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Florence Rubenfeld Collection of Archival Material for Clement Greenberg: A Life

 Collection
Identifier: NNWhit.011

Scope and Contents

The material in this collection relates to the writing and publication of Clement Greenberg: A Life, (New York: Scribners, 1998) by Florence Rubenfeld. Rubenfeld, herself an experienced art critic, began research on this book in 1987. The material in the collection dates from the beginning of her research until shortly after the publication of the book in 1998.

Of primary interest are the taped interviews conducted by Rubenfeld between 1988 and 1994 with Clement Greenberg; members of his family, including his brother Martin, wife Jennie and daughter Sarah; and those in the New York art and literary worlds with which he was involved between 1940 and the mid 1970s. Included are interviews with artists who knew Greenberg, including Louise Bourgeois, Jules Olitski, and members of sculptor David Smith's family; other art critics, including Dore Ashton, Michael Fried, Hilton Kramer, Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose, and Karen Wilkin; members of the "New York Intellectuals,” including Irving Howe, William Phillips, and Norman Podhoretz; and figures in the art world from the 1940s through the mid-1970s, the time Greenberg was active. These interviews were a primary source of information as she wrote her biography of Greenberg.

As she prepared for her interviews and sketched out the structure and significance of the book, Rubenfeld kept extensive notes in spiral-bound notebooks. These are included in Series 2. Correspondence with interviewees, lists of interview questions, interview transcriptions and other related material is included in Series 3.

In addition, Rubenfeld did exhaustive background research, represented here in series 4, Research, and Series 5, Clippings. Also included is material relating to the actual publication of the book (Series 6), as well as some material regarding other projects undertaken by Rubenfeld (Series 7).

See Series Descriptions, below, for more detailed notes on the content of each series.

Dates

  • circa 1935-1999
  • Other: Time of collation: 1988-1998

Biographical / Historical

Clement Greenberg was one of the most influential and controversial figures in the twentieth century American art world. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1909, he was instrumental in establishing Abstract Expressionism as a major artistic movement, defining a new brand of art criticism and a new role for the art critic.

Greenberg had an early facility for drawing, and an interest in art, but although he took classes at the Art Students League, he did not pursue a career as an artist. After graduating from Syracuse University, where he majored in literature, he worked a series of odd jobs, writing in his spare time. In New York City in the 1930s, Greenberg again took art classes, and met Greenwich Village artists including Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. At the same time, he associated with a group of writers connected with the magazine Partisan Review, who came to be called the "New York Intellectuals," including Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Meyer Schapiro, and Lionel Trilling.

In 1939, Partisan Review published Greenberg's article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," to great acclaim. This essay examined modem society through popular culture and painterly abstraction, and brought him great notoriety. Greenberg then joined the editorial staff of Partisan Review, working primarily as a literary reviewer. In 1941, he wrote his first art review for The Nation, and wrote regularly for the magazine from 1942 to 1949. He also served as associate editor of Commentary, a monthly journal launched by the American Jewish Committee, from 1945 to 1957.

As an art critic, Greenberg developed a vigorous and authoritative style, and a rigorous theoretical framework that became known as "Greenberg formalism." At a time when western art looked to Europe, Greenberg focused on America, and ultimately was a key figure in shifting the focus of the avant-garde to New York. Greenberg championed the Abstract Expressionist painters, especially Jackson Pollock, as well as the sculptor David Smith. Later Greenberg looked to Color Field Painters, especially Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, seeing their abstractions as the purest expression of his formal vision.

In the 1950s, Greenberg was no longer writing regular art reviews, but did continue to write major reviews and exhibition catalog essays. In addition, Greenberg published four books: Miro, 1948; Matisse, 1953; Hans Hofmann, 1961; and Art and Culture, 1961.

Greenberg also organized exhibitions of the work of Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Hans Hofmann. He also gave lectures at museums and universities, and worked as a consultant for galleries and museums. Greenberg's personal ties to artists, dealers and curators gave him great influence.

Greenberg's reputation went into decline in the 1970s when it was uncovered that, while serving as the executor of sculptor David Smith's estate, he had ordered the paint removed from six Smith sculptures. The resulting scandal added fuel to the existing impression that Greenberg perhaps wielded too much power in the New York art world. There was also speculation that in exchange for critical praise, Greenberg received artwork, which he then sold for astronomical sums.

A new generation of critics questioned Greenberg's authority, critical discernment and power as a critic, along with his character, in a practice that came to be known as "Clembashing." Magazine articles referred to him as "the most hated man in the art world."

Despite a hostile climate in the art world, Clement Greenberg continued to publish articles and to give talks in the United States and abroad until his death in 1994 at the age of 85. His Collected Essays, published in four volumes between 1986 and 1993, received critical praise, and did much to mitigate the years of hostility from the art world.

Florence Rubenfeld, an art critic, teacher and arts administrator, began work on her full-length biography of Clement Greenberg in 1987. This book, Clement Greenberg: A Life, was published by Scribner's in 1998. Previously, Rubenfeld was the East coast editor for New Art Examiner, and Washington correspondent for Arts magazine. She has contributed to many other art journals, including ARTnews and American Craft Magazine. In addition, Rubenfeld has been guest lecturer at Christie's, the Krasner/Pollock House and Study Center, East Hampton, NY, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and the Smithsonian Association Resident Associates Program. She was the organizer and moderator of "Round Table" discussion groups, attended by curators, writers and artists, that met monthly from 1986 to 1988 to discuss ideas and issues in contemporary art.

Extent

137 cassette tapes 7 microcassette tapes items

2.75 Linear Feet

Language of Materials

English

Arrangement

This collection is organized into seven series as follows:

Series I: Recorded interviews, 1987-1994

Series is arranged in alphabetical order by interviewee, then chronologicaly by date.

Series II: Notebooks, circa 1987-1994

Series is arranged in chronological order[as best as can be determined from contents]

Series III:Interview material, 1987-1995

Series is arranged in alphabetical order by interviewee

Series IV: Research, early 1940s-1990s

  • Subseries 4.1: Greenberg Correspondence, 1943-1959
  • Subseries 4.2: General, 1989-1999

Series V: Clippings, 1930's- late 1990s

Series is arranged by subject.

Series VI: Book Publication, circa 1988-1999

Series is arranged by folder title

Series VII: Other Projects, circa 1990s

Series is arranged by folder title



For series and subseries descriptions, scroll down to Container List.
Language of description
Undetermined
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Whitney Museum of American Art Archives, New York, NY Repository

Contact:
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St.
New York, NY 10014 United States




Access to the Archives:

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