There is the Best Taste

Jackson Pollock Enchanted Forest 1947

Now, taste in the Western world has usually functioned in a pretty normal way, I would say. The resistance to modernist art that started with modernism, itself, was new — the conflict between the going, “cultivated” taste and this new art which happened to be the best art of its time — but taste itself operated in a normal, and I would say in an honest way. You could say that the people who resisted modernism didn’t try hard enough, as I think they didn’t. But in the end, after a generation or so, each phase of modernism in painting and sculpture and the other arts overcame, and somehow the resistance faded. But there was already present one fallacious habit — I can’t call it a fallacy — the business of rejecting a body of art in toto, instead of looking at the works one by one. There were classifications — this happened with the Impressionists and they were dismissed wholesale, at first, and then they became accepted, maybe wholesale. That “fallacy,” the business of approaching art generically or categorically, or classifitorily — that’s a bad word, but classification pertains today more than it ever did before. There’s a reason for it and there’s a history behind it and hardly anybody here is old enough to have witnessed that history in person. I don’t think enough people know that modernism as an idea, the whole notion of it, the notion of the avant-garde, of advanced art, really triumphed in a general way. in a wide way, only towards the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 60’s. And that had to do, in the first place, with Pollock’s consecration. Pollock really began to go over around 1960; his pictures really began to sell then. He was dead — had been dead for a half-decade by then — and that was a kind of turning point. Together with that came Barnett Newman’s almost apotheosis which took place ’59, ’60-’61. [Clement Greenberg on Taste]

Kenneth Noland Gift 1961-62

“What might the history of Gift tell us about Greenberg’s taste, and its impact on painting in the 1960s? What can the presence of works by Noland in the Vogue photo-spread on Greenberg’s apartment suggest about the relations between abstract painting and tasteful decoration in the 1960s? Although it is not clear when the work was received by Greenberg, its original title of Clement’s Gift conforms with those that Noland chose for several other works given to friends, including Tony’s Gift 1966, given to sculptor Anthony Caro, and Alkis’ Gift 1967, given to Alkis Klonaridis, the director of the Toronto-based David Mirvish Gallery that represented Noland. Noland’s titling convention not only indicates the status of these objects as an offering, but also subtly serves to flatter his ‘gifted’ recipients. Whether possessed by Clem, Tony or Alkis, it was the vision that these supporters demonstrated to Noland that his titles served to avow, a kind of testament to their superior taste. Noland understood such good taste to be central to understanding works of art. He later explained, ‘I think judgment’s crucial … and that has something to do with taste’, adding that, ‘Taste: we use it in the negative sense, but there is the best taste, you know. There’s the right taste. There’s the real taste.’ Noland’s awareness of the contested status of taste reflects the central position of the term in the reception of his art.” [Alex Taylor on Greenberg’s Taste]

Barnett Newman Stations of the Cross First Station 1958

Now Pollock was first greeted when he went “all-over” — when he began to drip and pour — by his fellow artists as well by the art public as breaking with art as it had been hitherto. His paintings were thought to be uncontrolled effusions which had nothing to do with painting as such, painting as a discipline; it wasn’t a question of liking or not liking them and, finally, his name hung on. He became notorious before he ever became famous, and in the end, there he was: Pollock was this big name, with this big — not myth, not legend, this big reputation. When Newman had his first two shows in ’50 and ’51 in New York I remember some of his fellow painters saying to me, didn’t I think that Newman was out to kill painting, that this was the death of painting, this was worse than Pollock? How could painting go on if Newman’s kind of painting stuck; if this was considered painting? Well, Newman didn’t show again for another eight years. He showed again in ’59 and for some reason, his success had already been prepared. His show made him a great name and he was taken for granted as a great painter. In fact, the school of Minimalism took off from his example, as some of the Minimalists, themselves, say. And what coincided with this was the collapse , the spring of ’62, of second generation Abstract Expressionism. It was as though overnight, between February and May ’62, it was wiped out; it was truly dramatic, and I don’t use the word dramatic lightly, and that, too, shook cultivated art opinion and for some reason the European, especially the French, equivalent of Abstract Expressionism, “l’art autre” or tachism collapsed at the same time — all in the early ’60’s. Now it’s true the first generation Abstract Expressionists, their reputations floated to the top in a short while, but in ’62 Pop Art became the reigning movement in this country, and the second American art tendency to make an impression in Europe. [Clement Greenberg on Taste]

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