The exhibition made its case with several such masterpieces and moments of compare-and-contrast binarism, as well as hosts of lesser works and copious amounts of ephemera. A curious inclusion was a section headlined “Blind Spots,” which purported to take Greenberg and Rosenberg to task for oversights in their advocacy. Hanging a feeble Norman Lewis and a couple of lacklustre canvases by Lee Krasner, however (Grace Hartigan fared rather better, with two exuberant paintings), hardly cast the critics as racist or misogynist; it just made them seem sensible.
Abstract Expressionism’s aftermath occupied the second half of the exhibition. Helen Frankenthaler’s magisterial Mountains and Sea of 1952—the canvas that launched a thousand stain paintings—anchored a large room of Colour Field paintings or “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” Greenberg’s anointed successor to Ab Ex. In contrast, impressive works by Jasper Johns, Philip Guston, Lee Bontecou and Joan Mitchell represented the artists Rosenberg admired during the 1960s. We all know how it turned out. Greenberg’s reductive prescription for an art of sheer, specific and, perhaps, empty opticality proved arid, a cul-de-sac of art history. Rosenberg’s pluralist vision of an intellectual, socially aware and psychologically inflected art led through to the art of our own moment. Yet the empyrean purity and dispassion of Greenberg’s late favourites still suggest an Olympian grandeur that might have been.
This is a review from the Spring 2009 issue of Canadian Art.