PRINT October 1965


Michael Fried’s 3 American Painters

Michael Fried, 3 American Painters (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), 1965. 80 pages. Illustrated.

THE ORIGINAL SELECTIONS for the exhibition of works by Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella for which this is the catalog, were made by Michael Fried for the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. When the exhibition opened at Pasadena, however, only the works by Olitski were the same as those shown at Harvard (presumably because there were no Olitskis on the West Coast); for the rest, works by Noland and Stella from local galleries and collections replaced the original selections. The strangeness of this procedure is emphasized by the fact that Mr. Fried notes that the selection of the works was made “primarily with regard to quality,” and, indeed, the major point of the extended essay turns on the matter of making “convincing discriminations of value among the works of a particular artist.” That the show could be none the worse for replacing one set of Nolands with another, and one set of Stellas for another raises puzzling questions about how “convincing” the original “discriminations” could have been.

Undoubtedly what was behind Walter Hoops’ decision to install the show, even though only a third of the original could be brought to Pasadena, was the wish to disseminate as widely as possible the astonishing catalog essay by Mr. Fried. An extended, tortuous exercise of some 10,000 words, the essay takes its place as one of the most important pieces of critical writing to emerge since the Abstract Expressionist period and presents the position of the younger formalist critics in such extreme form that it will be, for a long time, the polar position around which, and against which, future critical dialogue will have to be oriented. Wrongheaded, yet brilliant, Positivistic, yet mystical, logical, yet unreasonable, admirable, yet infuriating, the essay, in confronting head-on some of the most difficult problems in contemporary art criticism is an inspired antidote to, for example, the jaded, distasteful cynicism that laces Harold Rosenberg’s The Anxious Object.

At the heart of formalist criticism is the search for a language which will communicate, in verifiable terms, value judgments which can distinguish differences in quality not only between artists, but among works by any given artist. The possibility that a work of art which is not as formally rigorous or logical as another can yet be the superior of the two, while not entirely dismissed, is held in abeyance, and in general the assumption of formalist criticism is that “only an art of constant formal self-criticism can bear or embody or communicate more than trivial meaning.” But the price that is paid for a verifiable language of formal distinctions is the danger of dwelling on trivia. It is true indeed that we know nothing when we know that a particular Noland “is like a color-landscape, capturing the mood of some invisible terrain”; the problem raised by Mr. Fried’s essay is, what do we know when we know that:

To my eye, the strongest of the first chevron paintings are those in which the boundary between two of the chevrons runs into the top two corners of the canvas; while in others, in which the upper corners are not intersected by a chevron-boundary, the relations between the chevrons and the picture-support comes to seem perhaps not quite rigorous enough . . . the corners are nothing short of first-hand, immediate physical features of the picture-support itself. In any case, this, or something very like this seems to me the formal meaning of Noland’s decision to hang or suspend the chevrons from the upper corners of the canvas . . .

The basis of Mr. Fried’s judgment is visible, verifiable, lacking in poetic fogginess but unconvincing as a standard; while he would undoubtedly be the first to say that the placement of the corners of the chevrons cannot be the only standard, one still harbors the suspicion that too much emphasis is being placed on a minor aspect of the painting. Proleptically, Mr. Fried adds: “although the decision may appear almost trivial, in actual significance it is one of the most profound in Noland’s entire development,” and, after elaborating somewhat further on the consequences of cornered chevrons, “I hope it is clear in what sense all this amounted to a formal advance of the first importance within modernist painting.”

The discussion of the cornered chevrons is an aspect of the emphasis on that “deductive structure” which is so important to Mr. Fried’s appreciation not only of Noland, but of Frank Stella and Barnett Newman as well, and here too, the danger of trivia runs high. Deductive structure means, quite simply, paintings in which the image, or design, is so ordered that “they demand to be seen as deriving from the framing edge—as having been ‘deduced’ from it . . .” This “increasingly explicit recognition of the physical characteristics of the picture support” is important as it relates to the denial of illusionistic space and the assertion of the flat, two-dimensional space of the canvas which has marked modernist art since Cubism. This is all well and good, but emphasis on the degree of “rigor” with which one artist “deduces” the structure in his work from the picture-support as opposed to another leads to distinctions which come perilously close to emptiness:

It may seem at first that Louis, because of his willingness to run images off the canvas, was more concerned than Noland to derive or ‘deduce’ pictorial structure from the literal character of the picture support. But I think this would be mistaken. Until 1960–61 . . . Louis’ attitude towards the framing-edge seems to have been much the same as Pollock’s and nowhere near as advanced as Newman’s . . .

Somehow, in pursuing the logic of formalist assumptions, Mr. Fried has led us to an unconvincing—and trivial—standard. The idea of “an advanced attitude toward the framing-edge” teeters on the brink of the absurd.

It is to Mr. Fried’s enormous credit that he does not flinch in the face of conclusions to which the logic of his assumptions leads him. Dealing openly with questions which art writing has been ducking for years, (Which are the best Pollocks? Why? Who are the best painters of the last decade? Why? Which are their best paintings? Why?) Mr. Fried states his conviction that the answers to them can only be found in the continuing formal dialectic in which modernist painting has been engaged for most of this century. Once he has staked out the areas of formal concern, the critical task is to distinguish those artists who have involved themselves in these problems and point out the extent to which they have succeeded or failed in confronting the issues. If this leads to a discussion of advanced attitudes toward the framing edge, then that is where it leads: it is better, in any event, than the “arena talk” that gushed out of art writers during the last decade, and has the virtues of some measure of verifiability as well as viewing modern art consistently in the context of its entire history.

What Mr. Fried seeks in the criticism of the visual arts is a level of discourse comparable to that which prevailed in literary criticism during the thirties and forties, and into the fifties. “The new poetry,” says Mr. Fried, “found the criticism it deserved relatively soon, in the work of men like Blackmur, Ransom, Tate, and others.” The names are chosen aptly, for the dangers which formal criticism runs are precisely those which poetry ran in the hey day of the group named by Mr. Fried. Precious, stupefyingly dull poems became grist for the “close-reading” mill; to prefer Donne to Shakespeare became a sign of exquisite taste; clever, contrived ironies poured out of the English departments; references to Provencal troubadours became a prerequisite for serious verse; commitment of any kind, especially political, became vulgar; in the end, the reading of criticism became preferable to the reading of poetry, and poets all over the world forgave the Beat Generation its bad verses for its service in blasting poetry out of the hands of the New Criticism.

If, in the final analysis, the insights of formal criticism do not provide more than a scaffolding for the making of judgments, they do possess, in great measure, the prodigious virtue of resulting from a face-to-face confrontation with the work of art, and not with everything except the work of art. Mr. Fried’s essay is devoid of the anecdotes, cryptic, mysteriously meaningless quotations from artist’s conversation, descriptions of studios, etc., which have become the standard substitute for art criticism. If the essay is open on every page—almost in every paragraph, to question and dispute, its great virtue is that the questions and disputes take place on a higher level than they have before.

Philip Leider