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Michael Fried in the Studio

In the warm months Michael, Ruth and Anna live in Buskirk, New York farm country just over the Vermont border from our barn and my studio in Bennington and it is Maggie’s and my good fortune that during these times we get together frequently for delicious summer evenings of friends, lively talk and food. Two or three times a year on such occasions I get Michael into my studio and it usually goes something like this…

With drinks made and the news and weather covered, we excuse ourselves and move into the studio where I will have arranged four or five pieces for Michael to look at. In my mind these four or five would be at a stage where they have asserted themselves. Michael in the studio is a rare gift and I so value his visits that I prepare for them with particular care, pushing problem pieces forward, anticipating discussion on a plane that shares and accepts as givens many aspects of a sculpture’s making but time after time he upsets the cart, surprises, finds the rule of a sculpture, breaks it.

When Michael enters the studio a kind of hunt begins. I say hunt because there is a feral quality to the way he drops his head and circles a sculpture, looking hard at each quadrant of the circle: stop, look, move, stop, look, move, eating each view.

But let me back up. What am I looking or hoping for from a studio visit? A clear-eyed view of the sculpture that tells me the piece is not working or is working. Then, with luck, an explanation or theory about how it is doing what it is doing. OK, but there are visitors and there are visitors. As is true of any of Michael’s criticism, his understanding of how a work of art gets made comes first. Whether it is a digitally machined stainless steel behemoth, a painting made with a leaf blower or a stop motion video made from a cctv clip, he insists on a thorough understanding of the way a work is made with a demand for information that reaches a granular level. In the case of abstract constructed sculpture, his understanding of the process is first hand and long held— perhaps since his introduction to Caro’s studio practice in 1961, possibly before.

Michael Fried understands in his bones that a sculpture’s meaning can derive entirely from what you see, from the relations between the parts within it that make up the whole. Breaking the rule of a sculpture might consist of adding a bit of scrap or a stick from the shop woodpile, a gentle curve propped in a sculpture of straight lines. A fat chunk placed on a thin bar. Or maybe cutting a dangling end off an element. Who knows? If it looks promising we’ll try it, step back, circle the piece, decide: Better? Worse? Leading to something? Why? Sometimes the change, this tinkering and poking, reveals or discovers something about the sculpture’s story, snaps the looking into seeing. When it does this it can help me see what I am thinking, show a way, bring a moment of certainty to a most uncertain enterprise.

And what a gift that is.

Willard Boepple