"Yes, he was raised in New York, the son of well-off Jewish immigrants. At the time, the city was a political hotbed."
Dr. Marquis falls silent, and I nudge her again: "So this out-of-work boulevardier takes the subway into Manhattan and says that he likes being among the crowds of gentiles; he finds it's liberating. And in the '30s, of course, there are lots of folks playing at revolution in New York. Everyone has a stipend or has private means and yet is advocating revolution. 'Proletarians by proxy,' you call them."
"Yes," says Dr. Marquis.
"But," I go on, "he seems not so philosophically drawn to the Left as he is looking for drink and women, really. He is only half-joking when he says, 'I want fame and then I'll have money.' The political debate at the time was vicious. You had to keep up or be annihilated by the invective. A lot of that creeps into Greenberg's writing."
Dr. Marquis agrees: "He went to Syracuse and didn't have the training of those who attended the City College of New York, where the campus echoed with shouting matches between people of opposing views. It really sharpened debating skills. The same sort of clashes took place in people's parlors. All through the 1930s, Greenberg hardly had a job and occupied his time reading and monitoring the venomous arguments."
"Greenberg, you say, wasn't that good at verbal dueling, but he was very caustic and strong-willed on paper. He was trying to make his way among these Manhattan adversaries, and there were some formidable achievers among them, like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, Harold Rosenberg and Hannah Arendt. It was a very radical setting then. As you point out, there were even two elected city councilmen who were Communists."
"Yeah, there was much more fervor and idealism then," Dr. Marquis explains. "People are more cynical now and don't really believe any particular system is going to save the world. Anyway, Greenberg adopted Trotskyite positions in his early writing, and took up the avant-garde and kitsch as a kind of political tract. Trotsky was the only one of the red revolutionaries to write about art and artists' roles in the coming age."
"Clement Greenberg's main claim to fame," I say, "is that he championed artist Jackson Pollock and abstract art? Pollock, who, critic Harold Rosenberg is quoted saying, saw the canvas as 'an arena in which to act, rather than as a space in which to reproduce...' You compare Jackson Pollock's and Clement Greenberg's personalities in a most interesting way, suggesting that they're very similar, despite their dissimilar backgrounds."
"Pollock had a bad temper," says Dr. Marquis, "like Greenberg, and drank a lot. Greenberg, over his last 30 years, was an alcoholic. Both men felt worthless except in their work. Both were fundamentally sad and had trouble expressing themselves verbally, sometimes resorting to violent behavior with their women and with males who threatened them. Both he and Pollock often implied there were sinister forces aligned against them." Dr. Marquis pauses for a moment. "Greenberg was very much influenced by what Leon Trotsky had written about art: that the proletariat would take over producing it. But there had to be a transition when intellectuals tutored the new artists. Greenberg saw himself as a tutor to Pollock."
"And to many other artists," I add, "whom he would visit and critique."
"Exactly," she says. "Pollock in particular. Greenberg did not have much contact with real proletarians, other than Pollock. Who was uncouth, foul-mouthed, drank, acted out violently. It was, Greenberg felt, his job to mentor the painter. At the same time, a lot of Americans had money for the first time and were interested in art. Clement Greenberg was their guide, which is why his influence was so strong."
"But," I point out, "for all the publicity Greenberg garnered Pollock's work, it still wasn't sold very often or for very much."
"Not back then, no," she agrees. "The Museum of Modern Art generally resisted adding American artists and modern artists to its collection. The museum stayed with the Europeans. Through the '30s, every summer its director went to Paris to find the new art. Soon after WWII, he went and it wasn't there."
"But MoMA still didn't turn to the American artists," I say.
"It took a while, but the director did appreciate Pollock and bought a canvas around 1940. It wasn't one of his abstract drip paintings, however."
I say, "Almost the best thing Pollock does for his work is to kill himself in that 1956 car accident."
Dr. Marquis's reply is measured: "The art market is such that, when an artist dies, the work becomes much more valuable."
I elaborate on her comment: "Since there's a limited number of pieces thereafter. In fact, Greenberg convinced a number of artists and artists' widows to destroy work, hundreds of pieces."
Dr. Marquis says, "Morris Louis destroyed all his early work. And when he died, Greenberg was advisor to the estate. There were a lot of unstretched paintings. Greenberg picked out which ones to stretch and show."
"Pollock's prices skyrocketed," I say.
"Partly it was his death. And partly it was newfound prosperity and more people getting interested in acquiring art. The art scene just exploded."
"You write that there was a museum opening every three or four days in North America."
"There was a tremendous surge. By the time the pop artists came along -- Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg -- there was a much larger pool of people interested in art. It reached a frenzy. When Lichtenstein and other pop artists have their first shows, they are sold out before they open. Buyers knock on gallery doors to get in and buy before the public is let in."
"Greenberg denounced pop art," I interject.
"Oh, absolutely," Dr. Marquis exclaims. "He hated the pop artists."
"Do you like pop art?"
"Very much, and my next book is about pop. But the latest rage...? I do find it difficult, going to a gallery and seeing a pile of old sofas, and finding that this is considered a really exciting work of art."