Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews

By Grubbs, David | Chicago Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews


Grubbs, David, Chicago Review


Michael Fried. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

The Michael Fried of Art and Objecthood is a marvel of certitude, and in James Joyce's Stephen Hero he has found a nearly perfect epigraph for this collection of his art criticism: "[H]e was persuaded that no-one served the generation into which he had been born so well as he who offered it, whether in his art or in his life, the gift of certitude."

Fried's writings on art divide between two distinct periods. Art and Objecthood collects his art criticism from 1962 to 1977. In the early 1970s, Fried ceased to make criticism his main endeavor and instead rededicated himself to art history. The result has been Absorption and Theatricality, Courbet's Realism, and Manet's Modernism, an epic, three-volume study of the origins of modernist painting cast in terms of the relationship between painting and beholder in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If the later, art-historical period finds Fried, in his own words, "resolutely nonjudgmental," then the earlier, art-critical period finds Fried packing a career's-or a lifetime's?-worth of strongly argued evaluation into the span of a decade and a half.

As a critic, Fried is synonymous with the demand that art compel conviction. Art and Objecthood is proof that nowhere in art criticism of the period in question will you find conviction to match Fried's. The frontispiece to Art and Objecthood is Frank Stella's Portrait of Michael Fried Standing on His Head Far above Cayuga 's Waters, and the will to stand on one's head and the remarkable will to judgment in these essays strikes the reader as poetically commensurate. I smiled.

Fried's criticism has itself compelled conviction in the manner of a lightning rod-heated, angry conviction-and it is no exaggeration to say that his 1967 essay "Art and Objecthood" has provoked more debate than any other piece of art criticism in the last three decades. Fried's critics may find strength in numbers, but that isn't to say it hasn't been a fair fight. "Art and Objecthood" is Fried's critique of minimalism, particularly the work of Robert Morris and Donald Judd, on the basis of what he terms its "theatricality"-the work's appeal to the viewer by means of staging a particular presence, a mode Fried judges "surefire" and "inartistic." There have been several occasions since the publication of "Art and Objecthood" in which Fried has responded to his critics; one has the impression in reading the lengthy, fascinating introduction to this volume that he hopes these will be his final words on that essay.

What is the gist of Fried's revisitation of "Art and Objecthood" three decades down the line? There isn't much that he would change. …

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