Metaphor of the Absolute in the Avant-Garde

Interpretations by Clement Greenberg and T.J. Clark

Jackson Pollock, “Number 1,” 1948

The central theme of dispute between Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” and T.J. Clark’s 1982 essay, “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art” has to do with the perceived place and function of metaphor in the avant-garde art of the mid-20th century, a period of art known today as Abstract Expressionism.

This question of metaphor and its place in Abstract Expressionism can be explored by considering two of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings: Number 1, 1948 and One (Number 31, 1950), 1950. These works are especially revealing because they simultaneously achieve pure abstraction, yet maintain a connection to an idea of wholeness and of the absolute, a metaphor for ‘oneness,’ which though non-figurative, seems to shift into the representational upon closer inspection.

Jackson Pollock, “One (Number 31, 1950)”, 1950

Published in 1939, in the context of the beginning political and societal turmoil of World War II, Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” argues that avant-garde art should remain stringently medium-specific so as to rid itself of what he perceived as traditional figurative art’s controlling and illusionistic influence.

This figurative art, Greenberg believed, had become hijacked and corrupted by capitalism, and had turned into nothing but kitsch, or ‘predigested’ art produced for the consumption of an uncritical mass public. By removing itself so completely from figuration, Greenberg argued that avant-garde art would be freed from metaphor, and would thus be able to devote itself to the search for the absolute through modes of abstraction. In this view, avant-garde art would be an end in itself. Rather than operating as a reference to an object, painting in the avant-garde would be its own object, doing away with the possible effects of metaphor completely.

Published in 1982, T.J. Clark’s essay, “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art” presents an argument that the avant-garde of the mid-20th century was not in fact free of the external forces of metaphor and convention, as Greenberg would have imagined, but that it was operating within the context of these preexisting forces. That is, Clark maintained that the avant-garde artists of the time were still working within a set of metaphors, albeit more complex than those involved in figurative art and based on an approach of negation, rather than imitation.

Clark argues that the avant-garde’s aesthetic of a supposed absence of clear meaning or form can paradoxically only be expressed through some type of meaning and form, using the conventions of metaphor. The avant-garde’s taking on of metaphor is thus seen as a ‘risk,’ one that Greenberg throws out completely, but one that Clark sees as necessary for the avant-garde to engage with in order to achieve the goals of its abstraction.

Clark calls into question Greenberg’s belief that avant-garde art can and should be an end in itself. Clark writes,

Thus while it seems to me right to expect little from the life and art of late capitalism, I still draw back from believing that the best one can hope for from art, even in extremis, is its own singular and perfect disembodiment.

Clark makes this point clear by considering the ‘notorious fact’ of flatness. He articulates how beginning in the late 19th century, flatness in painting was made to stand for qualities that were derived from an “articulated account of experience.” These were qualities such as being an analogue for the ‘popular,’ or a signifier of ‘modernity.’

Clark argues that flatness in the avant-garde of Greenberg’s time still carried meaning dependent on what came before and what was available from the societal consciousness of the time, rather than standing apart as its own discovery or truth apart from culture. That is, flatness’s substance derived from the meanings that were projected upon it — flatness was not a ‘fact’ of avant-garde painting that stood on its own.

Clark writes that concerning the use of flatness in the avant-garde,

[T]here was no fact without the metaphor, no medium without its being the vehicle of a complex act of meaning.

This statement seems to call into question the ideas of avant-garde ‘purity,’ as no feasible escape from metaphor is possible as it serves the very foundation of avant-garde meaning.

The theme of metaphor in the Greenberg and Clark’s essays can be further considered by treating Jackson Pollock’s art as a case study. Pollock’s art emerged in the mid-20th century as a symbol of advanced art that seemed to exemplify Greenberg’s avant-garde values. Pollock’s drip paintings such as Number 1, 1948 and One (Number 31, 1950), 1950 annihilated many of the values and conventions held by the artists of his time. Most strikingly, his works broke away from the insistence on figuration. All that is in view in Pollock’s drip paintings are splatters and streaks of paint that escape any attempt of finding forms or recognizable structures within them. Again in line with Greenberg’s essay, these drip paintings emphasize the process and the medium of the artwork itself.

Pollock broke away from the vertical canvas and worked on a horizontal canvas, allowing the paint to drip by the force of gravity rather than applying it to the canvas with full intention. This introduced an automatist and aleatory component to his work. There was an ‘all-over’ quality in these works, as all areas of the canvas were just as important as the rest. These drip paintings contained no perspective, only shallow depth, which could be approximated to overall flatness.

So far, this description of Pollock’s work is perfectly in line with Greenberg’s stance on what the avant-garde should be. Pollock dissolved the conventions that separated line and color. As stated in Art Since 1900,

[I]n thus canceling or suspending the distinction between line and color, Pollock’s skeins further transcended, so Greenberg (along with his colleague Michael Fried) argued, the conditions of reality in order to enter the dialectical terms of abstraction. For, as Fried put it, Pollock’s line succeeded in bonding and delimiting “nothing — except, in a sense, eyesight.”

This success in signifying ‘nothing’ besides vision would be thought of as a triumph by Greenberg since the medium-specific nature of abstract painting would cause it to only produce meaning through purely visual routes.

If we search a bit deeper, however, we can find cracks in this neat interpretation of Pollock as an exemplar of Greenberg’s avant-garde’s ideals. It is interesting to note Pollock’s frequent use of One in the titles of his drip paintings.

Jackson Pollock, “One: Number 31,” 1950

Clark provides us with the framework of two types of ‘oneness’ that are at play here. The first type of oneness is “parallel to the indivisible optical plenum of the Greenberg and Fried (modernist) reading.” This is a oneness that is an end in itself, a pure abstract truth separate from metaphor. Clark, however, views this type of oneness as a metaphor for the “idea of order or wholeness rather than a rendition of it in all its abstractness.”

Jackson Pollock, “Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950” 1950

The second type of oneness is one that Clark sees as indicative of a drive to achieve absolute wholeness, or an absolute prior-ness, “before a mark transforms itself for its maker from the index of his or her presence — as in a palm-print deposited on the wall of a cave — into a representation or image of that presence.” This second type of oneness, too, cannot escape from the condition of a metaphor. Clark sees the insistence on “before transfiguration” in Pollock’s focus on the index separate from that to which it is pointing. Strangely, this struggle against metaphor only makes metaphor’s influence on Pollock’s art more apparent.

It is telling that Pollock eventually returned to the figurative. This return occurs in the summer of 1950, when his paintings, ever larger and seeming to be ever more authoritative, fully submit to the metaphor of oneness that was lying in wait for them all that time. They become, that is, pictures of nature — massive crypto-landscapes, such as Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950, and One: Number 31, 1950, 1950.

Jackson Pollock, “Number 1 (Lavender Mist),” 1950

The fact that the Greenberg and Clark essays considered here were written nearly 40 years apart from one another warrants some consideration. Today, Greenberg’s critique seems naïve, both because of his views on art’s simultaneous profound independence from culture, and on the importance of its political duty to culture to oppose kitsch.

However, it is apparent now that remaining a part of the avant-garde requires the constant generation of new ideas and new strategies for making art. The avant-garde cannot be thought of as a static entity. The new becomes old, and generalizations and sweeping statements about art, such as the ones that Greenberg laid out in his essay eventually become invalidated. Because of this, it should not surprise us that Greenberg and Clark’s views on the place and the function of metaphor in the avant-garde of the mid-20th century stand in such a state of tension.

This essay was originally written in Spring 2012 as part of the course requirements for ‘Post-WWII Modern and Postmodern Art’ offered in Harvard University’s History of Art and Architecture Department and taught by Professor Benjamin Buchloh.