Art critic. A forceful supporter of mid-twentieth-century American abstraction, he championed such artists as Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, and Kenneth Noland. His voice drew attention to abstract expressionism, color field painting, and other aspects of the New York School, particularly the hard-edge work that he christened “post-painterly abstraction.” In the 1940s and early 1950s he secured his reputation by presciently and courageously identifying and defending the abstract expressionists before they were widely recognized as the leading painters of the immediate postwar era. Advocating art for art's sake, the centrality of formal concerns, the irrelevance of literary or representational subject matter, and historically determined progress in artistic production (reflecting an early interest in Marxism), he dominated critical writing for more than two decades. His theory that modern art advanced by gradually purifying the means intrinsic to each medium became the keystone of his influence. As pop art, minimalism, and other movements introduced fresh ideas and gained an audience, by the late 1960s Greenberg's views had begun to lose much of their authority. Although his aesthetic stance was not so simpleminded as many detractors claimed, his position soon came under intense criticism. This censure extended before long to his personal reputation as well. Greenberg's arrogant, dogmatic, pugnacious manner, the proportions of his influence in the art market, and some ethically questionable transactions in his dealings with artists and galleries incited a certain enthusiasm for vilifying everything he stood for. Greenberg wrote little in the last quarter-century of his life but remained a tastemaker behind the scenes. Later critics and theorists have generally pursued richer, more intellectually nuanced explanations of art's genesis and meanings, rejecting Greenberg's fondness, especially in the 1960s, for unproved, intuitive value judgments based on taste. Despite the formalism of his aesthetic, his writing generally remained oddly deficient in formal analysis of the sort that explains how and why certain colors, shapes, and other material considerations create successful and meaningful works of art.
A New York native, he briefly attended the Art Students League before earning a BA in languages and literature from Syracuse University in 1930. From 1936 until 1942 he held civil service jobs and translated books, while beginning to publish articles on art. Two of his most important essays, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) and “‘American Type’ Painting” (1955) appeared in Partisan Review, where he worked as an editor from 1940 until 1942. After leaving that magazine, he served as the art critic for The Nation until 1949. In 1944 he also took on the position of managing editor for Contemporary Jewish Record, which merged the following year into Commentary. Greenberg remained as associate editor until 1957. Besides freelance articles for a number of journals, he published monographs on Joan Miró (1948), Matisse (1953), and Hans Hofmann (1961), as well as a critical anthology, Art and Culture (1961). Greenberg supplemented the influence of his writings by curating exhibitions featuring the work of artists he admired, jurying shows internationally, conducting seminars, and teaching intermittently at several leading colleges. Edited by John O'Brian, his Collected Essays and Criticism appeared in four volumes between 1986 and 1993. After his death, essays and seminar transcripts appeared as Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste (1999).