In the canon of 20th-century art, few figures were as influential as Clement Greenberg. A writer and critic of incomparable influence, he changed the trajectory of post-war art for ever
Clement Greenberg’s belief in the significance of Abstract Expressionism and post-painterly abstraction led him to become an early champion of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland. Discriminating and decidedly iconoclastic, Greenberg was as infamous as his theories on art.
In the late 1930s, he began to write cultural essays while employed by the United States Customs Service. Soon, his work could be found on the pages of the Partisan Review and other journals. As Greenberg later recalled ‘I no longer took my opinions in the matter of painting and sculpture as much to be granted,’ he said, ‘and began to feel responsible for them.’
Greenberg’s formative 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, published in the Partisan Review, established the writer as a rising talent in art criticism. In it, he laid the groundwork for ideas he would expand across his career. When he joined Partisan Review as an editor in 1940, he entered into one of New York’s premier intellectual circles. Two years later, Greenberg became the art critic for The Nation; at the conclusion of the Second World War, he was named an associate editor at Commentary.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Greenberg ranked as one of the world’s most respected critics. In 1955, he met Jenny Van Horne, a recent college graduate who had come to New York to become an actress. As Van Horne recounted in her memoir, A Complicated Marriage, a chance cocktail-party meeting with Greenberg — who had only recently ended a stormy five-year relationship with Helen Frankenthaler — set the stage for an extraordinary lifetime with art.
The Greenbergs quickly married, and their early years were a whirlwind of parties, exhibitions and visits to artists’ studios. Their social circle included Truman Capote, Saul Bellow, Leo Castelli, Peggy Guggenheim, and Diana Vreeland. They collected works by artists including Caro, Dzubas, Noland, Frankenthaler, Smith, and Olitski – individuals the couple cherished for their talent and friendship.
When Greenberg died in 1994, Van Horne became the guardian of her husband’s legacy, handling the acquisition of his papers by the Getty Research Center and the presentation of a selection of the couple’s private collection to the Portland Art Museum. Van Horne died in 2015 but the Greenbergs’ cultural legacy is ongoing, and stands as a model for future generations of scholars and collectors.
‘I had never thought about them [the artworks] in terms of ownership,’ Van Horne once remarked ‘I always knew that they were just passing through.’