MAX ERNST, A GERMAN SURREALIST and sometime husband of Peggy Guggenheim (the famously promiscuous art dealer), once overturned a fully loaded ashtray on the bald head of Clement Greenberg, thereby crowning him “King of the Critics,” which indeed he was from the later 1940s through the 1970s. He influenced artists, dealers, collectors, curators, other art critics, and academics. As Florence Rubenfeld, his best biographer, put it, for more than 30 years he “served as the backboard off which the art conversation bounced.” As a LACMA curator once quipped, he “loved being a tastemaker.”
Greenberg actually began as a literary critic in the 1930s, published his first seminal essay in the Partisan Review in 1939, became the foremost champion of abstract expressionism and color-field painting (aka post–painterly abstraction), and thereby claimed New York City as the art capital of the world. He did more than anyone else (even more than Peggy G.) to make Jackson Pollock the most widely known American artist. Brilliant, brash, a bully at times and iconoclastic, Greenberg became controversial, increasingly so in the 1980s. At least 20 major artists owe their reputations and hence their livelihoods to him, such was his power and his ability to ingratiate himself at their studios, making so bold as to suggest serious changes in their work.
During the summer of 1955 Greenberg suffered a nervous breakdown (his first occurred in 1943 in the army) because of Helen Frankenthaler, with whom he had fallen in love soon after she graduated from Bennington College. A budding creative artist and a great beauty, she rejected him after a five-year affair. In October 1955 a lonely and depressed Greenberg met a tall, winsome new Bennington grad named Janice Van Horne at a party in Greenwich Village decorated with damsels. The celebrity art rush had just begun.
The couple soon became engaged, maintained a sexless relationship for a brief while (she a virgin), and then he proposed an open marriage which she accepted in 1956, not anticipating how many lovers she and he would eventually take, starting in the 1960s. She, for example, dallied with her psychoanalyst and much later married an art director for movies and television in Los Angeles, but eventually left their home in Santa Monica to be remarried to Clem, as everyone called him, in 1992. They had been apart for 22 years.
Yet they had always remained “connected.” She went back “because I was needed” (his alcoholism had worsened) and devotedly nursed him through his final illness in 1994. As she says, it was indeed a complicated marriage. Greenberg’s favored shrink, Ralph Klein (at times seeing him five days a week), believed in the avoidance of “spousal dependency” and pushed that view on his clients. It became a welcome position for Clem to adopt. An open marriage suited him, placated Klein, and seemed so convenient.
In A Complicated Marriage, many people seem to be on the rebound from unhappy marriages, alcohol, and drugs, often to reshape relationships or even a vocation. Yet conciliation (and re-con) might have been easier for marital partners in that milieu than for professional colleagues. According to Rubenfeld, the rifts between Greenberg and sometime friends were permanently irreconcilable: prime examples being novelist Saul Bellow, dealer André Emmerich, critic Michael Fried, art historian Rosalind Krauss, and above all, rival critic and theorist Haro...read more