Open Marriage Chez Clem: A Life with Clement Greenberg

By Michael KammenDecember 30, 2012

Open Marriage Chez Clem: A Life with Clement Greenberg

A Complicated Marriage: My Life with Clement Greenberg by Janice Van Horne

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 Harold Rosenberg.

Van Horne has her own tales to tell. In August 1957 while Lee Krasner, Pollock’s artist wife, was in Europe, Jackson drove to Clem’s rented place nearby on eastern Long Island where Janice (known as Jenny) was being visited by a girlfriend. After they had a few beers Pollock sat on a chair with a towel around his neck, delighted “as any pasha on a throne” while the two women trimmed the shaggy edges of his hair, not too difficult because it was coarse, unlike Clem’s (the only person Jenny had previously barbered). After Jenny also trimmed his ears, beard, and eyebrows, the friend clipped his nails — a mani and a pedi, as it were. After that they retired to Jackson’s favorite bar in the Hamptons where he talked at length about the importance for him of the Impressionists and especially Monet. Later that month Pollock famously crashed his lethal convertible into a tree while speeding home — the most vainglorious finale of any American artist.

Van Horne provides a personal account of that event. The most engrossing part of this book is called “Artists & Wives & a Trip,” smartly eschewing sequential narrative in favor of engaging parallel segments in which Clem introduces Jenny to Hans Hoffmann, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Pollock and Krasner, the great sculptor David Smith, and others. At Smith’s home on Lake George, Clem and Jenny were served venison from a deer the host had shot. “I was grateful to that deer,” Van Horne writes. “I had heard the stories about David’s pies that he would concoct for guests out of chipmunks, groundhogs, and any other furry critter that might get in the crosshairs of his rifle.”

Episodes like that abound about figures we mainly know only from museums rather than bars, kitchens, and cabins. Barnett Newman, for example, not only talked excessively and brazenly; on one occasion he “launched [deadpan] into an analysis of the nurses and their perfect breasts, and did Clem have any theories on why, on average, nurses had better breasts than other women?”

When Jenny met Marisol Escobar, still young and aspiring, she “sculpted very large penises. She was inscrutable in a forbidding way […] Venezuelan, beautiful, with gobs of money and gobs of black hair that she wore as a veil, and a sly — or was it cruel? — smile. And when she deigned to speak she growled single, heavily accented words, usually repeated twice. The sheer rarity of her utterances always brought conversations to a halt.” Such vivid vignettes glimmer and linger in our memory cells. But as Van Horne notes, although wives were present when intense and lengthy conversations occurred, “Men talked and women listened.” She did not consider herself a feminist until the 1980s, having been more like a fly on the wall in the 1950s and 1960s.

Van Horne first followed Clem to Los Angeles in 1960 because he was having an affair there. Looking back several decades later she remarks that she “always had a good time in LA […] A good-time town, as far as one could get from New York and yet still feel in the mainstream. A heterogeneous soup of colors and languages. The only city I had ever imagined living in other than New York.” While there she attended writers’ workshops, wrote plays, and attended the Actors’ Studio, which “matched its New York mother ship in intensity and tough standards of the work and criticism. It also perpetuated the cliquey-ness and elitism that ensured its edginess.” Her ultimate verdict on Los Angeles may or may not seem complimentary.

Where else would I have had my aura cleansed (twice), have been counseled by a psychic nutritionist in the art of dangling a crystal over an avocado in the supermarket to test its toxicity to my energy flow, have traveled afar to attend clandestine channeling sessions, have consulted a mantric healer, have been advised by a psychic astrologist, have my chakras cleared, have been Rolfed, have been treated regularly by acupuncturists and herbalists, and have been massaged every way to Sunday and back?

The second half of this book understandably concentrates on Van Horne’s personal development, career choices, and affairs, so that the reader interested in the mainstage art scene really needs to have at hand Rubenfeld’s astute and compelling Clement Greenberg: A Life (1997) where the final chapters assay the subject’s contentious war with Harold Rosenberg, his biggest rival in criticism and theory. (It is no longer well understood that CG was primarily an art critic, whereas Rosenberg came at some of the same issues from the perspective of a cultural critic.) Attacks on Greenberg’s ideas and hegemony sparked no end of fireworks, especially in the 1980s. We also learn about his nine sequential seminars on art given at Bennington in 1971, and about the so-called “sexual marathons” between artists and students at the liberal arts college in Vermont. Van Horne emerges understandably rather late in Rubenfeld’s sociocultural narrative.

Van Horne often refers to Clem’s “calm” demeanor, which is tricky to reconcile with his many stormy relationships, often ending in fisticuffs. He took offense and angered easily. When Partisan Review fired him from its editorial board in 1957 (the year he married Jenny), it came as a major blow to the ego of a longtime contributor and 17-year veteran of the board. His differences about modern art with Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), became legendary along with the deterioration of his relationship with Lee Krasner during her widowhood, a phase of life she handled independently and very well.

Van Horne is winningly candid about her marriage and the challenges involved in managing her role as a dependent person 25 years younger than Greenberg. After describing the discontented wife of a Canadian artist, she writes that, “I hadn’t begun to figure out what my role was in Clem’s world. I dog-paddled my way around in a pool of artists’ wives who seemed to me to be accomplished, happy campers.” And later, “As ungrounded as I felt in the art world, I was also unclear about how to ‘be’ a wife. Oh, I did what I called ‘nesting’ and I puttered, but I certainly never gloried in it, nor felt accomplished at it.” By the mid-1960s she had become tired of artists, the art life, and art talk. In Amsterdam, Rembrandt’s dazzling Night Watch did nothing for her, nor did the charming city, for that matter. As she writes looking back several decades later, “I had almost suffocated in the art world.”

When they began to squabble near the end of a three-month trip to Europe in 1959, Clem made a remark she had heard several times before: “Stop acting like a wife.” He needed a dependent partner for sex, a mistress who would also cut his hair, serve as his amanuensis and banker, so she concludes her segment on this trip with two observations: “that proximity might well cause more divorces than infidelity” and “that unrelenting togetherness was what had eventually worn me down, especially in the last weeks. Like the horse that nears the barn, I was anxious to get back to the given, the routine and nourishment of home.” She concludes the book with reflections on the quintessence of “the harmony between Clem and me, and how, if one cared enough to go the distance, an open marriage could be an open door to any togetherness one chose.” Approaching four score with vitality, Van Horne seems to have few regrets.

In 1992, when she moved back to New York, “within 24 hours Clem and I had assumed the comfortable routine of old married folk.” She found a vocal coach and began singing lessons. “The quiet child inside me who had lived in the secret village of her mind, and the woman who had spent the last months in LA keeping her mouth shut now took flight. Once again, as in Woodstock [where she had produced plays], I experienced the freefall exhilaration that only the fullness of sound could make me feel. My daily abundance filled me up. I was doing what I loved best — juggling a new life.”

Theirs had been a 38-year relationship and neither one subtracted the years of divorce from the count because there had been a continuity of sorts. By the 1980s, however, Clem had become the “devil incarnate” in New York. Critic Kay Larson published “The Dictatorship of Clement Greenberg” in Artforum in 1987. His intellectual influence among highbrows had been massive if increasingly dogmatic. (See also Thierry de Duve, Clement Greenberg: Between the Lines [2010], especially pages 1–15 and their dialogue at the end.) He had made and broken reputations. He provoked animosities. Ironically for a quondam Marxist and socialist, he became a national chauvinist in 1955 when he touted “American-Type Painting” in a famous essay for Partisan Review. Greenberg has not been written about as a Cold Warrior, but needs to be understood in that context. His bête noire, however, was neither Beijing nor Moscow, but Paris and the European art scene. He became a chauvinist for a particular form of American modernism in two phases, the first one fairly metamorphic: abstract expressionism, and then color-field painting. He will long be remembered in art history and the cultural saga of the New York Intellectuals in that way.

And she, too, like Krasner, has managed widowhood well. Within a decade of Clem’s death, Jenny’s devotion to his life and art became manifest as she managed the publication of three posthumous works. First, the nine Bennington seminars along with nine essays, Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, edited by Charles Harrison (1999). Next she edited his formative correspondence with close confidant Harold Lazarus, The Harold Letters, 1928-1943: The Making of an American Intellectual (2000); and finally Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection (2001) to accompany an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.


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