Modernist Painting essay

In Clement Greenberg’s piece, written in 1960, and which is entitled ‘Modernist Painting’, he referred to Modernism art as that which includes both art and literature, using characteristic methods of a certain discipline that would criticize the discipline itself. Self-criticism in the area of Modernism was said to have come from the issue of the Enlightenment; yet while the Enlightenment gets criticized from the outside, Modernism, on the other hand, gets criticized from the inside.

As Greenberg (1960) stated, “Each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account. What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself. By doing so it would… narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it would make its possession of that area all the more certain.

” (Greenberg 1960, 1) From here it can be concluded that, Greenberg (1960) believed that an art’s competency depended upon its uniqueness and irreducibleness, where purity appeared to be the essential component in defining art works as being of standard quality or not; and with flatness as the basic ingredient that should define Modernist painting and essentiality. Yet what is most compelling here is that the flatness pushes its own limits and, in a certain process, turns itself into an arbitrary object.

This was what Greenberg (1960) meant when he concluded that Modernism uses characteristic methods wherein the discipline criticizes its own discipline. Harold Rosenberg (1952) also referred to this when he spoke of what he called the ‘action painting’ in his article entitled ‘The American Action Painters’. In Rosenberg’s article, he emphasized that the art of painting referred to a process wherein the artist gets into the canvas, making flatness turn into an object… instead of mere space.

Emphasizing that painting is never aesthetic but an ‘event’, Rosenberg (1952) referred to the process of art as putting the image right into the middle of ‘space’—with no flatness—in an action that extinguishes the object. However, not like Greenberg’s proclamation that art’s competency lies on the essential element of purity, Rosenberg (1952) conversely stated that purity and aesthetic are not the words that define the new American painting. It is, rather, the revelation of putting the ‘image’ into space and turning this image into an object of tension.

In another sense, what is really compelling here is Rosenberg’s declaration that painting is a true-to-life moment: “A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a ‘moment’ in the adulterated mixture of his life—whether ‘moment’ means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.

” (Rosenberg 1952, 3) While Greenberg (1960) believed that art is literature—criticizing the discipline itself by exhibiting uniqueness and irreducibleness, where purity appears to be the essential component of a true-to-life art; Rosenberg (1952), on the other hand, proposed that art is an event or a moment—not criticizing but going over the discipline itself to exhibit, not its uniqueness or its irreducibleness, but the event of turning flatness into space filled with tension and action.

The two art critics were not of the same line, since one believed that art is aesthetic or an expression, while another dictated that art is not an expression but a moment when flatness is being turned into an arbitrary object that coincides with true-to-life events. Between Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s theories of modernist painting and action painting, however, it appears that the former’s proclamation on Modernist art is actually more compelling than the latter.

This is because of Greenberg’s statement that art has to have the uniqueness, the irreducibleness, and the purity before turning flatness into an arbitrary object… and before turning the canvas into space. The purity of the object should not be understated, since it is the bottom line of how the artist should express or convert the image. Purity corresponds to the true-to-life distinctiveness of the object or image.

Still, it is an aesthetic expression, since it comes from an aesthetic experience, which is, then, converted into an arbitrary object. Artistic moment begins right after a true aesthetic experience.


Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting (1960): 1-8. Database on-line. Available from the Timothy R. Quigley Webpage of The New School University. Rosenberg, Harold. The American Action Painters (1952): 1-8. Database on-line. Available from the Timothy R. Quigley Webpage of The New School University.