that his own [adult] work was all little portraits, little snapshots of structures, of people. It was all representational."
"But to begin at the beginning.... You're a visiting scholar at the University of California at San Diego. Where is home?" I ask author Alice Goldfarb Marquis.
"Well, I live right across the street from the campus."
"Oh, so you're visiting from across the street."
Dr. Marquis laughs. "Yes. I was raised in New York City. My husband and I came West. We had a lot of luck and success running newspapers in California. As a result, eventually I was in a position to do whatever I wanted."
"To become an historian," she says. "I finished my Ph.D. in 1978. I didn't want to teach undergraduates in some obscure college and started writing books instead. Art Czar is my seventh."
"And UCSD has been very supportive?"
"Yes," says Dr. Marquis. She sounds amused. "Although they can't quite figure out what I'm doing, because when I started there, I was told that my sentences were too short. My paragraphs, too."
"And here I'm about to bless you for not writing in academic style. You did such a splendid job with Art Czar . It's so wry and witty, and amazingly balanced, given the difficulty of Clement Greenberg's obstreperous personality. Were you published by many publishers, a few publishers?"
"Oh, always different ones. Some merged into other publishing houses, or an editor came along who didn't like what I wrote, so I'd have to find another house. But now I have the ideal publisher, which is the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The director of publications edits my work and I'm grateful."
"Yeah, editing is passé," I add. "Editors concentrate just on acquisition. So for your seventh subject you chose Clement Greenberg, the leading art critic of the 1930s and '40s, who worked as an editor himself on the culture beat for left-wing periodicals. Like Greenberg, do you find yourself re-editing already published work? Just going over and over it, never feeling it's finished?"
"That was something I was absolutely stunned to see, in examining his papers at the Getty -- that he actually would read and edit writing that was already in print, published, done."
"Clement Greenberg came of age in a radical period," I prompt.