PRINT February 1998


Michael Fried

ANYONE WITH SERIOUS interest in visual art needs to read this book: that is simply the judgment of history, which supersedes any mere reviewer’s recommendation. So conspicuous has been Michael Fried’s profile as high Modernism’s most forceful and articulate standard-bearer that the detailed substance underlying this reputation has been more often assumed than examined or reexamined. The appearance of this collection removes any reason for such carelessness.

It has been some three decades since the defining essays of this collection first appeared. In that long intervening period, Fried gave up topical engagement with contemporary art, pursuing instead a highly individual interpretation of French painting as it developed from Jean-Baptiste Greuze in the later eighteenth century to Edouard Manet and the cusp of Impressionism. Having recently summed up the art-historical project in two weighty volumes, he has extended that remarkable run of energy in crafting this generous selection of his writings from the ’60s and ’70s, adding a new fifty-four-page preface of autobiographical and theoretical reflection that is the book’s one new—and major—contribution.

I expect, however, that most present-day readers will have some considerable imaginative distance to travel before they can vicariously join Fried as he recalls his initial encounter with Anthony Caro’s sculpture in the artist’s Hampstead garden. “When I first saw Midday and Sculpture Seven,” he writes, “I felt I was about to levitate or burst into blossom.” A willingness to reveal such unguarded sentiment has long been a part of Fried’s writing and public persona: “Presentness is grace” was his concluding line to the essay that gives the book its title, and the metaphysical aspiration of that formula has earned it an enduring notoriety in an art world where skepticism has become obligatory. But the intensity of response evoked in these pronouncements lies beyond the reach of the cooler styles of analysis that normally betoken seriousness (this book is the first occasion in his art writing, to my knowledge, where he has called attention to his long-standing vocation as a poet). Nor has Fried ever asked his audience to accept his passionate enthusiasms on faith; that experience of conviction in the face of a work of art, which can be signaled but not described, requires as objective correlative his exhaustive excursions into what it is that can be described.

Perhaps the summit (and summa) of Fried’s practice as a critic is the first essay in the book, “Shape as Form,” his 1967 exegesis of Frank Stella’s “Irregular Polygon” series. Some extended quotation is necessary to convey even a hint of Fried’s relentlessly searching mode of observation. What follows is a portion of the attention he gives to a single “turquoise blue Z-shaped band” in Stella’s Moultonboro III, 1966.

one tends to see the bottom segment, or the bottom two segments, as though somewhat from above and in perspective—while at the same time one is not given enough data to locate them in definite spatial context, in relation either to contiguous shapes or to some ground plane. Moreover, because the top segment of the Z-form runs across the upper edge of the square and is therefore horizontal, one tends to experience that segment as frontal. But this would mean that the Z-form is not only irregular in two dimensions but bent or warped in three—though it is not at all clear which segment or segments are bent or warped and which, if any, are taken as normative. The beveled ends of the Z-form, each parallel to nothing else in the painting, compound the ambiguity by implying that the respective planes of both the bottom and top segments are warped away from, or are oblique to, that of the picture surface—though, of course, they might not be.

There is, he allows, “a ‘real’ Z-form on the surface of the canvas,” but “it is as though across the entire gamut of illusionistic possibilities the ‘real’ Z-form—flat or warped, regular or irregular, partly or wholly parallel or oblique to the picture surface—lies somewhere out there, beyond the painting, waiting to be known.”

Unfolding in marathon paragraphs, this intensity of analytical labor underwrites the epiphanies: no rationalization of idiosyncratic effusions, but rather the retrospective accounting for complexities so perspicuous in their alignment that sensory perception and thought had instantaneously met in a unity startling enough to resemble a religious revelation. This is the riskiest mode of criticism I know, in that it stands or falls on the reader agreeing to share in that unusual belief. And within lies a secular mystery of immanence, in that the ultimate object of understanding “out there” lies locked in a stained patch of stretched canvas, the painstaking description of which is all that the critic can with certainty convey to his audience.

Imagine, then, Fried’s anger—as vivid now as it was thirty years ago—toward those who dared conclude that this merely material object, shorn of illusionistic potential, was all that could be known (as opposed to being all that could be described) and, furthermore, that its matter-of-fact character should be aggressively deployed in order to defeat any hope of epiphany. This Fried took to be the aim of the so-called Minimalists (“literalists” in his own terminology). His outrage fueled the writing in 1967 of “Art and Objecthood,” a document still taken by many to define the decisive issue for advanced art in the ’60s—even when, as is most often the case, those readers share neither its premises nor its conclusions.

In this polemic, Fried substantially transformed the dialectic of Modernism as bequeathed to him by his inevitable forbear and sometime mentor Clement Greenberg. Commercial culture (or its art-world outrider in the form of Pop) does not overly concern Fried. Indeed, when he takes notice of some example of Pop or proto-Pop, his remarks are thoughtful, and he is occasionally captivated by what he sees: in a 1962 review, he registers “an advance protest against the advent of a generation that will not be as moved by Warhol’s beautiful, vulgar, heartbreaking icons of Marilyn Monroe as I am,” and when he takes Oldenburg’s casual giganticism seriously enough to lament its missing philosophical core, one is compelled to admit the justice of the verdict.Pop artists deal with life as we all find it, and he is generally happy to leave them to the job. The threat instead comes from within Modernism itself, from those who willfully chose to interpret Greenberg’s dicta about picture plane and framing edge as a license henceforth to conceive an art that does no more than dramatize its material components.

There is a danger that the posterity of “Art and Objecthood,” underscored by Fried’s decision to give his book the same title, will make him better known for what he was against than what he was for. Virtually all the essential points of the essay had already appeared in “Shape as Form,” and, in the latter, one has the advantage of seeing the full case for his antiliteralist position vividly spelled out. The less that position is left hostage to a quarrel with Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Tony Smith, and Carl Andre, the less the reader is forced to reflect on the inadequacies in his account of their work. If Modernist hubris exists in these pages, it is not in Fried’s forceful advocacy of certain abstract painters (and, in Caro, one sculptor); it is rather in his assumption that the work of his imagined antagonists existed mainly as a betrayal or corruption of Modernism. The points of departure for the various projects he groups as literalist were simply too various and too concretely situated in other pursuits for that assumption to stand. To anathematize Morris’ large-scale sculpture as “theatrical,” for example, was to push at an open door, in that many of the objects in question had begun life as props in dance and performance pieces. Their origins lay in a different game, a circumstance to which Fried’s attentive reading of Wittgenstein might have alerted him. And assimilating Judd or Andre to that game, one largely alien to theirs, allows conceptually weak resemblances of appearance to override far more significant differences.

The amount and level of Fried’s polemic tend progressively to diminish from the beginning to the end of the book (his later, more intricate essays appear first, while his earlier, more topical reviews occupy the last section). Preceding both, new introductory material contains a good deal of protest and clarification directed against those he sees as having made facile misinterpretations of his ideas. Most of this is on the mark, but the effect is that the reader first encounters some of the best material in too summary and disputatious a form. One could do worse than read the book in reverse, encountering first the short reviews that he wrote as the “New York Letter” for Art International in the early ’60s. A review of Kenneth Noland, composed in a matter of days in 1963, contains the essentials of the elaborate argumentation that would occupy Fried for years to follow. And the fresh sense of discovery in these pages extends to artists outside his later favored few (Morris Louis and Jules Olitski, in addition to Caro, Stella, and Noland). In the course of a brief review of Paul Brach, an also-ran in the field of close-valued abstraction, he offers in a few lines some of the most acute remarks on Ad Reinhardt that I know.

Would that there had been more of this: for the question that hangs over the book is the price Fried paid for resting his entire exalted conception of art on a group of living artists who manifestly did not or have not sustained what he first saw in them. Nor did they foster a succession. It is crucial to Fried’s main argument that the achievements of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and David Smith could only be defined in and through the work of the Modernist generation that followed—so much so that the later artists in some sense created salient features of their predecessors that otherwise would never have been perceivable. His model does not allow for a halt in the dialectic: great Modernism must exist both in its original presence and in an afterlife of practical reinterpretation, but the artists he championed have never enjoyed that afterlife, as he readily concedes. His principal response to that failure, eloquent in its way, has been some twenty years of critical silence, which this book does not end: it only makes it deeper.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.