In the Shadow of Greenberg

The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting
and the Last Monet

Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
13.04.18 – 20.08.18

Translated by Bridget Noetzel

Texts are not footnotes for images, and images are not illustrations for texts.
– Roland Barthes

Claude Monet’s late works were not appreciated to the point of becoming world-famous, but they touched off a major aesthetic adventure. In 1955, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought Water Lilies from Monet’s descendants, and this formally launched a voyage of discovery. The roles played by art critics, the art market and national institutions – Abstract Expressionism was exploited by the Americans during the Cold War – were as important as the genius and technique of the painters themselves.

Clement Greenberg built a bridge between French modern painting and American abstract art. Supported by the opposition between surface and depth, Greenberg gave a standard version of the history of modernist painting: with Kant’s discovery of self-criticism in the philosophical realm, painting could not be left behind. As in avant-garde literature, painting highlighted its own self-critical nature: ‘Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness.’ Within this trend, the masterpieces of Manet, Cézanne and Pissarro were often seen as outcomes, in different ways, of the struggle with this newly discovered ‘flatness’. Is the concept of flatness really as clear a Kantian idea as Greenberg hoped? The French philosopher Jacques Rancière somewhat angrily found this logic restrictive; it definitely provides art history with a node that connects modern painters, regardless of their specific approaches. Painters are regarded as modernists, as long as their work vaguely interacts with this flatness. Thus, the breadth of Greenberg’s version of modernism seems to explain why Pissarro and Monet, two artists with decidedly different techniques, were both modernist masters, conscious of flatness. Thus, it is not at all strange that people see American abstract art as part of this larger modernist family. Greenberg also quickly found American abstract painters their predecessors: Picasso and Matisse. When Greenberg visited the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1954, he was astonished by Monet’s large Water Lilies, and he promptly announced that Monet’s late modernist ideas were perpetuated by the American abstract painters. Greenberg’s unassailable position in American art-historical circles helped to place this idea within the canon of art history.

In order to represent this immensely influential meeting between Water Lilies and American abstract art and to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of an important state commission, the Musée de l’Orangerie, in Paris, mounted The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet. Regrettably, this lavish exhibition transformed works of art into footnotes of an art-historical narrative.

Strolling into the costly exhibition space under the greenhouse-style building, viewers were not welcomed by a parallel and open relationship between Monet and American abstract artists; instead, text nervously pressed on image in every instance. Visitors were, at all times, confined by hints from art history. Nearly every caption was accompanied by a comment from Greenberg. Viewers could feel Greenberg’s presence everywhere; the exhibition began with a notable passage from Greenberg’s essay, ‘The Crisis of the Easel Picture’ ( 1948 ): ‘Monet’s later practice threatened the easel-picture convention, and now, twenty years after Monet’s death, his practice has become the point of departure for a new tendency in painting.’

The history of art laid out on the wall formed a notable contrast with Blue Water Lilies, which hung in the exhibition entrance; the text printed on the wall occupied the entire left side of the first room. The Monet borrowed from the Musée d’Orsay measures only 204 × 200 cm, so it appeared rather isolated in the first room. Viewers outside the space could see it through the entrance, but once they entered and looked around they found only one other work: Barnett Newman’s 1946 painting, The Beginning. In the first room, the first ‘exhibited work’ that people encountered was the wall full of text. This passage was projected onto viewers’ bodies, accompanying them throughout their entire visit. It is worth noting that almost no video relating to this exhibition presented the full extent of the first room ( Newman’s painting was never shown ). We can surmise that it is precisely because of the awkwardness of the presentation of this room that the camera did not linger on this unusually imbalanced ratio of text to image.

This bloated passage was like an art history lesson. First, it defined the relationship between two types of abstract art for us. The displeasure we might feel is not at the incorrectness of this definition per se ( it could not be correct, because any definition is only ‘one’ voice in art history ) but because it stifles the wonder that might be produced at encountering two kinds of abstract art. Like American abstract artists ‘rediscovering’ Monet after encountering his late work, could we not ‘rediscover’ something new since our first encounter in the 1970s? Of course, the words printed on the wall do not amount to an encounter, or a dialogue; they masquerade as ‘the history of art’, burying in arbitrary, assertive voices a newness that should have been left to the viewer to discover and invent. Putting together a string of famous names was enough to lend an air of unquestionable authority to the elitist discourse, in which one classic followed another, to generate new classics in turn. As if that were not enough, we then stumbled on a stifling commentary from Greenberg bang in the middle of the exhibition:

But only a few years later, several Americans who were to become the most advanced of advanced painters were enthusiastically rediscovering him. They had not even seen, outside reproductions, those huge close-ups which are the last Water Lilies […] Monet’s broad, slapped-on daubs of paint and his scribbles were telling them, further, that paint on canvas had to be able to breathe; and that when it did breathe, it exhaled color first and foremost – color in fields and areas, rather than in shapes; and that this color had to be solicited from the surface as well as applied to it. It was under the tutelage of Monet’s later art that these same young Americans began to reject sculptural drawing […] and turn instead to ‘area’ drawing, ‘antidrawing’ drawing.

We might be curious about the content that was omitted from the first paragraph after ‘those huge close-ups which are the last Water Lilies’. Greenberg wrote, ‘but they were already learning from Monet, as well as from Matisse, that a lot of sheerly physical space was needed for the development of a strong pictorial idea that did not involve an illusion of more than shallow depth’. Here, Greenberg reminds us that, from an art-historical perspective, Monet and Matisse were similarly important for American abstract artists. Art history defaults to the authority of authoritativeness; the close relationships between great painters is one kind of greatness, and this pairing is just a kind of name-dropping. Here, the disappearance of Matisse’s motivation is obvious; it allows the relationship between Monet and American abstract artists to be singular and absolute, thereby maximising the great continuity and purity in this art history of greatness. It is not difficult to imagine this passage from Greenberg being re-edited and used in an exhibition about Matisse and American abstract art.

What guides the exhibition? The work of art? Or the history of art? Has a fresh dialogue begun – in relation to a new history with a preference for thematic or alternative content? Or is this simply repeating the single voice of the history of art? In other words, what is the position of text in art exhibitions? How can text appear next to the works of art without analysing them? To paraphrase Roland Barthes: how can we prevent images from becoming illustrations for texts? We must admit that art history is not a translation of art, and vice versa. This exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie is a negative example: the art-historical dogma that often appears in auction house descriptions of works of art has unthinkingly become the discourse in a state museum – a scandal for avant-garde art.


2018 年4 月13 日—2018 年8 月20 日


晚期莫奈的作品从不被看好到举世闻名,期间经历了一次美学的大历险,1955 年纽约现代艺术博物馆馆长从莫奈后人处购得的一幅《睡莲》,正式开启了这次发现之旅。而其中艺术批评家、艺术品市场,以及国家机器—抽象表现主义一度被美国冷战工具化—所起的作用,完全不亚于画家们本人的天才妙想与精湛技艺。

克莱蒙·格林伯格率先勾勒了一道建立在法国现代绘画与美国抽象艺术之间的桥梁,借助表面与深度的对立,格林伯格一下子给出了一个标准版本的现代主义绘画发展史: 随着康德在哲学领域自我批判的发现,绘画活动也不能落下,就像先锋派文学一样,绘画也要凸显绘画自身的自我批判性,“所以,现代主义绘画必然朝向平面性”。这个趋势里,马奈、塞尚、皮萨罗……他们的杰作通通都是以不同的方式与这个新发现的“平面性”作斗争的产物。“平面性”这个概念,姑且不论其是否真的如格林伯格所希望的那样像一个康德式的概念般清澈—法国哲学家朗西埃有些恼怒地认为这个概念是一种套套逻辑,它确实为艺术史提供了一种连接现代画家们的凝结核,无论他的具体技法如何,只要它隐约地同这种平面性发生了互动,他就是一个现代主义的画家。由此,格林伯格版本的现代主义的广泛性似乎解释了为什么技法上截然不同的皮萨罗和莫奈,都是意识到“平面性”的现代主义大师。从而,人们也就毫不奇怪地看到美国的抽象艺术能够被划进这个现代主义的大家庭之中,并且,格林伯格也很快给美国的抽象画家们找到了前身,毕加索和马蒂斯。而当1954 年, 格林伯格探访橘园美术馆时,他被莫奈的数组巨幅《睡莲》所震撼, 旋即他就宣布,莫奈晚期的现代主义理念,被美国抽象画家继承了。格林伯格在美国艺术史界不可撼动的地位使得上述说法成为一种艺术史的经典。

再现《睡莲》与美国抽象艺术那次影响巨大的相遇,也为了纪念《睡莲》创作100 周年,巴黎橘园美术馆举办了这次“睡莲— 美国抽象派与莫奈后期作品”的大型展览。然而,橘园美术馆的这场昂贵的展览却令人遗憾地把艺术作品变成为一种艺术史叙事的脚注。

漫步在橘园温室地下这个耗资不菲的展厅中,迎接观众的不是莫奈与美国抽象画家们之间平行而开放的关系,而是随处都能够瞥见文字对图像紧张的压迫。游览者时刻都被一种来自艺术史的提示所限制,几乎每一个注释下面,都伴随着来自格林伯格的声音,观众们可以感受到,格林伯格在这个展览中几乎无处不在, 展厅一开始就是一段格林伯格著名的批评,来自《画架上的危机》:

莫奈晚年的手法威胁到……架上绘画的公约。莫奈死后20 年的今天,他的实践变成了一种新的绘画趋势的出发点。

铺满整个墙壁艺术史说明,与悬挂于展厅入口的《蓝色睡莲》形成鲜明对比,被印上的文字占据了第一个展厅左侧的全部展览墙,而从奥塞美术馆借来的那幅莫奈则只有204×200 厘米,它较为孤立地出现在第一个展厅,观众在展厅之外就可以透过入口看到它,而一旦进入展厅,环顾四周,除此之外找到的只有一幅巴尼特·纽曼1946 年所绘的《开始》。所以在最初的展厅,人们遇到的最大“展品”就是那贴满墙壁的文字。而这段文字也就铭刻进了观众的身体里,它将至少伴随着整个游览的过程。我们可以注意到,几乎没有一个关于这次展览的宣传视频有完整拍摄到第一个展厅的全貌( 纽曼的那幅画完全没有出现 ),我们可以猜测,正是因为这个展厅陈设的突兀,让摄影机在这种文字与图像不寻常的比例失调面前却步。

这段臃肿的文字像一场来自艺术史的课程 / 教训,首先替我们定义了两种抽象艺术之间的关系,我们感到的不快,不在于这种定义本身的不正确—它不可能正确,因为任何定义都是“一 种”艺术史的声音; 而是在于它首先压制了两种抽象艺术之间相遇时可能产生的惊奇: 正如美国抽象艺术家们在相遇了晚期莫奈后“重新”发现了后者一样,难道在近70 年后两者的“重新”相遇, 不应该再一次地“重新”发现一些新的东西吗? 刻在墙上的文字当然不是相遇和对话,它伪装成“艺术的历史”这样的知识,把本应等待观众去发现从而发明的新,淹没在武断和强制性的声音之下,它仅仅需要以一种不容置疑的口气,把一些大名鼎鼎的名字串连起,就足以形成一种经典不断承袭经典而再造经典的精英主义话语。在展览的中部,我们又看到一段来自格林伯格的令人窒息的评论:

只需要过上几年,数个美国人,他们将会变成最有创新性的前卫画家,他们带着热情重新发现了莫奈。除了复制品,他们甚至从未见过后期《睡莲》的最大前景……莫奈绘画在画布上巨大的乱涂和乱划向他们展现了画布上的画应该是能够呼吸的; 并且,当它呼吸的时候,它首先并处处散发出色彩—通过底面和区域多过形状; 最后,这种色彩应该被表面所激发,正如它也被施于表面之上一样。正是在后期莫奈的支持下,这些年轻的美国画家才开始抛弃雕塑性绘画……而转向那种使用大块“色域”的绘画。

这段评论里第一处被省略的内容让人好奇,格林伯格的原文在“……从未见过后期《睡莲》的最大前景”的后一句是:“他们已经从莫奈那里,也从马蒂斯那里学到,要发展出一个不包含深度的错觉的强有力的绘画观念,需要大量纯粹的物理空间。” 这里格林伯格本人为我们提示: 从艺术史的角度,莫奈和马蒂斯对于美国抽象艺术来说,同样重要。艺术史默认了权威的权威性, 伟大画家之间的密切关系本身就是一种伟大,这种重言反复只是一种借名抬名,这里隐去马蒂斯的动机显而易见: 可以让莫奈和美国抽象艺术家之间的关系变得单一而绝对,从而最大程度地保证这种伟大艺术史的连续性和纯洁性,并且不难想象,如果下次举办一次马蒂斯与美国抽象艺术的展览,格林伯格的这段话又可以重新裁剪而再度登场。

谁在主导展览?是作品还是艺术史?是一次对话重新开始— 主题尤存、内容变换的新历史,还是重复某种艺术史的单一声音? 换句话说,艺术展览中的艺术评注的位置是什么,后者应该如何平行于绘画而不是解释它? 正如罗兰·巴特所说的,怎样才能使“图像不成为文本的‘插图’?”每个人都会承认,艺术史不是艺术的翻译, 反之亦然。橘园美术馆的这次展览构成一个反面典型,它把常常出现在拍卖行拍品介绍中的艺术史教条不假思索地变成国立美术馆的教育课,可以说是一桩关于先锋艺术的丑闻。