PRINT November 2009


Charles Harrison

Charles Harrison, Karlsruhe, Germany, March 2, 2008. Photo: ONUK.

CHARLES HARRISON may be the most important writer on modern art whom a good many readers of this magazine will never have encountered. As an accolade, that is indeed far too qualified: Harrison was one of a small handful of writers by whose standard the best art writing of our time will be judged. His death on August 6 at age sixty-seven, after a struggle with cancer, cut short a life of profound engagements with both art history and the contemporary practice of art.

The shape of his commitments and career diverged from the patterns of his few peers in ways that may account for the limited currency of his work in the normative channels of art-world discourse. To the end, his tendency was to go against the grain of what was expected. As a graduate student in London during the 1960s, he longed for a rigor in the explanation of art that was largely unavailable within the eclectic, unsystematic mental habits that typified the English scene. His dissatisfaction led him to inaugurate, almost single-handedly, a serious reconsideration of Clement Greenberg’s criticism at a time when the waning of abstract painting and sculpture as touchstones of artistic achievement had vitiated Greenberg’s authority on his home ground. Harrison comprehended both sides of this phenomenon—the unrealized potential of modernist thought and the failure of its immediate exemplifications—with an assuredness that stands as an implicit reproach to every facile dismissal of modernism’s legacy.

In a timely and invaluable collection of his more recent essays, Since 1950: Art and Its Criticism (2009), he writes, “[T]he formal analysis of works of art—by which I mean the difficult enterprise of description, apart from the mere tracking of anecdotal detail—went out of fashion with Modernism itself. . . . Yet it is at the level of form that the complexity of art is actually recognised—when art is indeed complex, and when that complexity is indeed sensed. . . . We might say that art is complex in knowing something about the world that we do not, but that how it knows it is a technical matter; that is to say it is a matter specific to the use of a given medium.” It would be difficult to state the epistemological and ethical case for the modernist attitude—“the critique of sentimentality in its many often hidden forms,” as he phrases it—with greater precision and elegance.

But he leavens the potential solemnity of such pronouncements with an account of his failed effort to join the modernist coterie in earnest. This was not for want of a welcome, on his first awkward visit to New York in 1969, from a grateful Greenberg, who had read Harrison’s glowing review of an exhibition in London of paintings by the late Morris Louis. As Louis’s 1958 “bronze veils” were then on view at the André Emmerich Gallery, the great critic sent Harrison along to see the show. But his unexpected response marked a turning point in his fledgling career: “The gallery looked forbiddingly classy and the large paintings were hung round the walls each with its carefully tuned soft lighting—and I could not see them as art at all. Far from serving as vehicles and expressions of feeling, they had the aspect of wallpapered money, dissolving without remainder into a culture I was feeling put down by.” Fleeing the scene, he stopped at the reception desk just long enough to spot his own article on display: “a nice double-page spread with colour plates, announcing the judgement of which I had been so proud.”

Disarming candor about his own vulnerabilities is characteristic of Harrison’s freedom from standard ego investments. But so is his resolute confidence in the implications of his own experience. He concluded there and then that the path he had envisioned as an aspiring critic was closed: “I was out of a job.” But this rude revelation of the context dependence entailed in modernist aesthetic responses brought him into immediate sympathy with the most advanced tendencies in American art, bolstered by his first direct encounter with the sculpture of Carl Andre, no American Minimalism of any kind having then been shown in Britain (Greenberg naturally reproved this enthusiasm). He used his position as assistant editor of Studio International to prepare the way for Londoners to join the conversation that had arisen among advanced artists, critics, and curators, both in the United States and in continental Europe—in the process helping to push the magazine into parity with Artforum as required reading for anyone hoping to stay abreast of these developments.

He also put his convictions into practice later that same year by assuming the fraught curator’s role in the installation of Harold Szeemann’s “When Attitudes Become Form” on its augmented iteration at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts. In a constricted space, he orchestrated a compellingly dense and immersive presentation of this landmark international showcase for the informal, process, and Conceptual art that came in the wake of Minimalism. Nothing could have been further from the soigné surroundings on which he had turned his back at the Emmerich Gallery, and virtually no one in London but Harrison then possessed the knowledge and sophistication required to make curatorial sense of this body of work.

But the same questioning of his own responses forestalled his plunging into the postmodernist current represented by this endeavor: “The question that now recurred,” as he framed it, “was how the practice of art was to be distinguished from other cultural or intellectual pursuits if neither frames nor pedestals could be counted on to separate its outcomes from the rest of the world as signifying stuff.” A different, less heralded role presented itself in 1971, as editor and interlocutor in the collective enterprise of Art & Language, the UK’s most significant and lasting contribution to Conceptual art. In contrast to much of the literal, context-dependent matter that dominated “Attitudes,” he recognized that these text-based works were more akin to a Morris Louis, in that they “were not hanging around the art-world waiting to have the status of art conferred on them. . . . They were in a sense indifferent to the mechanisms of that conferral. But that very indifference—an indifference, if you like, to the various little knowledges that are forms of power—was the condition of a kind of aesthetic distinctness and integrity—the condition, in other words, of their being art.” For him, the preservation of modernism’s crucial capacity to bear witness—its vocation of “dissent from the self-imagery of modern societies”—could readily entail sacrificing any redundant medium.

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Within that decades-long “conversation in the studio” (his favored term for the core of his work), Harrison could bring to bear his extraordinary intelligence and critical acumen simultaneously with the doubts and productive uncertainties that had steered him away from more than one beckoning art-world career path. As Art & Language’s membership waxed and waned, a triad emerged, with Harrison joining studio practitioners and intellectual partners Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden in a range of production across manifold media. Based in rural Oxfordshire, at a determined distance from the metropolitan fray, Harrison crafted an art writer’s vocation distinct from any existing model, reserving much of his thought for the benefit of his artist colleagues and submitting himself in turn to a continual process of learning as he observed what kinds of consummated works of art could be fashioned as outcomes of that conversation. Eventually, as he and his colleagues came to regard the generic apparatus of Conceptual art as all too amenable to the needs of art institutions for frictionless content, the group returned to the medium of painting. For the wider world, his two volumes of Essays on Art & Language convey what was at stake in the evolution of a collective practice that abjured customary boundaries between making and criticism.

His prose could be demanding, but—much like the painting he admired—it was free of cant and obscurantism, penetrating and lucidly revealing if approached with sincere, disinterested application. Its most abstract terminology, when absorbed in this spirit, strikes the reader with the force and immediacy of the most concrete particulars. But Harrison’s writing possessed another dimension, one arising from his coequal commitment to teaching in the most accessible and democratic of Britain’s universities. The Open University accepts students with almost any preparation, many of them mature and working, who pursue their studies from home. In the pre-Internet age, OU faculty prepared elaborate and ambitious cycles of films and radio programs broadcast by the BBC, supported with texts specially written by course team faculty. Harrison joined the OU in 1977 and took a leading role in creating its watershed course, Modern Art and Modernism. When launched in 1983, its socially critical framework brought the wrath of the Thatcher government down on the university, but the team held firm, and the course had a widely ramifying impact on the way art history is taught, effectively translating, without compromise, the insights of the new social and semiotic art histories into an inviting and accessible form.

The writings for subsequent courses have appeared as widely adopted textbooks from Yale University Press. Harrison’s chapter “Abstraction” in the volume Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction (1993) can and should be read by anyone seeking the clearest possible summation of the concept—and no one has written better on Impressionism than he does in another OU volume. His ability to reach students of all backgrounds and abilities came vividly to the fore in the OU’s annual residential summer schools, weeklong sessions where the scattered students would meet the faculty and one another face-to-face. Student after student has spoken of the veils being lifted as Harrison spoke in front of artworks in London museums, generously explaining and taking on board their own doubts and uncertainties—and Harrison himself regularly recalled the summer schools with the greatest warmth, as one more venue of vivifying conversation. His self-effacing dedication to public service shines through in the three volumes of Art in Theory, compendious but deftly edited anthologies that he and his collaborators, Paul Wood and later Jason Gaiger, compiled during the 1990s in a yeomanlike and underrewarded effort to bring the intellectual adventure of art practice in the West before any interested reader. It is fair to say that the scope of his commitments and loyalties, as well as the unwavering integrity with which he fulfilled them, will not soon be matched.

Thomas Crow is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.