in Opinion | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Modernism Blazing

Michael Fried's Formalist Flashback

in Opinion | 06 JUN 98

'An optimistic and expansive moment', recalls Michael Fried, who was there. Thumb through other reminiscences of the 60s in the New York art world and you'll likely find more mixed reactions. Robert Morris remembers that his fellow artists felt 'heady and jaded at the same time'. Linda Nochlin speaks of the 60s as 'a decade enlivened by what appeared to be perpetual innovation, or debased by the ceaseless quest for flashy novelty, however you chose to look at it'. Lucy Lippard describes how the period involved 'a complicated balancing act between nihilism and utopianism' (or, as she put it in '65, 'The idealism of today is irony').

'It was the best of times and the worst of times',

paraphrases Lawrence Campbell. 1

For those of us who weren't there, the loose ends and contradictions of that period have reached us second-hand and doctored up, having undergone repeated attempts to hammer them into the semblance of a straightened-out historical narrative. A well-known version tells of the passage from Modernism to Postmodernism, from autonomy to context, essence to effect, conviction to critique. Or from good-natured Pop shenanigans to bureaucratic pseudo-academicising (if you read Dave Hickey). Or from aesthetic aloofness to political engagement (if you read Maurice Berger). It might be less rousing but more accurate to say that the 60s marked not so much a plot twist or turning of the page but a loss of the ability to persuasively narrate events altogether. The desire to narrate was there, and it doesn't help when people like Fried continue to this day to insist on a tidy, us-and-them account of the period, but even Fried himself, looking back in 1987, can't help but admit that at the time 'different possibilities were entertained ... the same body of work was seen in different ways ... the future was in doubt'. 2 The self-criticism and innovation demanded by Modernists and avant-gardists alike, by Greenberg and Fried and Judd and Morris, were observed, yet the subsequent re-arrival at consensus was not. Too many chefs stormed the kitchen, not just artists and critics but curators, collectors, dealers, magazine editors, trendsetters, you name it. Not until almost ten years after Modernism and Minimalism were both presumed dead did they, or at least Fried's account of them, get resurrected by the theorists of Postmodernism who sought a historical justification for their critical strategies and defiant tone, looking to graft the powerful arguments of 1967 onto those of 1977 and thus transform rupture into continuity. Postmodernism arose out of the same condition into which it now seems to be lapsing; not a clash of dominant conceptual frames but the lack of any.

'This is yet another book about the 1960s', Fried announces in the introduction to Art And Objecthood (1998), an anthology chronicling his earliest writings as an art critic, bringing together essays and reviews published between 1962 and 1972 mostly in Art International and Artforum. To reread Fried's prose from this period is to be struck both by how circumspect and over-the-top it is, his language hewing as tightly as possible to the immaculate surfaces of abstract art even while it zigzags in extremes of elation and despair. 'I won't try to characterise those years other than to say that they were intense and eventful', he writes. In many ways the book can be read as one long struggle to define these intense extremes, and to do so only through reference to the surfaces and forms of art. On the one hand, there is the Modernist achievement, calculated as 'presentness is grace'. On the other, there are literalism, theatricality and Minimal art. This opposition emerges most explicitly in the 1967 essay 'Art and Objecthood', which gives the book not only its title but its chronological epicentre, into and out of which almost all the other writing seems to develop.

'Today,' Fried writes in a freshly penned, 74-page preamble called 'An Introduction to My Art Criticism', 'it is often assumed that with the advent of minimalism in the mid 1960s the high modernist group was put on the defensive in fact "Art and Objecthood" is sometimes read in that light. But the mood in 1967-68, artistically speaking, was distinctly upbeat'. Here is Fried indulging his optimism. And to a certain extent the book backs him up, documenting the period as a string of breathtaking victories notched up by Louis, Noland, Olitski, Caro and Stella. But it's a partial account the book renders. Roughly half of Fried's reviews and a number of his essays have been omitted because, Fried shrugs early on, they 'now strike me as hopelessly immature'. These include an infamously hostile paper he delivered at a 1966 Brandeis symposium in which he thundered against 'the valueless and appetiteless voraciousness of contemporary culture' and contended that 'no more than an infinitesimal fraction of the art produced in our time matters at all'. 3 Also missing are reviews that lash out at such things as 'the rage for Pop Art that has littered galleries with junk' and 'the by now crammed gap between art and life,' or that darkly intone against 'the increasingly direct interest taken in contemporary painting and sculpture by moneyed concerns of all kinds'. 4 This is Fried as a 60s beat critic, making the rounds in an art scene snowballing with polemic, publicity and hard cash, at times just throwing up his hands in exasperation: 'I feel so locked out of the predominating aesthetic of most of these things,' goes a line from '63, 'that it is hard to know how to begin criticising them'. 5

Even with all this negativity excised there remains an ominous shadow stretching across much of this collection. It issues mostly from Fried's notion of literalness in art, which at root means little more than the material substratum of painting and sculpture canvas, stretcher bars, metal, whatever properties makes the work an object. But from these properties Fried draws stark implications. Literalness is what Minimalism fights for and Modernist art triumphs against. And yet Minimalism is just the tip of a huge literalist iceberg. In a footnote to 'Art and Objecthood' Fried links the Minimal artists to 'other figures as disparate as Kaprow, Cornell, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Flavin, Smithson, Kienholz, Segal, Samaras, Christo, Kusama... the list could go on indefinitely'. What all these non-Modernists supposedly share is an attempt to secure a place for their work outside the specific traditions of painting and sculpture, thus ducking the obligation to measure up to and advance the past accomplishments of those traditions. Nothing informs their art but the literal environment in which it's situated, which means the room it inhabits and the viewer in whose sight and stock cultural reflexes it becomes activated. That's why Fried argues that such work appears in every way staged. 'What lies between the arts', he writes, 'is theatre.'

Literalism, however, is not a weakness given into by art alone. In another of the essay's footnotes, as well as in a footnote to 'Shape as Form', the literalist threat is further tied to the writings of Susan Sontag, to such essays as 'Against Interpretation' and 'Notes on Camp', which Fried calls 'the purest certainly the most egregious expression of what I have been calling theatrical sensibility in recent criticism'. 6 These footnotes are curiously missing from the book, having fallen victim to the very slight copy editing Fried has done in preparing his essays for republication; perhaps they didn't make it in because they carried with them too much of the tempestuous cultural muck Fried's whole evaluative apparatus is geared to keep at bay. Yet Fried doesn't want to sell theatre and literalism short either, since only by enlarging the threat of Minimalist poverty can he attain the ballast needed to hoist his incredibly lofty claims for Modernist heroics. 'Literalist art,' as Fried calls Minimalism, 'is not an isolated episode but the expression of a general and pervasive condition'. The introduction to the new book only strengthens this view, claiming now that what Fried, in '67, called the 'war' between Modernism and Minimalism was exemplary of 60s turmoil and soul-searching in general, that it 'was fully as central to the period as any other cultural manifestation'.

'Every war is a battle with reflections', Robert Smithson responded in a letter to Artforum published a few months after 'Art and Objecthood' appeared. 7 Indeed, just as Minimalism is shackled by Fried to all things theatrical, so too do his favourite abstractionists (he admits to having 'always focused on a small group of artists') strike their blows in the name of 'the entire history of painting since Manet'. The amassing of two great, diametrically opposed camps is the product of Fried's absolutism. Not that the Minimalists didn't confound certain Modernist tenets, just that this is all Fried chooses to see, refusing the artists he clumps under the literalist label their vast differences ('some of them wouldn't even talk to each other at a party', as David Antin observed), reducing their work to a set of concepts too general to be of much use in discerning specific cases. 8 It's exactly this kind of reduction that Fried claims his own criticism and the art it champions have been subjected to, which suggests that the Postmodernists have borrowed more from him than he thinks.

Take Judd, for example. It's his work that Fried's writing most evokes if only by displacing it. Who else would feel stung by the charge of theatricality? Not Morris or Tony Smith (certainly not Sontag, who wrote of 'the theatricalisation of experience' as a hallmark of 60s camp sensibility). 9 Judd comes the closest to proving Fried's contention that 'Greenberg had no truer followers than the literalists' and that 'literalist sensibility is a by-product of the development of Modernist painting itself'. It's true that almost all the Minimalists started off as painters (back then who didn't?), but Judd broke with painting more slowly than the others and never altogether; his interests remained on the side of visuality colour, shape and surface and never turned toward questions of weight and gravity, ambient room space and other Minimalist tropes. One even finds Judd and Fried speaking approvingly of one another while both were still writing reviews in the early part of the decade. In a 1964 piece reprinted in Fried's anthology, he describes Judd's first one-man show as 'one of the best', 'assured, intelligent' 'as one might expect', he adds, 'on the strength of Judd's monthly criticism'.

So what happened? Even Fried seemed puzzled at first. Both admired the paintings of Noland and Stella, but for Fried their accomplishment lay in how they not only acknowledged but overcame their own conventionality, how they at once nakedly disclosed their literal properties and yet somehow brought those properties to life as pictures. 'What is at stake', Fried writes, 'is whether [the artworks] in question are experienced as paintings or as objects'. Whether, that is, the paintings are made objects or their object-status made vulnerable to vision, capable of yielding insight, of being pressed into by motivated perception and pressing back in turn, challenging, informing, moving the perceiver. This was genuine connection, a source of 'non-theatrical' or uncontrived expression and emotion. But for Judd genuine art denied such connection. 'Things that exist exist', he wrote, 'a shape, colour, surface are things themselves', thus listing the entirety of what within the Modernist legacy he permitted himself to endorse. What Judd couldn't place his faith in was precisely that which Fried demanded, a higher purpose behind the organising of shape, material and colour, any idealistic order that would subsume such 'things' in a demonstration of itself. 'Of course, finally, I only believe my own work,' Judd once announced. Whereas Fried sought a humanist and historical art, responsive and indebted, Judd crafted an art of indifference and isolation, one that stood for itself and nothing more, that cancelled all debts. 10

'Art and Objecthood' is most brilliant when attesting to Judd's dubious success. 'Literalist works,' Fried writes, 'must somehow confront the beholder ... The work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone which is to say, it refuses to stop confronting him, distancing him, isolating him'. What Judd discovered in Noland and Stella, as Fried seems to realise, was a way to use pictorialism against itself. His aggressive materials and blocky, inert shapes, the way he frequently ordered identical copies of such given forms in bland repetition, all this combines to obscure any sense of the work having a definable frontal aspect by which it presents itself, a face with which it welcomes viewing. Even his reliefs, which seem to have frontality forced on them by not being situated in the round, turn their attention sideways by extending themselves laterally or horizontally, repeating their component parts either up and down or across the wall. Judd's work seems to play dead, and yet this is precisely how it devises to most fully surrender itself over to vision, and why it thus shares more in common with Stella's and Noland's art, or that of Caro and David Smith, than with Tony Smith's monumentalism or Morris's pedantic object lessons. No doubt this is also why it disturbed Fried as much as it did, why in his introduction Fried still finds Minimalism 'uncanny' and 'vaguely monstrous', and perhaps why he couldn't then and still can't seem to respond to Judd head on. Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine Minimalism minus Judd prompting all the theoretical revisions Fried confesses it made him go through over the course of the 60s. But in the end, Fried decided how to deal with Judd to write him off as an ideologue, yet another symptom of troubled times, pushing him back into a list of antagonists 'that could go on indefinitely'.

Of course, Judd wasn't the only source of Fried's problems; dark forces did indeed lurk not just upon but behind the surfaces of 60s art. Not only were distinctions between traditional art media beginning to blur; so too were class lines. With the general rise in income, leisure time and college education, many intellectuals feared a resulting collapse of cultural hierarchies; standards were felt to be increasingly set by market demands, fashion trends and middlebrow taste rather than by the expert judgements of a critical community. Again, Sontag was singled out as a major troublemaker; Fried's good friend Barbara Rose remembers how 'her article "Against Interpretation" said that this idea of highbrow and lowbrow didn't matter any longer you could just love everything, be positive and optimistic and just love it all'. 11 Another culprit pointed to was liberalism, seen as an excuse to avoid value judgements. 'I'm against what most critics take pride in breadth of taste, inclusiveness', Fried inveighed at Brandies in '66. 'What they regard as openness and tolerance their bourgeois liberalism is nothing but promiscuity and irresponsibility bordering on nihilism.' Fried countered by designating value judgements the sole, urgent content of Modernist art. 'The concepts of quality and value are central to art, the concept of art itself.' And as such, 'criticism that shares the basic premises of Modernist painting can play a role in its development only somewhat less important than that of the new paintings themselves'. What Fried thus outlined was a procedure for the manufacture and assessment of Modernist art in which artist and critic lost all distance from one another, yet in doing so picked up distance on all the rest. Modernism's elect few became bound ­ strategically, defensively into the image of a true critical community, a cultural elite, a circuit of genuine production and reception itself divorced from the larger, spurious system the art world had become.

All this seemed to work for a while, but there was a price to pay. Despite Fried's passion and talent for analysing pictures powers that still seem second to none he ended up so zealously protecting his favourite artists and the terms by which to appreciate their work that his criticism, as well as the art itself, soon began to feel, in a word, safe. 'It has gotten so that Jules Olitski's work cannot be discussed without reference to Michael Fried's criticism', Lippard complained in '66, and to this day she has yet to be proven wrong. 12 Because Fried so limited the potential expansiveness of his own discourse, it's ended up bequeathing to us more its exclusivity and inflexibility than anything else. This is also why it seems so merciful that Fried decided to structure his book the way he did, starting off with all his major essays and leaving for the end his earlier reviews, which by the time the reader gets to them deliver much needed fresh air (there's a probing, eloquent piece on Johns and even an appreciation of Warhol). Here Fried's critical shibboleth appears to soften at the edges, opening itself up to unforeseen possibilities. But that's all in the past, and as Fried summarises his career as a critic in the book's first few pages, he tells us that by 1969 'I had pretty much said what I wanted to say', that 'abstraction in my sense of the term became more and more beleaguered', and, besides, 'evaluative criticism no longer mattered'. It's as if, in return for the Postmodernists taking his abbreviations about Minimalism to heart, Fried has agreed to view the subsequent years as the 'death of Modernism'. ('Essays and Reviews from the Close of High Modernism' would have been his choice for a subtitle, he confides.)

to him. Consider too that since the 70s Fried has spoken admiringly in various publications of such unlikely fellow travellers as T.J. Clark, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler. In certain recent feminist texts Fried's notion of theatricality has been subtly nuanced and elaborated in connection to theories of positionality, performativity and the gaze. If any of this seems surprising, remember also that not long ago Hal Foster suggested a reconciliation with the Modernist notion of artistic autonomy, and that the rehabilitation of Clement Greenberg continues apace (led by Marxists no less). 13 And then you have all the younger painters working today, Monique Prieto perhaps the best among them, who are looking to Louis and Noland for inspiration. There's certainly rising sympathy for the question Fried asks of Postmodernism in his book: 'how deep or compelling or significant ­ I would even ask how difficult an achievement "casting doubt" or "revealing the conditional" or "troubling conviction" or "demystifying belief" finally is?'

Perhaps the absolutism that has long paralysed 60s notions about art is at last thawing to the point where those notions can be made pliable again. And I for one would argue for their continued relevance. The aborted dialogue between the work of Noland, Stella and Judd still echoes through the present moment, with concerns over visuality and beholding, over how pictures come to life or play dead, addressed in terms more complicated than a simple yes-no choice between affirmation and critique. Look at Prieto's or Gary Hume's work, or even the recent installations of David Reed, in which computer and video technologies, taking over from their 60s counterparts in New Math and crystallography, impact decisions about colour, facture and seriality. Sadly, however, the reanimation of 60s art criticism is so far occurring on a stage that seems to be slowly moving away from the make-or-break point of new art. It's sobering to think that all the writings in Fried's book were once published in part or whole in art magazines like this one, and yet all the subsequent criticism of his views which he deems to respond to in his introduction were instead published in books or catalogues. The major critics of Fried's generation and their immediate successors have all pretty much disappeared back into the academy from where they came. And yet art criticism today continues in large part to be defined by their example. Whether this amounts to a debt or just dead weight, it remains a fact that, as Fried himself might say, has yet to be acknowledged, let alone overcome.

1. Michael Fried, 'Anthony Caro: Midday', in Artforum vol. 32, no. 1 (September 1993), p.139; Robert Morris, 'Words and Images in Modernism and Postmodernism', in Critical Inquiry 15 (Winter 1989), p.344; Linda Nochlin in Donald Droll and Jane Necol ed., Abstract Painting: 1960-69, pub. P.S. 1/The Institute for Art and Urban Resources, Inc., New York, 1983; Lucy Lippard, 'Notes on the Independence Movement', 1967, in At the Crossroads, pub. Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1987, p. 23; Lippard, 'James Rosenquist: Aspects of a Multiple Art', Artforum vol. 4, no. 4 (December 1965), p. 42; Lawrence Campbell in Abstract Painting, n.p.

2. Michael Fried in 'Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop: Discussion', in Hal Foster ed. Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Number One, pub. Bay Press, Seattle, 1987, p.79.

3. Michael Fried in Art Criticism in the Sixties, pub. October House, New York, 1967

4. Michael Fried, 'New York Letter', Art International vol. 8, no. 4 (May 1964), p.44; Fried, 'Marxism and Criticism', Arts Magazine vol. 36, no. 4 (January 1962), p.72.

5. Michael Fried, 'New York Letter', Art International vol. 7, no. 9 (December 5, 1963), p.68.

6. See footnote 8 in Michael Fried, 'Shape as Form: Frank Stella's New Paintings', Artforum vol.5, no.3 (November 1966), p.27; and footnote 17 in Fried, 'Art and Objecthood', Artforum vol.5, no.10 (June 1967), p.23.

7. Robert Smithson, 'Letters', Artforum vol. 6, no. 2 (October 1967), p.4.

8. David Antin, 'Differences-Sames: New York 1966-1967', Metro 13 (February 1968), p.94.

9. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, pub. Noonday Press, New York, 1966, p.287.

10. Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975, pub. The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, 1975, pp.117, 196, 181.

11. Quoted in Janet Malcolm, 'A Girl of the Zeitgeist', The New Yorker vol. 62, no. 35 (October 20, 1986), p.60.

12. Lucy Lippard, 'New York Letter', Art International vol. 10, no. 1 (January 20, 1966), p.90.

13. For example, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 'Queer Performativity: Henry James's The Art of the Novel', GLQ 1 (1993), pp.1-16; Hal Foster, 'The Archive without Museums,' October 77 (Summer 1996), pp.97-119; and Charles Harrison, 'Modernism', in Nelson and Shiff, eds., Critical Terms for Art History, pub. University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp.142-55.