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Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 5 April 7, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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L-R: Yve-Alain Bois, Stephen Melville, Jeff Nguyen, Darby English

Session 2 (Interpretation): Yve-Alain Bois, Stephen Melville, Jeff Nguyen, Darby English. Benjamin Buchloh is siting in the front row, left. The man to his right is Serge Guilbaut. (Photo Credit: Gaku Kondo, another panelist).

The Greenberg Conference. She is over. I will fill in the blanks on Day 2’s speaker in another post (Part 4). Prue and Miguel, the two organizers, did a fantastic job putting this event together and making all the guests feel special. I met so many wonderful people and made some new friends. Sigh, it’s too late to switch departments.

Random thoughts.

Slapping together two pictures with captions seems simple enough, but art historians take the art of PowerPoint to the next level. Sleek typography, pictures with borders, minimalist layout, comparisons, zooms. I’ve much to learn. Only one presentation—besides my own—made me cringe. No need to name names, but the slides looked as if they came from The Enquirer. And the pictures were Monets and Pollocks!

The soft-spoken Belgian, Thierry de Duve, had this excellent story about meeting Greenberg for the first and only time in New York. Thierry enters the apartment where he sees Clem drinking vodka at 2pm. Clem invites Thierry to a glass. Thierry politely declines. Clem throws the opening gambit, asking Thierry who his favorite artist is. The young Thierry confesses to finding Warhol interesting. Greenberg (De Duve now gets up from his seat to mimic Greenberg) exclaims in horror: “YOU JUST DISQUALIFIED YOURSELF AS AN ART CRITIC!”

Yve-Alain Bois is the respondent for my panel on “Interpretation.” He asks me a difficult question on slippage in O’Hara’s writing. He is followed by an audience member who prods me to say more about O’Hara’s double life. The audience member is taken aback by some of the inferences I draw from discrepancies between O’Hara’s poetry and art writing. I preface my remarks by citing Serge Guilbaut. The audience bursts in uproarious laughter. “Oh, no. What did I do? Did I say his name wrong?” I’m thinking to myself. Someone then kindly points out that the person asking the question is frickin’ SERGE GUILBAUT!!

I blush in embarrassment, before quickly pulling myself together. I suggest that writing for a distinguished institution like the Museum demands using a filter, and that O’Hara cultivated a countercultural art history in his poetry beyond the museum. I had been reading Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art and Be-bomb! before the conference, but not being an art historian, I never bothered to look up his picture. But I should have known what Guilbaut looked like anyway, because he spoke at the roundtable, but from a distance, he looks just like Yves-Alain without the beret and wooden pipe. At the Faculty Club dinner later that night, I manage to get, with the help of Yve-Alain Bois, Serge Guilbaut to sign my copy of How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. I’m going to send him a poem by O’Hara in return.

While Yve-Alain and Serge make intimidating respondents (they are actually quite affable in person), they don’t come close to Ben Buchloh, who in another panel almost came to blows with Thierry de Duve (sitting in the audience!). As the respondent, he thoroughly grilled all of his panelists, freely taking issue with each. He makes a formidable intellectual. I did not realize just how polemical art historians can be–they will tell you who and what they like or hate. It may just be the caliber of the speakers at this conference, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything so lively yet at an English conference.

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