Makeshiftness

Barry Schwabsky

  • Menzel’s Realism: Art and Embodiment in 19th-Century Berlin by Michael Fried
    Yale, 313 pp, £35.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 300 09219 9

Michael Fried, who is also a poet, has a dense, self-questioning, fervent prose style. Somewhat perversely he has, over the last three decades – that is, since his doctoral dissertation on Manet was printed as a special issue of Artforum in 1969 – put this prose to the service of art-historical scholarship. It might have been otherwise. While still in his twenties Fried had become a leading critic of contemporary art, an occupation which may not sound very different from being an art historian, though perhaps less respectable. Yet from Baudelaire onwards, an engagement with contemporary painting has been vital to some of the greatest poets; and the best art critics, aside from those who were primarily artists, have been writers who’ve taken art on as a sideline. Even the rival giants of American art criticism when Fried was a young man, Harold Rosenberg and Fried’s own mentor Clement Greenberg, started out wanting to be all-round literati before becoming specialists in the fine arts; but Fried, who was one of the first wave of art critics to have a PhD in art history, seems to have been the only one of that group to have been tempted, however briefly, by the older model of the writer-critic rather than the academic.

Perhaps this accounts for the difference in tone between Fried’s criticism and that of his peers. Where they were combative and polemical, he exhibited near religious intensity, as though he wanted something from art, a sort of exaltation or transcendence, that criticism was hardly suited to express. This desire is most evident in what is probably the best known sentence Fried has written, the last line of his 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’: ‘Presentness is grace’ – a line that refers back to the citation from one of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons at the head of the essay; and in the Talmudic minuteness with which he unravelled the significance of stylistic features that to other observers seemed hardly so momentous. ‘Flatness’, for instance – the annihilation of the illusion of deep space that had been the glory of classical art – was one of the big issues of those days, and the artist-critic Robert Smithson had great fun with Fried’s finding that certain polychrome sculptures by the painter Jules Olitski consisted of surfaces that had the miraculous property of being ‘flat, but rolled’.

Speaking of the American painters he championed in the 1960s – Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella – Fried observed that their work ‘not only arises largely out of their personal interpretations of the situation in which advanced painting found itself at crucial moments in their respective developments’: it ‘also aspires to be judged, in retrospect, to have been necessary to the finest Modernist painting of the future’. In other words, the basic content of such painting was its concern with its own place in the advancement of art. Fried’s sense of history was progressive: he understood the present as directed towards the future, rather than as self-contained. And by initiating his art-historical work with a study of Manet, who has always been seen as a crucial figure in the development of the very Modernism of which his contemporary heroes – the painters I’ve mentioned, or the English sculptor Anthony Caro – were the exponents, Fried seemed set to search out the background to this progressive history.

But it’s hardly surprising that, once in the academy, Fried imbibed a different view of history, one that is properly historicist in the sense that it sees the past as self-contained, indifferent to a present that had, in Fried’s previous conception, been its future. In the lengthy and ruminative 1998 introduction to Art and Objecthood, his collected criticism, Fried was careful to distinguish between the sort of thinking that goes into art history and the sort that goes into art criticism: history is not judgmental, while criticism is nothing but. Yet he concludes by expressing a faith that in his work ‘the poems, the art criticism and the art history go together, that they share a single vision’.

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