Pt 1 Project 1 Modernist art: the critic speaks

Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) is dissecting modernist art in his essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (Blackwell publishing 2003 reprint edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood) This is the later version which was itself a reprint in Art & Literature, Lugano, no.4, spring 1965.

Modernism is a way to create art that doesn’t draw you into a 3 dimensional world you can inhabit so much as understand you are viewing something from the outside. Its basis is scientific over philosophical thus optical review over emotional.

Its a narrowing of a field to exclude techniques to create illusions found in other areas of art i.e. sculpture or theatre and this exclusion is what can lead to abstract images because they no longer need to respond to the traditional laws of painting something you can identify as a 3d object in a defined space.

Its a subtle criticism accumulated over time and the successes of artists before within the movement that refines its position apart from other art movements.

It doesn’t deny that it comes from what came before, however it rejects a lot of the theories that surround previous method of art creation. Whilst criticism lags behind due to it mostly being done by journalists reacting to previous methods while they seek the next zeitgeist.


Greenberg mentions Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as the ‘first real modernist’ due to his views on self criticism opening the door to the method of modernist assessment of itself. as Greenberg says ‘Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic’. He uses Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Mondrian(1872–1944) as his examples of modernist artists, however his final analysis of Mondrian states ‘that his work is more traditional in its colour, as well as in its subservience to the frame, than the paintings of Monet are’.

As the impressionist movement was a pre-curser to modernism, Greenberg also offers a passing nod to Manet (1832–1883) and Cezanne (1809-1936) to explain their initial flattening of the image by concentrating so purely on colour that shading is not featured, he leeds to the cubists who took it a stage further and flatter than Cimabue (medieval religious artist 1240–1302).

Also mentioned are David (1748-1825) for bringing back a style of sculptural painting in the 18th century and Ingres (1780-1867) his pupil who Greenberg thinks used more colour but created pictures that where ‘the flattest, least sculptural done in the west by a sophisticated artist’. I’d have to disagree here, Ingres picture of the Baroness de Rothschilde is stunning and both the sitter and her beautifully rendered garment come out of the painting.

At one point he refers back to cave painters limitations of image creation on the surfaces they had to create upon and its lack of frame before suggesting modernists were the reason there was a revival in the works of Uccello(1397-1475), Piero(there are 3 15th century artists named Piero, I’m not sure which one he’s refering to) , El Greco(1541-1614), Georges de la tour(1541-1614) and Vemeer(1632-1675), potentially Giotto(1266/7–1337) without lessening the value of Leonardo(1452-1519), Raphael(1483-1520), Titian(1488/1490-1576), Rubens(1577-1640), Rembrandt(1606-1669) or Watteau(1684-1721). Looking back to look forward explains this best.

I don’t get a sense of whether Greenberg likes or dislikes the work he alludes to in this essay, its quite clinically written stating names as reference points over offering whether they were right or wrong or he liked it. As an essay, its given me a clearer idea as to what constitutes modernist, while also blanking it away saying art is going to be art whatever and will continue which is kind of negating itself?

But I suppose that is the influence of modernism being scientific based over all else.


Greenberg, C(1965)Modernist painting In:Art in theory 1900-2000, Harrison, C. Wood, P. Oxford: Art in theory 1900-2000. pp. 773-9


Assignment 5 Tutor report

Overall Comments

You have produced work of a high standard in this final assignment.  . You have completed all that was required of you. Since you are submitting your work for formal assessment I have suggested certain work issues that you need to implement however this is a good folder of work and together with your blog provide good evidence of your ability to take your creativity further.

Assessment potential

I understand your aim is to go for the Painting/Textiles/Creative Arts*) Degree and that you plan to submit your work for assessment at the end of this course. From the work you have shown in this assignment, and providing you commit yourself to the course, I suggest that you are likely to be successful in the assessment.

Feedback on assignment

You have gained confidence as you have worked your way through the assignments.

Your visual investigation of the cathedral has been researched in many different ways. You have experimented with different media. You have explored the effects of changing light. You have profited by the accidental and you have sourced this building from diverse information points.

You have understood the building and its grandeur and produced rather monumental sized drawings.  For you the building needed such a scale and it has worked well.

You have explored ways of looking at the architecture and you have explored viewpoints. In some of your drawings you have built up on a rather haphazard mixture of media. You have created interesting textures using these methods. There is a freedom and looseness to your approach – expecting the accidental and capitalizing on it.

Not only have you investigated the building but the power of such a building within its environment. You have simplified the roof tops- drawn the trees and revealed the cathedral in the background rising out of this urban landscape-(a drawing in your sketchbook).

You have experimented with materials which even involved the cooking one of your sketchbooks!-

You have interpreted the building as a whole and you have picked out patterns and repetitive forms that contribute to the more decorative parts. You have isolated certain elements of the architecture to investigate further.

There is a bravery and adventurousness to your drawings. You have attempted to understand the power of this building- not only from the exterior view but from your investigative studies of parts of the interior. 

“The prisoners of conscience window”— I feel that your general abstraction of this pattern is perceptive- it puts me in mind of one of Patrick Caulfield’s minimization of interiors. This drawing could have been taken further I think.

The Chapter house has an overpowering presence.

You mix very delicate media- pen and yet you include massive sweeps of expression which work side by side.

Your use of collage works and your choice of thick water color paper was absolutely right.

Your pastille drawing -2point5.

You have been influenced by Monet. I would have liked to have seen more looking at the effect of light on this drawing. Light would definitely have introduced different color on the brown tones of the cathedral. There would not have just been that monochrome brown color. The outside of the building would have taken on adjacent colors – and the color of the sky – however dreary that was. See how Monet introduces light by seeing how color affects the building. Check out the colors of the impressionists – they did not see black as part of nature – but used only the complementary colors to darken tones.

The large tonal black and white pastille has much potential. You have reinforced the pattern of the ceiling using gesso and newsprint in another sketch of this view. I would have liked to have seen smaller studies experimenting with these patterns – together with other decorative elements and repetitive forms that you discovered as you sketched.

All in all an impressive selection of drawings.


I would like to have seen more evidence of day to day sketches- arbitrary drawings that you have created during the day to express your own personal voice. You do need to include work other than what is prescribed by the OCA exercises.

I cannot stress the importance of evidencing your thought process with working drawings which should be in a sketchbook. I read about your ideas but you must evidence the stages of your work.

Do complete these working drawings- they must be thumbnail sketches in the same proportion as your final drawing and enclosed within a rectangle. It is imperative that you show good working habits so do take this advice.

Preparatory drawings show how you are aware of balance- harmony – composition. They show that you are aware of these pictorial issues.

You can then experiment further- simplifying more of your images and recreating patterns and shapes found within the cathedral without worrying about a “finished image. “ You can experiment further in a small scale using the decoration of the windows- the centre of the interior – just playing around on a small scale. This will lead to all kinds of new images and inventions. It is a less self-conscious way of pushing your boundaries and it gives you the opportunity to take you into rather uncomfortable territory.

Try mixing different perspectives together and see what shapes you invent building up your composition this way.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

These are fine up to a point- you have documented your progress and included thoughts and ideas born from your development. These working logs account for 20% of your marks. You need to show analytical – objective approach – you need to show research into different painters- and not merely express likes and dislikes. For instance – do include more information about Monet- and other artists that you have mentioned and been inspired by.

Suggested reading/viewing

You have reworked some of your previous drawings and they do present as stronger images.

You need to research the submission criteria for the formal assessment. The choice and selection of final drawings is important. 

Have a look at the work of Patrick Caulfield and Trevor Winfield. They reduce the image to flat patterns and intermingle them with inventive shapes.

Try and use traditional perspective of the Cathedral  on the same drawing as parallel perspective- experiment with the different ways of representing the three dimensional form and just see what shapes you can create with this mixture. The cathedral presents you with so many ways of seeing – it is a beautiful building full of complex forms imagery and colour.

Do include sketchbooks which reveal how day to day sketching has become a habit now.

Pointers for the next assignment

Your final drawings are impressive. Do back them up with preliminary drawings as suggested. Try and explore more imaginative ways of understanding the architecture.

One suggestion- Cut up an image of the cathedral (not too small) – turn the pieces over. . Re arrange them (without looking) and then turn them to the front again. Stick them down as they are. Then start analysing these new shapes and the different relationships they now have with each other. Just see how these accidental jigsaw pieces can reveal a whole new way of perceiving the building.  This is just one suggestion for your sketchbook investigations- you do not need to implement it.

You have worked well throughout this module. You are a committed student. You must now make sure all the sections of your work are up to the appropriate standard. Take up my suggestions – back up your final drawings with visual evidence of preparatory work. Make sure your learning logs are more informative and be more critical.

I wish you well – it has been a pleasure to review your work. 

Working out which pieces to send for formal assessment was a bit of a nightmare. Sending what I consider to be the best bits does not potentially show my technical ability. I spoke to a gentleman who runs a local gallery and he looked at the pastel cathedral side and said technically it was really good, but as a piece to frame and put in a gallery it didn’t work, so does that mean as it ticks more boxes for exercises I should send it in?

I’ve been updating the blog to refer to artists work with more background biography, I am still learning the language to pick apart what I like about other peoples work, I’m hoping the next course I’ve enrolled on will help, Visual Studies 1. This next years course is partially self defence in that the house is in a state of uproar while we squeeze a downstairs toilet in, mostly by kicking my art stuff into the long-grass (middle of the lawn actually, we’re installing a log cabin with big north facing windows) so dedicated space to create art isn’t guaranteed to be available till the cabin has leccy, water and is fully insulated/heated and furnished.

My extended learning path continues….