It’s one kind of shock to realize that “Art and Objecthood” is now 50 years old—still another to grasp that it was written by someone only a little more than half that age. Beyond the clarity, distinctiveness and conviction of the author’s voice, what stands out most is the sheer ambition of the essay itself. Fried’s evident intent was not simply to identify and characterize an emerging trend—what he called a “literalist attitude”—within artistic practice, but also to sharply differentiate that attitude from the aspirations of modernist painting and sculpture as he saw them, and, crucially, to clarify in the process what those aspirations actually were.
Specifically, “Art and Objecthood” was meant to offer a corrective to an overly simplistic understanding of modernism that had taken hold in the decade or so prior to the essay’s publication. Minimalism, Fried suggested, was a product of that misprision. He explained:
[O]bjecthood has become an issue for modernist painting only within the past several years. This, however, is not to say that before the present situation came into being, paintings, or sculptures for that matter, simply were objects. It would, I think, be closer to the truth to say that they simply were not. The risk, even the possibility, of seeing works of art as nothing more than objects did not exist. That such a possibility began to present itself around 1960 was largely the result of developments within modernist painting. Roughly, the more nearly assimilable to objects certain advanced paintings had come to seem, the more the entire history of painting since Manet could be understood—delusively, I believe—as consisting in the progressive (though ultimately inadequate) revelation of its essential objecthood, and the more urgent became the need for modernist painting to make explicit its conventional—specifically, its pictorial—essence by defeating or suspending its own objecthood… (160)
Although the text implies 1960 is merely a ballpark date, it seems relevant to note that Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” was published in precisely that year.1 Recalling this, we may be tempted to hear the sentence in question punctuated somewhat differently: “That such a possibility began to present itself around 1960 was largely the result of developments within ‘Modernist Painting’.” I have to think that, whatever Fried’s allegiances at the time to Greenberg, he could only have been dismayed at the form Greenberg’s argument had taken in that essay.2 Instead of a nuanced account premised on the careful observation and description of specific works, “Modernist Painting” offered an overly reductive, insufficiently dialectical and fundamentally misleading understanding of the modernist project. In many ways the charge that Fried would level at Minimalism, that it sought “to declare and occupy a position—one that can be formulated in words” (148), might just as easily have been directed at Greenberg’s essay. As presented there, modernism entailed an incremental, “purifying” reduction to its essence of each individual medium. “Manet’s became the first Modernist pictures,” Greenberg asserted, “by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted.”3 “Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art,” he continued, Modernist painting oriented itself to “the ineluctable flatness of the surface” as it did to nothing else (“Modernist Painting,” 87).
I’d like to think it goes without saying that this formulation amounts to a caricature of the models of modernism put forward in many of Greenberg’s other critical writings. In “Collage,” for example, which was written only the year before “Modernist Painting,” the picture is considerably more complicated. Rather than recounting a simple linear progression to an essence, “Collage” presents Cubism’s development as fully dialectical. There, the medium of painting is seen to draw in certain (self-)critical moments on the resources of, first, sculpture and, subsequently, papier collé. Even more importantly, “Collage” discusses the literal flatness of its material support as a condition that modernist painting felt obliged to own up to, but with which it refused to be fully reconciled. “Painting had to spell out, rather than pretend to deny, the physical fact that it was flat,” Greenberg writes in “Collage,” “even though at the same time it had to overcome this proclaimed flatness as an aesthetic fact” were it to become a successful painting.4 It was, in this accounting, precisely its non-reconciliation to “the ineluctable flatness of its surface” that drove the production of modernist painting. Far from serving as the essence of the medium, the literal or material support was something that had to be negated or otherwise undone.5
A related logic can be seen at work within “Art and Objecthood” and Fried’s other critical writings of the period—although in them literal shape and, by extension, objecthood have taken over the role played by physical or “undepicted” flatness in Greenberg’s “Collage.” In both cases what is fundamentally at stake is a distinction between the realized work of art and other, more superficial sorts of things (wallpaper, for example, as Picasso’s papiers collés make clear, or mass-produced commodities).6 Admittedly, Fried doesn’t phrase matters this way. He continues to refer to “literalist art” and to associate it with theater—which is to say, not with non-art but simply with another recognized artistic form—thereby holding the greater threat at bay and effectively inoculating Minimalism against any more serious charge.7 Still, as Stephen Melville has argued, the anxiety driving the critical projects of both Greenberg and Fried is indissociable from the context of late capitalism.8 It is also wholly understandable; “it is based,” Melville writes, “on the way things of culture increasingly do appear to die, to cease to count, in our world: not with a bang, but a whimper. It is, among other things, fear of Muzak” (Philosophy Beside Itself, 8).
Again, it seems to me that Fried’s antipathy toward Minimalism is fueled by just such concerns. For him, the work of art is successful only insofar as it’s able to both acknowledge its factual objecthood and to somehow defeat or suspend it. In the case of the paintings he most admires, that conflict is played out principally within the “medium” of shape. As he explains it in his discussion of Frank Stella’s irregular polygons, it “is only in the presence of this conflict that the question of whether or not a given painting holds or stamps itself out as shape makes full sense—or rather, only here that the issue of ‘the viability of shape as such’ characterizes a specific stage in resolving or unfolding problems of acknowledgment, literalness, and illusion which…have been among the issues of modernism from its beginning.”9 If the irregularly shaped canvas of Stella’s Moultonboro III (1966) raises the prospect of objecthood—much as had his earlier metallic stripe paintings (e.g., Ileana Sonnabend, 1963)—Moultonboro III nonetheless manages to neutralize any temptation on our part to regard its depicted shapes as dependent on its literal one. Rather, Fried points out, the depicted and the literal appear wholly continuous with one another. We immediately perceive Moultonboro III as comprising a triangle superimposed upon a square, those shapes “acknowledging, by repeating, the shape of the support” (89). Yet it seems even truer to our experience of the painting to say that the depicted shapes undo the primacy of the literal support: “The beholder is in effect compelled not to experience the literal shape in its entirety—as a single entity—but rather to perceive it segment by segment, each of which is felt to belong to one or another of the smaller shapes that constitute the painting as a whole” (90).
Furthermore, in Moultonboro III those smaller shapes seem to exist in uncertain relation in depth both to one another and to the surface of the picture. Fried describes the spatial relation between “the light yellow triangular band” and “the turquoise blue Z-shaped band into which it fits” as “ineluctably ambiguous” (“Shape as Form,” 93). (Note that, in choosing that particular word, “ineluctably,” Fried is not only describing an aspect of Moultonboro III but also marking his growing differences with Greenberg, especially the Greenberg of “Modernist Painting.” Where the latter had identified the “ineluctable flatness of the support” as the very essence of painting, Fried suggests that what appears most ineluctable in the paintings he admires is their pervasive ambiguity.) The beveled ends of the Z, and the fact that its top and bottom segments do not run parallel to one another, introduce suggestions of obliquity that undermine the factual certainty of the shape. In this regard, too, Fried says, Moultonboro III is exemplary of Stella’s irregular polygons, the best of which make “literalness illusive” (95). “[B]y so doing,” he adds, “they unmake, at least in the event and for the moment, the distinction between shape as a fundamental property of objects and shape as an entity belonging to painting alone…” (96).
Despite their status as mere prepositional phrases, Fried’s qualifying “in the event and for the moment” signal another significant departure from Greenberg. Even the Greenberg of “Collage” had implied that the optical illusiveness of the papiers collés resolved once and for all the conflict between literal and depicted flatnesses that had driven earlier Cubist production. However much Fried may feel that Stella’s irregular polygons constitute a similarly compelling response to the “unfolding problems of acknowledgment, literalness, and illusion” characteristic of modernism, he knows that those problems will continue to unfold. “Solutions” are ever only provisional because history is ongoing. In their unfolding, even the problems themselves are bound to change their shape.
Today, half a century after the publication of “Art and Objecthood” and “Shape as Form,” Fried’s characterization of Minimalism still holds sway—except, of course, for his negative assessment of that work. As he himself has remarked, the terms of his argument have gone largely untouched, even (or perhaps especially) among his critics; they have merely reversed the terms’ original values (“An Introduction,” 43). My own relation to the essay is rather less straightforward. On the one hand, I’m reluctant to subsume Judd’s work in particular to the category of the merely theatrical. It seems to me preferable to discount much of his rhetoric and so to see his wall pieces, as others have, in relation to sculpture or painting rather than as “specific objects.”10 Viewed from this angle, the wall pieces frequently evince a pictorialism or perceptual excess that might well be regarded as continuous with modernism’s earlier unfolding. On the other hand, I deeply share Fried’s concern that art might become—or might now, in 2017, have already become—trivialized, all but entirely displaced by a set of “openly theatrical productions and practices” (“An Introduction,” 43). Here Carsten Höller’s giant slides for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern readily come to mind…
Hegel believed that it was incumbent on anything that wanted to be taken seriously to “prove its object,” which is to say, to show itself to be the kind of thing that it in fact is. I am enough of a Hegelian (and a modernist) to feel that art must still “prove its object,” each work somehow making visible a claim for its existence as a work of art rather than some other sort of thing. I take it that what Fried has wanted to show us, not only in his early writings but throughout his art-historical career, is that such “objectivity” is at consequential odds with mere “objecthood,” and that both art and art history need to be clear about those stakes, at least if they hope to be taken seriously. In that sense above all “Art and Objecthood” continues to be for me an extremely consequential text.