Clement Greenberg Essay

In 1960 Clement Greenberg (1909-94), wrote the famous essay Modernist Painting in which he analysed the ideas of modernism. He mentions Kant, the founder of modernist philosophy as the first real Modernist. According to Greenberg, Kant used logic to establish “the limits of logic”.

‘The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic, and while he withdrew much from its old jurisdiction, logic was left in all the more secure possession of what remained to it’. (Greenberg, 1960:774)

Greenberg argues that ‘Enlightenment criticised from the outside, but Modernism criticises from the inside through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticised’.

Each branch of art had to demonstrate its unique value and particular processes as a separate entity which would then keep it more secure. Greenberg pointed out that the flatness and two-dimentionally of the support was limiting and was the only condition painting shared with no other art”. (Greenberg (1960: 775)

“The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thereby each art would be rendered ‘pure’, and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. ‘Purity’ meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance”. Greenberg (1960:75)

In effect he was saying whilst acknowledging past art, it was up to art and artists to redefine their world by internal reflection unassisted by any other art form.

The artistic techniques used by the Old Masters created three-dimensional representations of reality in a painting, the viewer could see the subject of the picture, as it was instantly recognisable on the limited space of a two-dimensional support. An example is Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (1928) it states “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” translated as “This is not a pipe”. The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe.

Fig.1 The treachery of images (1929) by Rene Magritte (oil on canvas)

Modernist painting has not abandoned the representation of recognisable objects, it has abandoned the representation of the space that recognizable, three-dimensional objects can inhabit.

According to Greenberg Modernism made the viewer aware of the flatness of the picture first, whereas the Old Masters made the viewer aware of the contents of the painting first. Greenberg stresses “Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art”. Nothing should be borrowed from any other medium in order to make the art “Pure”. Viewing Modernist art should be unique and unable to be experienced by any other means. To determine Modernism’s uniqueness and become more pure, it had to progress away from representation and reduce everything to the simplest of forms. In Greenberg’s view “Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art”.

“Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is, among many other things continuity. Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as Modernist art would be impossible”. Greenberg (1960:779)

Is it possible for art to be ‘pure’ in the sense that Greenberg uses the term?

I think it would be very limiting to try to keep painting ‘pure’. Art has to move with the times and artists will always object to limitations as the Impressionists did. If they had to conform to Greenberg’s formula, they would be unable to experiment with other forms of media and be restricted.

What would Greenberg have made of a ‘contextual studies’ course?

He would probably not accept it as a painting course, as it is not advocating the formalist system he seems to prefer. The boundaries of painting now includes many more disciplines and has progressed greatly in the sixty years since his essay was written.


Fig. 1 Magritte, R. The Treachery of Images  (1929) [Oil on canvas] At: Accessed (29/06/2021)


Harrison, C and Wood, P (1999) Modernist Painting, Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas UK Blackwell Publishing. P.754-760

Tate (2021) At: Accessed (02/07/2021)

Tate (2021) At: Accessed (02/07/2021)

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