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February 2007
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On Greenberg (Part 1 of 2): Dispelling Miscomprehension
by Jay Heuman

In "Criticism in the Moment" (January edition), Geoff Wichert provides one critical perspective on the state of today's art criticism. The essay is thought-provoking, and I rather enjoy Wichert's prose. However, though his focus is LACMA's exhibition Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (through March 4, 2007), and the writings of Frederick Crews and Thomas McEvilley, Wichert begins with gratuitous "Clem-bashing" -- the heavy-handed criticism of Clement Greenberg considered mandatory for Baby Boomers in the art world by the 1970s. When Greenberg fell out of favor and passed away (1994), Wichert seems to have experienced an immediate sense of liberation from the authoritarian father of American High Modernist abstraction.[1]

As a member of the generation raised with MTV and the Internet, and for the DDR and iPod generation, Greenberg is an historical figure. I'm not an apologist for Greenberg, as those who know me can attest; yet, having read Greenberg's writings -- with a critical eye and an open mind -- I see his contributions have not lost their relevancy. Greenberg's writings should be studied for his aesthetic posture the same way as we study Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood, and numerous other aestheticians.

This essay, Part 1 of 2, will take a look at the three main miscomprehensions about Clement Greenberg and his writings -- some drawn from Wichert's essay, some from other writers. ["Miscomprehensions" is appropriate as far too many read Greenberg's acknowledged subjective viewpoint from their unacknowledged subjective viewpoints!] Part 2 of 2, to appear in next month's issue of 15 Bytes, will focus on Greenberg's silver lining, writings and perspectives not to be ignored by artists of the 21st century.

The FIRST misconception is that Greenberg rendered judgments subjectively and unfairly – without any proof that validated his judgments and without any change in opinion. But this is reflective of reader's perceptions, after filtering by art critics/theorists of the 1980s and 1990s, like noted art critic Adam Gopnik, who described Greenberg – a man he likely did not know -- as a "dictator-critic."[2] We see this in Wichert's take on Greenberg as dogmatic: "The power of any unitary theory [is] that it is all or nothing." However, I'll take Karen Wilkin's opinion as greater authority and more believable as she is not only a respected art critic and curator, but was an acquaintance of Greenberg. As Wilkin writes: "Whether you share Greenberg's conclusions or reject them, the one irreducible constant in his approach was not his adherence to theory, but his reliance upon direct, unmediated encounters with works of art."[3]

We live in a culture of unconditional praise, so often reserving or avoiding negative judgments about choice of subject, technical competency, or matters of taste to avoid hurt feelings and low self-esteem in family, friends, and colleagues. The critic of yesteryear -- Julius Meier-Graefe, Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg -- took for granted the primacy of value judgments. For these critics (and others), they were undaunted in issuing value judgments seen as the perceived truth at that time. These value judgments were based on empirical looking and seeing specific artworks and, to quote Greenberg:

Through my taste which is intuitive and may be wrong. But as Kant said "you can't demonstrate an aesthetic judgement the way you can demonstrate that two plus two equals four, or a scientific proposition." You can't verify it, because taste is subjective. But as Kant said again "it's also intersubjective." Somehow there's an amazing amount of agreement over the course of time about the good and the bad. It's amazing, given how subjective taste seems to be.[4]

At some future date, the critic's perception -- hence the critic's judgment -- might change![5]

Unfortunately, today's newspapers and magazines do not contain criticism; rather, judgments are reserved or avoided, in many cases because the writers are not as well-versed with art-making techniques and art history. In Greenberg's words:

Look at the magazines devoted to contemporary visual art and see how more and more of the articles that fill them are scholarly or would-be scholarly, would-be high-brow in the academic way: explicative and descriptive, or historical, or interpretative, but hardly at all judicial, evaluative. Notice the proliferation of foot and tail notes, and how they attest to recondite reading, most of which has nothing to do with art. … Aesthetic quality is no longer enough to warrant praise; other, extra aesthetic values have to be invoked: historical, political, social, ideological, moral of course, and what not.[6]

The SECOND miscomprehension, related to the first for its subjective determinism, is expressed in Wichert's definition of Greenberg's concept of art history: “… ‘mainstream’ art has one -- and only one -- central current that carries history forward in unbroken progress."[7] This accusation is valid, not just of Greenberg, but the entire historical profession during the late 19th and early 20th centuries! Greenberg operated with the understanding, founded by earlier scholars (predominantly German) who developed "History" as an academic discipline, that history is linear progression.

For thousands of years art-makers produced art objects, but don't we all agree that few art-makers and art objects should make it into the history books? For better or for worse, history focuses on the significant players, whether they are: (1) INNOVATORS, like Jackson Pollock, who redefined line as velocity – not contour; (2) PRODIGIOUS, like Vincent van Gogh, who produced over 2200 artworks during a scant 10- year period, despite numerous interruptions because of mental health issues; OR, (3) POPULAR, like Andy Warhol, who used screen-printing (a mass marketing method) to transform the common and the celebrity into fine art commodities. To include every artist and every artwork is absurd; so at what point is it best to judge worth for inclusion?

Further, in the history of Western art, scholars identify the shifting trend from the "classic" to the "romantic" and back again.[8] Greenberg, following this century old scholarly tradition, defined the "classic" in relation to the dominance of literature (and narrative subjects) and the "romantic" in relation to "the artist [who] feels something and passes on this feeling -- not the situation or thing which stimulated it -- to his audience."[9] It's not that Greenberg dismissed the classic or romantic, but favored artists who did not fall into the academicization and clichés that he felt threatened aesthetic standards in the visual arts. As a result, Greenberg's working definition of Modernism was that it:

. . . consists in the continuing endeavor to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism; that the overriding and innermost logic in Modernism is to maintain the levels of the past in the face of an opposition that hadn't been present in the past. Thus the whole enterprise of Modernism, for all its outward aspects, can be seen as backward-looking.[10]

A THIRD misconception about Greenberg was that he championed "high art" and despised "popular art." For this reason, we are told, he rejected recognizable subjects, pushing artists to paint and sculpt in an abstract mode. This brings together the previous two miscomprehensions, as Greenberg's perception was that most -- not all, but most -- artists producing representational artwork fell victim to academicization and clichés … or worse, were completely commercial.[11] Pop Art is an interesting case in point: By the late 1960s, Greenberg felt Pop Art was a minor art movement ... "too agreeable, too readily pleasing; it doesn't challenge your taste enough. That's why it became so popular so quickly. And that's why it's wearing out – or has already worn out -- even in the eyes of its devotees."[12] Were Greenberg alive today, I do not believe he would revise his perception of Pop At as “minor,” as the goal of Pop was to carve out a position that challenged, even rejected, the traditional standards in the visual arts." What can a critic like Greenberg do but admit some Pop Art was good quality, judge the majority to be trivial, and move on?

Salt Lake Art Center

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Alder's Accounts
Mabel Pearl Frazer
by Tom Alder

Last month, I introduced you to A.B. Wright, the first of many "Block" artists, that is, a number of early Utah artists who gravitated to each other in the areas of the Avenues of Salt Lake, as well as locales close to the University of Utah. I have been fascinated with Mabel Pearl Frazer (1887-1981), another artist of the area, ever since my mom told me once that she took an art class from her at the U. "Mabel Frazer," she said, "was an accomplished artist and teacher, but was quite eccentric. She slept in a piano." I've done some unusual things in my lifetime but sleeping in a piano has never been one of them. I needed to learn more than the brief descriptions given Mabel in the Utah art books. I have long admired this early Utah artist, not because of the piano story, but because of her early insight into modernism in conservative Utah.

My artist/art historian sister, Julie, confirmed that she had also studied art from Frazer with her good friend, Marilyn Conover Barker, artist and author of The Legacy of Mormon Furniture. Julie and I met with Marilyn and her accomplished and high-profile husband, Des, recently to discuss Frazer, her art and story. Frazer, born in West Jordan but raised in Beaver, Utah, studied art at the U and at the prestigious Art Students League in New York. Her teaching career at the University of Utah began in 1921 and lasted 32 years until she retired in 1953 as associate professor, having for decades been passed over for that position until three years before her retirement.

Frazer had a stern look about her most of the time. She wore clothes that resembled a housedress with sturdy shoes, remembers Marilyn. "She was very nice and very fair. She could be seen driving her Model A Ford sedan, which was recognizable because of its color—brindle. It was ugly!" shared Des. Brindle is a darkish yellow-brown, hardly a color one would associate with a modernist painter. She kept this car all her life and frequently stopped in for gas on 13th East and 2nd South where Des worked while a student at the U. A brightly-lit Tesoro gas and convenience store now stands on the site. Her powerful car allowed her to venture out into the wilds with her friends where she would sketch and paint. Further, because of the high clearance of the Model A, Frazer was able to sleep under the car, avoiding the use of a tent (I prefer drifting off to sleep, gazing at the stars rather than a Meineke!). Marilyn noted that she wishes that she had had as much courage as did Frazer to drive to remote areas and paint.

Frazer remained a spinster all of her life. Her father, Thomas, an accomplished stonemason who constructed a number of volcanic-stone houses in Beaver, built a small dwelling adjacent to his own Salt Lake City home for Frazer. The extant cottage is located on the west side of University Street, between 3rd and 4th South.|1| Her living space was very limited, particularly because she filled her house with paintings, murals and easels. Included were a kitchenette and a small bedroom while the front yard served as a vegetable garden. Perhaps because she was frugal, "not weird" according to Marilyn, she came upon an old piano, the rectangular type similar to those of the mid-19th century. Many of the strings and keys were missing, but the piano itself was a piece of furniture that fit into her décor. Because of space limitations and too many paintings in her bedroom, Frazer fitted a twin-sized mattress in the piano and used it as her primary place for slumber. I asked the Barkers if she had taken the legs off of it, and they remarked that she kept the piano as it was on the high legs. "In fact," said Marilyn, "every Spring Mabel closed the cover on her piano, put a shawl over it and held a social tea, mostly for the female art students and their moms."

Frazer's paintings were not very popular and predominantly she relied on her teaching salary to live and take occasional art trips. In the early 50s, when Marilyn was an art student, Mesoamerica was a hot topic at the U., perhaps because of the Mormon connection or possibly due to the advent of television and the programming of world travel spots. Frazer journeyed south to tour and sketch the ruins at Palenque. With her devotion to the Mormon Church, Frazer must have felt a spiritual closeness to that area. Later, in her classes, she offered to the students tidbits of her travels including a tour of Italy and a floating trip down the Nile (I'm sure she was on a barge). She survived the Nile trip by eating hard-boiled eggs and oranges—two foods that required peeling—and therefore never succumbed to illness. Oh, and a sheik once proposed to her during her visit. She didn't accept.

Marilyn remembered that Frazer was largely ignored at the U., as was she. "Women were not encouraged to take art classes," she recalled. Frazer and another female teaching colleague, Florence Ware, had their studio/offices in the same area of the art department, then located in one of the old barracks west of the Annex. If you are ever in the office of the chair of the U's Art History Department, Dr. Elizabeth Peterson, be sure to look above her door where you will find the old "Art Department" sign that hung on those barracks. Marilyn remembered taking a mural class from Ware who occasionally invited her to paint in her studio. While there, Marilyn witnessed a number of arguments that took place between the two women faculty members. "They argued about everything—politics, art, religion, everything." Florence Ware came from a proper Presbyterian family, while Frazer was a centered and devout Mormon. The cultural differences were apparent, and Marilyn also remarked that Frazer told her that she could do better than by taking a mural class from Ware. It was Frazer who discovered the art department chair, A.B.Wright, and his model, Myrtle, together in Wright's studio, as reported in last month's column, that led to Wright's dismissal as chair and relocation to France where he was captured by the Nazis.

While Frazer's artwork was not popular during her lifetime, some of her interpretations on canvas were dramatic. Frazer’s The Furrow (LDS Museum of Church History and Art), 1929, projects a vivid work-ethic in the form of a farmer plowing his field. Mormon iconic seagulls follow in the furrows seeking worms. Sunrise North Rim, 1928 demonstrates Frazer's versatility in staging vivid, banded layers of the Grand Canyon. One of Frazer's artworks showed up at Williams Fine Art some years ago. I purchased it from Clayt Williams who pronounced it "a honey," Williams' unofficial highest ranking. The bright, painterly primary and secondary colors of this sunset on Great Salt Lake (Dave Ericson of Ericson Fine Arts says that it is an Italian sunset) have captivated me ever since my purchase. |2| I use the image as wallpaper on my cell phone. I also purchased, at an auction, a Frazer that offered a southerly view out of City Creek Canyon, including the dome of the Capitol, after the old Anderson Tower had been demolished.|3| I later sold this painting to my attorney and fellow "art nurdz" friend, Shane Topham, who shares my same problem of keeping the knowledge of early Utah art purchases from our spouses. We feel like Lucy and Ethel.

"Two Spirits Fling Goodbye to the Parting Day" (1930), part of the Salt Lake County Public Art Collection, is a fanciful, almost surreal portrayal of what, we don't know.|0| Frazer rarely painted human subjects in her landscapes and perhaps because of this void, she was dared to include a pair of human spirits. The bright pink colors of the two spirits and dotted clouds (unless those are spirits, too), punctuate the cool colors of the composition. Painted in 1930, this whimsical artwork, must have brought some smiles and encouragement to those who were troubled by the effects of the Great Depression. Paintings such as this would indeed be rarely found during the next few years.

Frazer passed away in Salt Lake at the age of 94 and her work has since seen inclusion in art exhibits at the BYU Museum, in New York, Washington, D.C., a number of shows at the U, The Museum of Church History and Art, and most recently at the Museum of Utah Art and History. She possessed the fire of progressive modernism in the days long before expressionists like Lee Deffebach and Bonnie Sucec created memorable works. As Mabel Frazer's sister once wrote, "I wonder if anyone really knew and understood her: At once caring, and thoughtful. Then in the blink of an eye all that was changed and she became impatient, crisp, almost unlovable, demanding to be left alone with her work, "since it is far more important than listening to meaningless babble." A statement she made to a nurse in the hospital the day before she died pretty well sums up her character. She had been giving the nurse a bad time, and feeling a little remorseful for not having been more cooperative she suddenly grasped the nurse's hand and said, "I really have a lot of love in my heart, but I also have a lot of damn-it-to-hell." Being somewhat taken aback the nurse replied, "Well, you're really human; so have I," and gently stroked back Mabel's hair." (from Olpin's, Utah Art, Gibbs-Smith Publisher, Layton, Utah p. 119.)

Next month's installment of Alder's Accounts will feature Mahonri Young. Anyone with anecdote about or work by Young you'd like to share, contact Tom at loaner1950@hotmail.com