Minimalist Art vs. Modernist Sensibility: A Close Reading of Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood”
In his seminal essay “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried contends that Minimalism does not belong in the modernist narrative. Through a close reading of Fried’s essay, this paper argues that Minimalism would probably have been accepted as a part of modernism absent the convincingness of this essay. I reach this conclusion because the Minimalists’ main premise was that their ideas were a natural progression within the modernist genealogy, and the only convincing way to refute this premise was by exposing, as Fried did, the separation of the Minimalist work from modernist conceptions by using the Minimalists’ own vocabulary. Viewed in this light, the power of criticism in contextualizing movements in art – in this case Minimalism – emerges as a clear conclusion, especially when such criticism is strongly rooted in essentialist notions, in this case those of Clement Greenberg.1
In “Art and Objecthood,” Fried does not seek to discount Minimalism, but rather argues that Minimalism is essentially at odds with the modernist sensibility. Stripped of the modernist vocabulary, Donald Judd’s statement that “[a] work only needs to be interesting” becomes problematic for Minimalism.2 In order to understand this problem, it is necessary first to define Minimalism by the very terms provided by Minimalists, and in so doing, to note that these terms were first born from conceptual concerns of its primary practitioners such as Robert Morris and Donald Judd.
The Minimalist Vocabulary
Morris and Judd were central in formulating what came to be called Minimalism, starting in 1963, both by working on pieces that played with previous notions of three-dimensional works.3 However, Morris and Judd traced the beginnings of Minimalism to different sources and articulated varying motivations and intentions. While the two artists’ work converged formally, they were derived from different sources. In particular, while Judd and Morris both highlighted shape, they derived the notion of shape from different media — painting and sculpture, respectively. I propose that Minimalist works were a self-proclaimed development based on modernist art, whereas modernism, defined by Greenberg and furthered by Fried, is actually marked by a continuous progression and medium-specificity that Minimalists did not acknowledge in their claim to modernism.4 The foregoing observations are illustrated in the following examples of their work.
Judd and Morris’s works considered within the scope of Minimalism are marked by a relationship to the viewer and to the space that they inhabit. An early example of Judd’s work from this period is Untitled (box with trough) (1963), which is a bright red box that is comparable in size to a large desk (50 x 115 x 78 in.). The work does not look additive; the red box has a solid, unified form and yet the viewer gets a sense of hollowness through the trough-like opening; the box has an inside that is distinguished from the outside of the box, i.e. the gallery space.5 Robert Morris, around the same time, exhibited five rectangular beams at the Green Gallery. The rectangular beams occupied and animated the gallery space: viewers could stand under one of the beams or lean against one of them. Morris utilized the corners, the ceiling, the floor and the walls of the room to support and frame the beams that enveloped the viewers.6 Thus both works animated the gallery space and became a visual narrative involving the viewer, illustrating the formal convergence referred to above.
Despite practicing common formal elements, however, the two artists had differing views on the conceptual source of these elements. Judd believed that behind his work was a heterogeneous range of examples, ranging from Robert Rauschenberg to Marcel Duchamp to Frank Stella.7 In his new work, the viewer sees a Duchampian ready-made or a Dada object at once and not part by part. Rauschenberg’s goat with the tire is a “beginning” as the painting does have a third dimension, projecting into the viewer’s space. Early monochromatic Stella stripes, on the other hand, create a unified front that does not involve pictorial space, which is a critical starting point for Judd. Stella’s “slabs” are three-dimensional; the paintings defy pictorial space and the limitations of painting. The slabs become “unitary” forms that project out of the painting’s surface.8
A most significant painting to showcase the relationship that Judd built with Stella is Cipango (1962).9 It is a square painting with smaller squares of equal width inserted inside the larger square. Although the repetition does resemble the stripe paintings, through Stella’s use of color, this painting is more about mirroring the shape of the canvas, centralizing the element of shape. The element of shape is critical for Judd’s work, as the simple, freestanding objects have unavoidable shapes that define what the work becomes. Cipango also corresponds with what it is through the repetition of its periphery. This creates a continuation between the space that the work occupies and the work itself. Judd’s interpretation of this correspondence with the space is by placing the three dimensional objects in the space. Judd believes that the presence of these objects solves the problem of illusionism that is a painterly concern and as he sees the work as relational to painting. Although the works more readily resemble sculpture, Judd relates the new work with painting as the work alludes to space and describes in a more generalized manner.10
Sculpture, according to Judd, is composed of different elements, which are visibly separated from each other. The additive process of the sculptor is one that Judd disowns; his objects have a single form that is in relationship with the environment. For Judd, the work’s “assertion” of itself by the single form is more powerful than that of a work consisting of many elements. There is one thing to look at, creating a single impact.11 The work derives its value from the absolute wholeness of the assertion of form.
Robert Morris, on the other hand, relates the new work to sculpture rather than Judd’s formulation of the new work as a development within painting. He is particularly influenced by the work of Russian Constructivists, such as Vladimir Tatlin, who had challenged the limitations of figurative sculpture and explored possibilities within the industrial materials and commercial products. The constructions of Tatlin marked a break with pictorialism, toward a form that “countered” painting, sculpture and architecture, activating materials with a marked independence.12 The Constructivists did not refer to the figure or architecture. This “autonomy” identifies a condition of “independence” from architecture that Morris sees absent from the work of David Smith, “the greatest American sculptor.”13 While Judd saw the additive composition of Smith’s sculptures as being problematic, Morris wanted to return to the independence of the sculpture from the environment that he saw as missing in Smith’s work. Both artists are removed from Smith’s work, but for different reasons.
Morris also challenges Piet Mondrian’s notion of the property of establishing “relations between sensations”. He draws attention to “certain forms” that do not disregard the many relations between textures, mass and color and yet also do not comprise of clearly separate parts. For Morris, it is the simplicity of these forms that triggers “strong gestalt sensations” as the viewers cannot perceive different components. The single gestalt hence has a bigger impact on the viewer than any number of relations between different elements.14 Morris’ assertion that the simplicity of the forms creates a complicated, unique experience for the viewers actually echoes Judd’s conception of the inherent ambiguity of these works.15 The aesthetics of the new work is defined by the spectator: “[the major aesthetic terms] are not in but dependent upon this autonomous object and exist as unfixed variables that find their specific definition in the particular space and light and physical viewpoint of the spectator.”16 The artists do not define what the final work exactly is; the work’s aesthetic values are contingent upon the many variables that shape the viewer’s experience.
Morris identifies the relationship a viewer establishes with the different elements in a sculpture by the term “intimacy.”17 The new work rejects these intimate relationships in order to reinforce the interaction between the work and the space it occupies, co-existing with the viewer. The intimate relationships, Morris implies, can only be with a component. The “intimate mode” is not open and is exclusive.18 Exclusion here refers to the exclusion of the viewer as the work is closed to the outside and has an inherent structure. The elimination of these additive components means that the viewer can relate with the whole, having a more encompassing experience determined by the work, the space and the viewer.
The differences between Morris and Judd’s ideations of the new work highlight a fundamental characteristic of Minimalism: that the represented ideas, in relationship with the past work, are critical. The work is valuable as it is a natural “progression” of past work. However, Michael Fried, in his essay “Art and Objecthood” argues that Minimalism deviates from modernism, by using the very terms posited by Morris and Judd themselves. Fried first shows that Minimalist work is not a natural progression of modernism and second, uses the example of Frank Stella, who represented the epitome of the newer generation of modernism for Fried himself but at the same time was cited as the source of many Minimalist ideations by Donald Judd.
Using Minimalist Vocabulary Against the Minimalist Claim to Modernity
Michael Fried formulates the relationship between Stella and the modernist genealogy in his essay “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons.” Fried champions Stella’s new work (1963-66) as he believes that Stella develops relationships between the literal shape (the silhouette of the support) and depicted shape (the outlines of elements in a given picture). The shapes are made “mutually responsive” to each other and hence, Stella’s paintings utilize shape as a medium in which the very notion of shape is investigated.19 Fried asserts that this is a natural progression in Modernist painting; a shape now has “potentialities” that were not possible before.20
This new “development” is rooted in four issues raised by modernist painting. The illusionism of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Morris Louis, the neutralizing of the flatness of the picture support by the new illusionism, the discovery of a new pictorial structure based on the shape of the support, and the primacy of the literal over depicted shape.21 The implication of this assertion is clear: in the uninterrupted modernist narrative, Stella’s work is a step forward, connecting the past of modernism with the future.
Fried further contextualizes Stella’s work within the immediate framework of Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski’s paintings. While Olitski and Noland’s work are still illusive, Stella’s paintings have nothing to hold as shapes against; the issue of holding or failing to stand since shapes is not quite as relevant to Stella’s work.22 Stella’s paintings hence solve a problem presented by previous modernist painters and extend the modernist narrative.
Fried lies out the inherent conflict between the literal character of the support and illusion. Different painters attempt to resolve this conflict as Fried distinguishes the conceptual and formal differences among Noland, Olitski and Stella. Although Fried accommodates the different solutions offered by these painters, he clearly distinguishes among the three painters and literalists who merely isolate the quality of literalness in their work and “hypostatize” it. For Fried, this corrupted sensibility is not a product of the essentially modernist conflict, but a by-product of it. The isolation of one element and the discounting of all other elements is a negation of the modern genealogy from Manet to Stella.23 The self-criticality of modernist painting is foundational, a deviation from the form of painting and creating work from merely an element in painting will be just that: an aberrance.24
Fried further disintegrates the relationship between Stella’s paintings and Minimalists (or literalists, as he refers to them) by establishing a continuity between the literal and the depicted in Stella’s work, rather than a dependence of the depicted on the literal.25 For Judd, Stella’s paintings are “shaped” and the shapes, combined with the other elements in the painting such as order and color, are “specific”, a term that Judd uses to define the new work, “specific objects”.26 Furthermore, Fried remarks on the continuity between the outside and inside of painting in Stella’s work. For Fried, the continuity is not through a third dimension, as Judd claims,27 but actually through the independent shapes within the work that are connected/disconnected from the limits of the support.28
Fried draws a most critical distinction between Stella’s stripe paintings and the more recent irregular polygons. According to Fried, the new work does not acknowledge literal shape and also does not resort to illusion.29 The implications of Stella’s stripe paintings forced him to remove himself from this “reductionist” approach.30 The progression of Stella’s work from the stripe paintings to the irregular polygons indicate that the artist was aware of where the stripes were going and changed his approach to resolve the issues raised by stripe paintings in a painterly manner. Stella did not become a part of Minimalism, but rather committed himself to the enterprise of painting to answer the questions that he himself raised.
Stella’s development is of critical importance to Fried’s argument against the Minimalist claim to modernity; Stella himself did not sustain the implications of objecthood in his work and went in the opposite direction to exploit and further shape as a medium in painting. Judd, on the other hand, maintains that Minimalism is a logical progression of Stella’s work, involving “several important characteristics of three-dimensional work.”31 If Stella reoriented his work to use and exploit shape as a medium, it is inherently problematic to break away a part of Stella’s progress and derive Minimalism from a particular moment in time, without considering the implications of the work within modernism that Stella later sought to resolve. This conflict between Stella’s progression and Minimalism’s take on Stella’s work is complicated by Stella’s statement,
- We’re all still left with structural or compositional elements. The problems aren’t any different. I still have to compose a picture, and if you make an object, you have to organize the structure. I don’t think our work is that radical in any sense, because you don’t find any new compositional or structural element.32
Here, Stella’s relationship with the history of painting and sculpture is clear: abandoning pictorial or sculptural elements does not resolve the problems presented by art’s development. Stella’s structural concerns are contained within the work of art itself, whereas Judd’s “specific objects” and Morris’s “sculptures” had an external structure, including the viewer and the architectural space that the work was in.
Clement Greenberg formulates this idea in relationship to non-art. He acknowledges the cutting edge work to have the look of “non-art” at their “arrival.” As most painting that looked like “non-art” was now considered art, though not necessarily a successful work of art, the look of non-art had to be sought in the three-dimensional. Greenberg argues that Minimalist work has gone so far in the extreme of being non-art that it is as non-art as “a door, a table or a blank sheet of paper.”33 He states:
- Minimalist Art remains too much a feat of ideation and not enough anything else. Its idea remains an idea, something deduced instead of felt and discovered. […] There is hardly any aesthetic surprise in Minimal Art … Aesthetic surprise hangs on forever – it is there in Raphael as it is in Pollock – and ideas alone cannot achieve it.34
The issue here does not lie only with the “non-artness” of Minimalist work. Rather, it is the derived meaning from these objects for what they should be read as that “betrays” Minimalists.35 If a work is merely “interesting,” it is not aesthetically comparable to modernist works preceding it. It is the Minimalists’ failure to formulate anything but interest in the work that marks a deviation from modernism.
Michael Fried extrapolates on the divergent nature of the Minimalist work that he first formulated in 1966 vis-à-vis Stella’s work in “Art and Objecthood.” The essay is a riposte to Minimalism. Fried exposes and analyzes the relationship that Minimalists have with modernist art and modernist terms, but disproves the Minimalists’ claim to be a continuation of it. Minimalism derives its vocabulary from Modernism, but fails in becoming a part of the modernist discourse.
For Fried, the ideation of Minimalism for Minimalists is a literalist one. Literalism, in this context, refers to the isolated element of the literal, as defined in “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons,” refers to the shape of painting’s support. Minimalists isolate the shape from other elements that constitute a painting, disintegrating painting as a form.
It is the break from painting through the isolation of the shape that is foundational to Fried’s argument. The Minimalists’ interpretation of shape in Stella’s paintings is incongruous with modernist values. If modernism is defined by self-criticality of each medium, then abandoning elements that constitute a painting to resolve one issue is the corruption of the modernist sensibility. Fried asserts Stella’s paintings use shape as a medium, as cited above. In “Art and Objecthood,” he reiterates the inherently pictorial characteristic of shape as it belongs to the medium of painting.36
Minimalist works become their shape and nothing more. Modernist work “aspires to defeat or suspend its own “objecthood,” whereas Minimalist work becomes and projects its own objecthood. Fried’s conception of the non-art is parallel to Greenberg’s “the condition of non-art.”37 For Greenberg, new work seeks to challenge the distinctions between art and non-art and Minimalism is an ideation of the non-art that is too strongly grounded in ideas and that fails to surprise the viewers, pointing back to the modernist genealogy.38
The notion of “framing” an experience is related to the temporality of Minimalist works. Fried starts his essay with a quote from Perry Miller, the prominent historian.39 The quote is taken from Jonathan Edwards’ biography, emphasizing temporality as it pertains to our daily existence; the world’s existence is reaffirmed with every passing moment as things are constantly renewed. This quotation points to the centrality of time for Fried’s argument; Minimalism’s relationship with time that is problematic within the context of the modernist sensibility as an experience essentially has a beginning and an end.
Minimalists have an inherent relationship with repetition, an element contingent on time as it pertains to infinity. Judd often repeats the same object within the same work.40 Morris urges institutions to have varying installations of the same work. His Untitled (Three L-beams) (1965) consisted of three L-beams paced in varying positions each time the work was exhibited; Morris did not want the viewers to experience the work in the same way more than once.41 The Minimalist work confronts the viewer, creating a situation that is experienced. Fried argues that the concern with the duration of the experience as the work isolates the viewer, marking the passing of time. Modernist work, on the other hand, is “wholly manifest” at “every moment.”42 The work is a whole and since it does not require the viewer to exist for what it is, every moment that it exists is as instantaneously and as convincingly as the moment before it.
Fried claims that experiencing a Minimalist work is not contingent upon the work itself. The work is only a part of the experience; the person experiencing the situation and the circumstances are determinant factors in the experience. Fried asserts that Minimalist work “distances” the beholder, both physically and psychologically. Through the distancing the piece becomes the object while the beholder is the subject.43 The experience and the situation belong to the viewer. Morris’s de-emphasis of the work itself through underlining the “situation” further supports Fried’s argument.44
As Minimalists never have a complete control of everything that constitutes the situation that essentially becomes the work, Minimalist work is infinite and “present” as an everyday object. The relationship with time points back to Greenberg’s comparison of Minimalist work to “a door, a table or a blank sheet of paper.” Without the independence of a modernist work, Minimalism is not differentiated from any other three-dimensional object that exists in the quotidian. Minimalism is infinite in its undefined presence whereas modernist works are “irreducible.”45
The situational nature of Minimalism is a theatrical attribute that is inherently connected to the anthropomorphism of Minimalist work. Fried and the Minimalists define anthropomorphism differently, although ironically, both disown anthropomorphic work.
Fried defines this concept in relation to theatricality. It is the relationship between the viewer and the work that is anthropomorphic and suggests a stage-like presence of every element involved. He uses Tony Smith’s Die (1962) as an example. Die is a volumetric construction shaped as a black steel cube that measures seventy-two inches on all sides. The size of this work suggests a relationship with the human body. Smith acknowledged the importance of the size of the sculpture in an interview by stating that he did not want to make the work any larger as he did not want a monument and he also did not want to make it smaller, as he did not want an object. Smith implies that the relationship of the sculpture with the human body is critical in making it what it is.46
Fried further argues that Judd Morris’s “wholeness” parallels the human form. The indivisibility suggests a person’s body through the “nonrelational” nature of “other persons” encountered in everyday experience.47 Furthermore, Fried sees a “hollowness” in the work, referring to “the quality of having an inside,” a “blatantly anthropomorphic” attribute. There is a sense of privacy to these objects and the inside of the object is clearly separated form the space surrounding the work. Fried also uses the term “biomorphic” to point out that Judd’s notion of order and simplicity are principles associated with nature.48
Judd and Morris oppose sculpture that is additive. Judd sees a human, naturalistic gesture in sculptures where the composition suggests a relationship with the human form.49 Judd also argues, different elements in the work establish relationships that compete with the form of the whole. David Smith and Anthony Caro are such artists who utilize the additive method. Fried exposes the inherently modernist nature of Anthony Caro whose work is defined by the syntax that creates a modernist artwork that is much more than the sum of its parts. It also refers to gestures and meaning beyond itself, which Fried identifies as “antiliteralist” and “antitheatrical.”50 Caro’s work derives its modernist value from the internal structure and does not need to be in a particular situation to be experienced. The value is intrinsic, eternal and independent.
Greenberg reiterates the “infra-logic” of modernist art in “After Abstract Expressionism.”51 Foregrounding conception, Greenberg assigns value or quality only to the conception of the work, which derives its independence through its self-criticality. The structure that constitutes the work is critical in Greenberg’s conception of modernism. This assertion has a twofold implication. First is the constructedness of the work of art, coming together through the conception of the artist, to create a whole that is complete. The second is the disregard for the viewer; the work of art exists independently, which implies not only the independence of the object (such as a sculpture) but also the independence of the viewer. The viewer does not need to exist for the work to have the same value and presence.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s conception of “greatness” of art works is parallel to Greenberg’s “infra-logic”. Merleau-Ponty states that the value is “issued from [art works].”52 Greenberg and Merleau-Ponty’s definitions of value in art works culminate in Michael Fried’s final statement of the essay. “Presentness is grace,” contrasts presentness with presence. Minimalist works have presence, while a modernist works have presentness. Fried relates presence to theatricality, as the work can only exist through the viewer’s experience. Modernist works are present, “instantaneously” and completely.
The additive method that Minimalists shun is precisely what Greenberg cherishes in the “new sculpture” as Greenberg defines this work as “construction-sculpture” that stems from Cubist painting.53 The work adopts more industrial materials such as iron and steel, using and manipulating space, without merely filling it. Defying the monolithic trajectory of sculpture, the “new sculpture” does not imitate anything of organic substance or texture, becoming more abstract than even painting as the visual possibilities are augmented by the use of the third dimension. For Greenberg, sculpture embodies the liberties given to a fine art form, while having physicality, parallel to architecture, enabling it to uphold Modernist principles. Greenberg concludes that is it is the totality, the physical independence of sculpture that situates the medium at the crux of modernism. It is thus that the modernist premise is broken in Minimalist work as the experience of the beholder is influenced by factors outside the work itself. Morris’s assertion that “The object […] is carefully placed in [these new] conditions to be but one of the terms”54 supports this break.
Role of the Critic
Michael Fried’s role in the definition and contextualization of Minimalism can be interpreted as an extrapolation of Fried’s view of the role of the critic within the modernist sensibility. Fried defines Modernism as a continuum starting with Edouard Manet.55 The historical progression is a manifestation of “radical criticism” that is based on an understanding of contemporary circumstances.56 In particular, the last twenty years of painting, Fried asserts, have been the most self-critical.
This self-declared “arrogant” conception of the critic becomes critical in analyzing “Art and Objecthood,” as Fried argues that Minimalism does not offer solutions to problems posed by Modernism and the work deviates from the Modernist sensibility. “Art and Objecthood” is the epitome of the modernist premise as the essay analyzes the very premises and values that are inherent in the work, while disproving the historical progression that Minimalists claim. Michael Fried sought to modify the essentialist59 modernist approach of Greenberg and Minimalism fails on both critics’ sensibilities as the inherent formal values and the historical context from which the work is derived to not support the work. Thus “Art and Objecthood” is a modernist exercise in itself, which marks Minimalism’s break from modernism.
The issue of defining Minimalism is thus one of modernist genealogy, where different critical opinions contextualize the work. The multiple narratives of modernism were an issue for Frank Stella himself, whose work was one of the central elements of disagreement between the Minimalists and Michael Fried. Stella’s work was claimed by Minimalist Carl Andre, as well as by Michael Fried. Retrospectively, Fried commented, “Carl Andre and I were fighting for his soul.”60
“Art and Objecthood” represents a breaking point from Modernism. But this Modernism is one defined by Clement Greenberg and further modified by Michael Fried, emphasizing the essential, integral, formal values of the work. Continuity is also an integral part of Greenberg’s modernism, as he states “[n]othing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity.” The break thus becomes prophetic in art history, as later years would point to the different genealogies of modernism to be created, refuted and reincarnated again.