PRINT September 2012

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Hal Foster on criticism then and now

Frank Stella, Tampa, 1963, red lead on canvas. 99 3/8 x 99 3/8".

HOW CAN WE ACCOUNT for the sheer intensity of the criticism published in Artforum in its first heyday, from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s? That era of the magazine saw Michael Fried prosecuting Minimalism in his brief against “objecthood” (Summer 1967), Robert Morris deconstructing sculpture in his “notes” on the subject (various issues, 1966–69), and Rosalind E. Krauss parsing the “sense and sensibility” of post-Minimalist practice (November 1973), to name only a few salient examples. This writing was so incisive about the art of its moment; sometimes, though, it is fair to say, it overreached in its claims. Speaking in retrospect, Krauss designated hyperbole as the “very form of speech” in Artforum under the editorship of Philip Leider, and Fried admitted to the “tremendous stress on the writing” during the same period.¹ For Fried, this strain was born of the struggle “to get the intensity of the response into the right register,” to match the power of the relevant art rhetorically.² Yet skeptics argued the converse; in a notorious instance, Tom Wolfe declared all late-modernist art a critical scam, a “painted word.”³ Pace Fried, this writing was more than a response to the art, and, pace Wolfe, it was less than a conspiracy of the critics. Rather, it was a system of support that was semiautonomous, and it was driven by anxiety as much as by ambition. “The verbal part, the theoretical part, sustained me through my doubts,” Leider once remarked. “Every time I began to doubt the way things looked, the value, the quality, the plain quality of the work as it looked to me, I was able to fall back on this structure of thought.”⁴ Often, late-modernist criticism made fine distinctions on which the fate of art was thought to depend—the difference, say, between a “deductive structure” by Frank Stella and a “specific object” by Donald Judd—and often it presented these differences as absolute. Hyperbole was doubtless in play here, but so, too, was hypostatization, an awkward term for a common move in criticism, the inflating of a characteristic into a criterion. As Clement Greenberg writes first of the “flatness” of late-modernist painting and later of its “opticality,” one sees the adjectives become nouns and the attributes become values. Why this drive to hypostatize? These terms registered insights of the time, to be sure, but they also served as bulwarks for an aesthetic field that was under enormous stress; in fact, it was already breached from without and eroded from within. As we know, the external enemy was called “kitsch,” “theatricality,” or simply “mass culture” (Pop was the open traitor here), while the internal enemy was the extended arena of artistic activities opened up by Happenings, Fluxus, and Minimalism. For late-modernist critics, these activities were problematic not merely because they exceeded the proper media of painting and sculpture but because they threatened to push art into an arbitrary realm beyond aesthetic judgment.

The arbitrary was an acute problem for artists, too. If some resisted it through a refinement of late-modernist painting, others undertook a “search for the motivated” in the sheer physicality of new materials and processes or in the sheer actuality of the body of the artist and the site of the work.⁵ Ironically, even as this latter project sought to remotivate and to reground art, to render its making and meaning more transparent to its audience, its effect was often the opposite: to make art appear more arbitrary, rarefied, and illegible. Ironically, too, the former project was not so different in its implications, for the refinement of late-modernist painting did not disclose the definitive essence of this art (as Greenberg thought), or even its necessary conventionality (the correction offered by Fried), so much as reveal the fragility of its conventions as the basis of shared meanings—shared, that is, by a public that was broader than the assiduous readership of Artforum. This is why, at a time when the operations of art became both more varied and less legible, “compelling conviction” became so urgent—and also so strained. “It was an enterprise,” Fried wrote in his 1971 essay on Morris Louis, “which unless inspired by moral and intellectual passion was fated to triviality and unless informed by uncommon powers of moral and intellectual discrimination was doomed to failure.”⁶ Thomas Crow later glossed this statement succinctly: “Modernist criticism brought into the 1960s a surplus of moral commitment that was the relic of an earlier dream of art as the focus of an ideal public sphere.”⁷

What was involved here, then, was not merely the hypostatization of aesthetic attributes into critical values but the displacement of commitments that were moral, intellectual, and, yes, political. Already in his 1965 essay “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” Fried had pointed to this displacement yet did not name it as such. There he writes of a “dialectic of modernism” that was consonant with the Hegelian-Marxist “conception of historical progression,” according to which, through “radical criticism” of each new conjuncture, a Trotskyite state of “perpetual revolution” was produced. “It is no wonder such an ideal has not been realized in the realm of politics,” Fried concluded, “but it seems to me that the development of modernist painting over the past century has led to a situation that may be described in these terms.”⁸ After the past five decades, this statement might elicit laughter, tears, astonishment at its hubris, admiration for its faith, or simply a rueful smile or sigh. But what also strikes us today is how positive Fried was in his understanding of modernist painting as a continuation of the dialectic by other means—or, more precisely, as partial compensation for its substantial loss—whereby permanent revolution in social life might be somehow sublimated into permanent innovation in artistic form.

This displacement came to be questioned as one object of the postmodern critique of modern grands récits. Yet as we decried this displacement as a retreat or even a ruse, we often overlooked what it aimed to retain, such as the basic expectation that artists and critics alike “work through” (in a sense that was Freudian as it was Hegelian-Marxist) the central problems thrown up by their ambitious predecessors. Even more fundamental was this idea: that art and criticism might still serve, if not as agents of history, then at least as indices of historical change, and hence as forms of critical consciousness with respect to the cultural significance of such change. (It becomes clear here why the arbitrary posed such a threat to this view.) Art and criticism as means of purchase on a past that opens onto both present and future: Today this concept seems almost bizarre. We can call it what we like—naive, parochial, chimerical—and we can dismiss it as a petty expression of a will to power whereby art history is read forward into contemporary practice in such a way that an elect few are scripted in and everyone else is dropped out. Yet, forty years on, we should also acknowledge what was lost when this concept was junked.

Hal Foster is the author, most recently, of The Art-Architecture Complex (Verso, 2011) and The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha (Princeton University Press, 2012).


1. Amy Newman, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 (New York: Soho Press, 2000), 152, 187.

2. Ibid., 187.

3. See Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975).

4. Newman, Challenging Art, 295 (emphasis in original).

5. See Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated,” Artforum 9, no. 8 (April 1970): 62–66.

6. Michael Fried, “Morris Louis,” in Art and Objecthood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 101. “Compelling conviction” is a Friedian imperative. For his close interlocutor the philosopher Stanley Cavell, this difficult situation is the modernist condition, and one purpose of modernist art is to test the limits of its meanings and the understanding of its viewers over and over again.

7. Thomas Crow, “These Collectors, They Talk About Baudrillard Now,” in Hal Foster, ed., Discussions in Contemporary Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1987), 7.

8. Fried, “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” in Art and Objecthood, 217–18.