criticismBooks
Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Life with a Dolphin: A Memoir from Mrs. Clement Greenberg


Janice Van Horne’s A Complicated Marriage: My Life With Clement Greenberg

Students of Clement Greenberg are already much in debt to the critic’s widow Jenny  (Janice Van Horne).  Under her exemplary editorial care, the stash of youthful letters to his friend Harold Lazarus from 1928 to 1943 was published in 2000, six years after the critic’s death, while his riveting and legendary Bennington lectures had been masterfully collected in both transcribed and published forms under Greenberg’s title for an unwritten work, Homemade Esthetics, in 1999.  Four volumes of Greenberg’s collected criticism, edited by John O’Brian and covering his oeuvre up until 1969, had begun to appear during the critic’s lifetime, published by the University of Chicago Press. Van Horne entrusted a collection of late writings, mostly consisting of talks and interviews, to Robert C. Morgan and Minnesota Press.  She bequeathed his papers to the Getty and sold what was left of his art collection to the Portland Art Gallery in Oregon.  Any major intellectual would be lucky to be dealt with so tidily and diligently.

Jenny and Clement Greenberg on the steps of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, in 1959, from the book under review

Jenny and Clement Greenberg on the steps of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, in 1959, from the book under review

Now we have a volume from Janice Van Horne herself, A Complicated Marriage: My Life with Clement Greenberg.  For the Greenberg nut, like this reviewer, news of the publication was extremely welcome.  Simply put, Greenberg is an inexhaustible source of fascination to students of American art and culture. A woman he marries is expected to have an interesting life and know how to write about it – both of which prove to be the case.  And insight into Greenberg’s character written with a degree of warmth is much needed to counterbalance Florence Rubenfeld’s now widely dismissed 1997 biography and the more scholarly but mean and unconvincing portrait by the late Alice Goldfarb Marquis.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that Jenny Greenberg has delivered a hybrid publication, less “My Life with Clement Greenberg” than “My life, by the Widow of Clement Greenberg”. For the book is in fact autobiography masquerading as memoir.  There are whole swathes in which Greenberg is hardly referenced.  Even in the artist vignettes – “double-dating with the Newmans [Barnett and Annalee] was not high on my hit parade” – Clem remains a supporting player as it is still much about Jenny: how to be a famous artist’s or critic’s wife is a particular fascination.  Slights endured from a gruff David Smith dismayed that she is washing dishes with water that he has lugged up to Bolton Landing commands more attention than Greenberg’s relationship to the sculptor.  His later travails as Smith’s executor are not mentioned.

Van Horne describes meeting her future husband as a young and insecure Bennington graduate, Greenberg on the rebound from a stormy affair with Helen Frankenthaler.  She breaks with most of her family over their anti-semitic stance towards her marriage. Being the stepchild of an alcoholic, about which she writes touchingly, is good training for marriage to a functioning alcoholic and witness to the death of Jackson Pollock. She deals in copious detail with Clem’s decline and passing, and their being swindled in a Ponzi scheme, but is absent from the scene in what for many readers are crucial years of hegemony and fall from grace.

Van Horne is an engaging writer, but sans Greenberg, is there intrinsic interest in her tale? There is a hilarious account of training with fitness pioneer Joseph Pilates, and genuine insights aplenty into the worlds she enters as a toe-dipping career woman and glacially gradual feminist – as a trade magazine editor, a semi-professional underground actress, a heart-not-quite-in-it swinger.  But extracting hard information about Greenberg himself from such a memoir is not so much a mining operation as fracking.

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Tellingly, the most riveting part of the narrative is told through Clem’s meticulous daybooks charting their first trip to Europe.  But details do accumulate to portray a softer side of Greenberg than comes across in other accounts.  Laid off from Commentary where he is an editor, Clem argues against switching from his preferred Tanqueray to Seagrams as an economy, saying that “if you expect less you will get less.”  He loves Lenny Bruce, the young Barbra Streisand, and any music he can dance to, including the Bee Gees.  He enjoys surprisingly warm relations with Jasper Johns thanks to shared Southern connections.  He is a nature enthusiast, feeling special affinity for dolphins, stopping at every reserve on their Florida vacation with an aquarium.  And he is a doting father to their daughter Sarah, especially as the couple had lost a child to miscarriage, and despite the misery of his relationships with his own father and his son by a first marriage.  He is also super-tolerant of his young wife’s antics, agreeing, for instance, to a divorce she demands, by her own account, for purely feminist reasons as they have a happily open marriage.  In an endearingly and typically pragmatic way, Clem insists one lawyer draws up the divorce contract, strikes the incompatibility clause because he says they are compatible, puts the contract in a drawer, and continues with life exactly as it had been already.  Later they trundle off to City Hall and remarry.

Clem’s relationship to the older mentor artists like Hans Hoffman, the excruciatingly pretentious Newman and the insanely cold Clyfford Still is presented as largely passive.  Where roles might be expected to have reversed – when he in turn is mentor to the likes of Larry Poons, Jules Olitski, and a host of much younger artists, Jenny is absent – either during the California phase in her life, or just mentally. She is able, however, to offer a perceptive contrast between Greenberg’s outlook and that of the painters in his life.  Artists like Smith, Hofmann, Rothko and even Pollock are mistaken as “teddy bears” by their female admirers whereas “all too often, the heat within did not spill over into warmth toward others.

Hans was a hard call.  As compelling as I found his robust energy, it was tamped down by an impenetrable layer of detachment.  As if he were saying, ‘What doesn’t serve my art doesn’t serve me.’  On the other hand, Clem, who never, to my knowledge, had been called anything even faintly resembling a teddy bear, and despite his relentless passion for art, was an outspoken believer in life before art.  And how grateful I was for it.

Janice Van Horne, A Complicated Marriage: My Life With Clement Greenberg (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012.)  387 pages, illustrations, ISBN  978-1582438214. $27

Kenneth Noland, First No 1, 1958.  Clement Greenberg Collection, Portland Art Museum

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2 Responses to Life with a Dolphin: A Memoir from Mrs. Clement Greenberg

  1. zuppardi says:

    That early Nolan , First No 1, is brilliant and way beautiful. Never been much impressed by JB.

  2. ciaran bennett says:

    the last two biogs were such unpleasant hatchet jobs,i read them with a horrible sense of unfairness.So this can only be better,no hagiographies required but a sympathetic moment might be appreciated.

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