Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 1999
Michael Fried Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 351 pp.; 16 color ills.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0226263185)
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The emphasis of this selection of critical writings by Michael Fried is upon his work between 1963 and 1966, the reasons he gives for this both explaining and, to a certain extent, justifying the compilation of this collection. Sensitive to what he describes as his peers’ tendency to conflate his views from these distinct periods in his intellectual life, Fried uses the lengthy introduction prefacing the selection to explain the development of his thought from the late 1950s to the present and, relatedly, to clarify the relationship between his earlier critical and later art-historical work.

Fried’s more recent work as an art historian has dealt extensively with the critical reception of French painting from the 1750s to the 1860s. He is keen, on the one hand, to distinguish his approach as an historian from that as a critic. On the other hand, he wishes to clarify the shared “genealogy” of his interests as both critic and historian, namely the enduring concern with “the relationship between the painting and the beholder” (pp. 47-48). He asserts that it is his job as an art historian to understand the differences of opinion within the critical reception of French art throughout the period in question rather than “to seek to resolve the dispute by coming down on one side or the other” (p. 51). Yet he regards the evolution of his critical work as, while avowedly judgmental, nonetheless central to the formation of his views on the nature of painting and spectatorship on which his subsequent historical work would be based. Openly noting what he now takes to be the absence of history in his critical work, and having left out those writings that he now sees as “hopelessly immature or otherwise not worth republishing,” he also asserts that the questions raised during his time as a formalist critic would directly inform the way in which he would interrogate the past as an art historian: “from the start, the distinction between art criticism and art history seemed to me a matter of emphasis rather than of principle” (p. 8).

What appears in the main body of the text is an unmodified record of Fried’s evolution as a high modernist critic, the shortcomings of his arguments having been considered in the introduction. There he addresses head on what he describes as the oversimplifications and value judgements in his formalist criticism, namely his contention that there are certain problems intrinsic to painting, that formalist analysis is the only tool capable of making value judgements about art because of its power to objectify the subjective, and his support for a nonteleological dialectical theory of artistic progress. Yet at no point does he discount their overall contribution to his intellectual development: “although I could not write those essays now,” he reflects, “I have no choice but to stand behind them” (pp. 51-52).

Thus Fried openly maintains that the republication of these essays is not an effort to justify them. If anything, their reappraisal in the introduction can be seen to criticize them. Yet it also contextualizes them historically, and it is here that the value of this anthology for students and scholars of the period is readily apparent, for the introduction explains when and under what circumstances his key essays were written. Falling into three parts, what comes first in the introduction is an intellectual autobiography that accounts Fried’s contacts and influences throughout his career as a critic, as well as the circumstances in which his essays and reviews were commissioned. Then the development of the central ideas in his critical work is addressed, and a useful lexicon is provided of the specialist terms that appear repeatedly throughout the collection. This is particularly helpful, as the meanings for many of the terms used have become obscured or forgotten over time. The terms “dialectic,” “conviction,” and “essence,” for example, are each given working definitions, and their entry into his thinking through external figures—Hegel and Wittgenstein, for instance—is explained. And to further facilitate the readers’ understanding of his account of the formal nature of 1960s high modernism and the challenge it faced from Minimalism, the selections are arranged in reverse chronology. Consequently, it is much easier for readers who are unfamiliar with the trajectory of his thought to retrace its development through the most difficult, but also the most substantial and interesting texts in the collection, which Fried himself flags in the introduction as “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons,” “Art and Objecthood” and “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella.” For these three essays encapsulate the development of Fried’s thoughts on the evolution of modern painting and why he believed Noland, Olitski, and Stella to be its best practitioners to date. The work of these three artists remained concerned about painting in spite of the fact that, because of the reductive internal logic of modernism, the means with which painters could innovate were now drastically reduced. And if these post-painterly abstractionists have long been buried under the “avalanche” of postformalist artists who followed, this collection reminds us of the historical conflict that decided their fate.

Although it is not intended to, this book helps to document one of the turning points between modernism and postmodernism, since it recounts Fried’s own struggle on behalf of high modernism against what he referred to in “Art and Objecthood” as the reintroduction of ideology into visual art through Minimalism, a lead that has been followed by a diversity of conceptual art practices since the late 1960s. Consequently, this collection makes a timely addition to the documentation of the period, given the burgeoning interest amongst art historians in the art and art practices of the 1960s. For students and readers unfamiliar with the material, this collection provides a clear exegesis of works of art that, being so formally stripped down, might be seen as inaccessible on any but the most basic visual level. For scholars, it clarifies the development of formalist thought in the 1960s, distinguishing Fried’s from Greenberg’s thought by mid-decade, largely by fleshing out the philosophical references inferred, but not cited in Fried’s texts from the period in question.

Nancy Jachec
Oxford Brookes University

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