… [Clement] Greenberg’s organizing idea was surprisingly simple: modern painting, having ceased to be illustrative, ought to be decorative. Once all the old jobs of painting—portraying the bank president, showing off the manor house, imagining the big battle—had been turned over to photography and the movies, what was left to painting was what painting still did well, and that was to be paint.
(Adam Gopnik, “Helen Frankenthaler and the Messy Art of Life,” http://www.newyorker.com, 4-12-21)
I’m as susceptible as the next person to sweeping statements that seem to capture the essence of a thing or a moment. I’m not versed nearly enough in art crit lit to slot pronouncements informedly into the historical flow of it. It’s likely that the trope of letting paint be paint is quaint now, set aside for something in the vein of performance art, or re-entry into a militant mode of depictivism, or who knows?
What snagged me in the quotation was the adjective “decorative” and the premise that certain “old jobs” of painting were considered to have been relinquished to other media. Interesting. Is that still held to be the case about painting?
By way of postscript: It perplexes me that an article such as this in The New Yorker isn’t illustrated by a single one of Frankenthaler’s paintings. Also, when I returned to the link I had saved initially, the article was re-titled “Fluid Dynamics.”
(c) 2021 JMN