The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Remembering Clement Greenberg (1994)

The Edmonton Review, Vol 1, Issue 3, Fall-Winter, 1994.

Clement Greenberg is three people. One is the person, Clem himself, who lives on in memories of those who knew him. Two is Clement Greenberg the writer, who left us with that wonderful, adamant, imperturbable body of work. Three is the reputation: Pope Clem the Terrible, Prescriptive ideologue, Flatness fanatic, Dogmatic Dinosaur of Absolutism, Grand Inquisitor of Lifeless Formalism.

Each of these entities has its own mode of being. As for me, I loved the man and I treasure his writing. The reputation is something else: a grotesque, many-headed demon which tells little of the man or the writing and much about the nasty looniness of the art world. Clem liked to say "I have an argument with my reputation." I can see why.

Everyone has "Clem Stories." I knew him for 35 years and I've got plenty. Someone should write a book of Greenberg anecdotes; it could be a powerful corrective to the art-grinch myth so utterly pervasive today. It might be the only thing that would do it, except, perhaps, the simple passage of time. When the first two volumes of the Collected Writings came out in 1986, I was moved to write a rather bilious, fist-shaking defense of the first two Greenbergs in Arts magazine. I don't think it made a ripple. Clem told me, in his diffident, hesitant way (he didn't want to hurt my feelings) that he didn't like the "tone" of the piece. If he were alive today, reading this, he would chide me for mentioning my own writing in print.

It wasn't for his writing that I loved the man, nor even for his advice and guidance in art matters. I am endlessly grateful for these things, but the affection I bear him is more personal, more for his tolerant kindness and his patience, especially when listening to problems which were not his nor of his making. He had an acute sense for the temporary condition of emotional vulnerability in his friends and always responded with his own kind of cautious forbearing encouragement. Not once, in these circumstances, was he ever short or mean-spirited; not once did he become impatient or disparaging. He would sometimes tell me, "You remind me of Jackson." I don't know if that was a compliment, but it always made me feel better. Relationships were all-important to Clem, more interesting and difficult than art. "Life is more important than art," he'd say. I knew very well that when I was stronger he might be blunt and disputatious, but then he knew I'd be up for it, on even ground, ready to do battle for the joy of it. We both relished debate; it was a cornerstone of our friendship.

I miss Clem. I'm sure there are hundreds who miss him, even those who abandoned him in later years, when his influence declined. He was a big piece of my life. For some reason, as I write this, it is not the art matters which float up in my mind. It is the image of Clem out in the back yard of my house in New Jersey, well fortified with scotch, whacking away with a plastic bat at whiffle balls thrown by my son Billy as the evening dropped down over the pond and fields, friends laughing and cheering one of the great good sports of all time. He is irreplaceable.