Deep Body Blue
Michael Fried is today one of the most interesting and perceptive art historians in the world. In the 1960s however, Fried was, along with his mentor Clement Greenberg, perhaps the most insightful critic of contemporary art in the United States, and certainly the strongest advocate for what was then known as “modernist” painting and sculpture, as epitomized in the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella and English sculptor Anthony Caro among others.
Fried’s best art-critical writing was done between 1965 and about 1972 as short reviews of exhibits published in Art International and ArtForum[i]. These short descriptive pieces are for the most part limited to careful descriptions of specific works of art, but at the same time seem to achieve the quality of philosophical prose, although Fried did not set out to write philosophy[ii]. I think that this perception has to do both with Fried’s formidable talents as a viewer of art and with the nature of the objects being described. In this article I will try to convey a sense of what it is about those objects that allows or indeed compels an accurate description of them to be read as philosophical prose.
Before we get there however, I want to take notice of the fact that the kind of evaluative art criticism that Fried practiced during 1966-67 (and before him, Clement Greenberg) no longer exists. The world has changed, the art world has changed, and art itself has changed in such a way that the concepts of aesthetic quality and value (and therefore the evaluative judgments that are based on these concepts) are no longer central or even relevant to the kind of art that had replaced the high modernism of the 1960s. It often seems as if the concepts of quality and value no longer matter in our society. I do not purport to explain why that is the case, but simply to register the fact that something has been lost, and its loss represents a significant turn in our cultural history, for better or (far more likely) for worse.[iii]
Fried’s career as an art critic in New York culminated with the publication of one intensely theoretical and aggressively polemical essay, the justly (in)famous “Art and Objecthood”, published in June 1967. In that essay, Fried’s descriptive mode took a backseat to the theory deployed in its stead. The American scene had become vigorously competitive and “Art and Objecthood” represented Fried’s attack on modernism’s chief rival, minimalism. Taking its cue from Frank Stella’s austere early stripe paintings, minimal art that carried Clement Greenberg’s reductionist interpretation of modernism[iv] to its logical conclusion, resulting in the production of objects that did away with all traces of illusionism. Purporting to go “beyond painting”, a minimalist object presented to the beholder nothing more than its own literal existence (its “objecthood” to use Fried’s coinage) in the environment of a gallery space. Minimalist objects were meant to straddle the boundary separating art from non-art, in effect declaring that boundary to be arbitrary; they were created and displayed in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, which mocked the beholder’s assumption that an art object is sensuously distinguishable from any ordinary object in the world – whether it be Duchamp’s urinal or Tony Smith’s six-foot black steel cube called Die (1962). This mocking intent and effect is pertinent to Fried’s argument, according to which the minimalist object invariably addresses the beholder in ways that are essentially rhetorical – provoking, confronting, mystifying, cajoling, soothing, threatening, and so on – ways that Fried characterized as corrosively “theatrical”. Literalism (as Fried dubbed it) required the viewer’s presence to generate significance as a theatrical performance requires an audience; the theatricality of literalism refuses to allow the beholder any other position than that of an audience, without which the object is incomplete.
Whereas minimalist art solicits the viewer in such a way that the viewer’s actual experience navigating the space surrounding the work constitutes its significance, modernist painting (or sculpture) exists independently of the viewer, merely by virtue of the internal relationship of its parts. Because its significance does not depend on the beholder’s experience of it (to see “how it turns out” as in a theatrical performance), the modernist work – when successful – is entirely present to the beholder all at once in an instant. It has the quality that Fried called “presentness”, which is the opposite of theatrical effect.
Presentness is not a quality or attribute of an object (like its dimensions, color, shape, etc.) that is possessed by the object for as long as the object exists in the world. It is or was a concept that was pertinent at a particular moment of crisis in the history of art. At a time when the question could not be avoided of whether the art of painting (and of sculpture) had already ended, the “presentness” of the modernist work was achieved insofar as the work was able to “compel conviction” in the beholder. The power of an art work to convince the beholder of its aesthetic quality (measured against the standards established by works of the past the quality of which is not in doubt) is the same as the work’s power to convince the beholder (in the grip of the experience of viewing it) that this is a painting (or sculpture), rather than a literal object in the world like any other object.[v] Modernism affirmed that the question of classification (“is it art”) is inseparable from the question of evaluation (“is it good art?”). Something counts as a painting or sculpture only to the extent that it compels conviction in its quality; apart from its capacity to convince, an object that is nominally or trivially art (e.g., by virtue of the fact that it is displayed in an art gallery) is not art at all. (It follows that objects made and displayed in the spirit of Dada, which rely on the irony of non-art announcing itself as “art” fail to raise the question they purport to ask.) And because the value of a thing is never secured once and for all – because there are no objective criteria that distinguish between a fraudulent work and the real thing – presentness achieved is always in danger of being lost as conviction lapses or dissipates, leaving in its place a mere object. In other words, presentness is always achieved under the pressure of “objecthood”, and the constancy of this pressure implies that the practice of modernism (whether that of the artist or a modernist critic like Michael Fried) invariably conveys a sense of moral urgency. While this sense of moral urgency is present in all of Fried’s critical writing, it acquired a quasi-religious apocalyptic tone in “Art and Objecthood”, as expressed in its final sentence: “Presentness is grace.”
I would like to say that it was this sense of moral urgency, inherent in the modernist enterprise, that ultimately led Fried to abandon his descriptive mode in favor of the theorizing we find in “Art and Objecthood.” (The danger of moral fervor is that it may veer into strident moralism, with its bad conscience.) Theory – the advancing of theses – inevitably ends in polemics[vi] – because every thesis generates its antithesis – and is therefore subject to the shifting drifts of fashion. Thus, in “Art and Objecthood” Fried took the liberty of proclaiming in openly militant terms that “theater and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting … but with art as such”, and that the “success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theater.”[vii] Fried’s militant stance quickly turned out to be ill-advised because within a few years after “Art and Objecthood” was published it had become evident that the passionate call for anti-theatrical art would be not just unheard but repudiated as the “art world” came to be dominated by work that was explicitly and proudly “theatrical” in exactly the sense denounced by Fried. Modernist seriousness gave way to post-modern irony – the knowing smirk of the inside joke that differentiates between the in-crowd and everyone else.
By the end of 1972, Fried had ceased writing art criticism. The rapidly changing landscape (in Fried’s words) “left me standing in a corner, one that I saw no way of escaping short of relinquishing a set of core values and beliefs that remained, for me, inviolable.”[viii] And so Fried turned to researching and writing art history, research that would become an extremely valuable and lasting excavation of the concept of “theatricality” in French painting and the various evolving strategies deployed to defeat it from Greuze through Courbet to Manet. Although Fried tends to deny that his art-historical writing has any direct connection to his art criticism of the 1960s, one may legitimately see it (without in any way diminishing its permanent value) as an attempt to vindicate the anti-theatrical position of his art criticism of the 1960s by way of an appeal to the past rather than a mandate for the future, haunted by a bitter unspoken sense that the continuing present had left Fried’s most ambitious and strident claims twisting in the wind.[ix]
To see what is lost when questions of quality and value and conviction become irrelevant, it is worth taking another look at Fried’s descriptive criticism leading up to “Art and Objecthood”. It must be emphasized first of all that when Fried describes a modernist painting or sculpture, he is not, or not only describing the thing’s visual and physical characteristics and qualities. They are phenomenological descriptions, which means that the description of the object’s visual and physical characteristics is made to serve a philosophical purpose, namely, to allow the thing being described to reveal itself, to make itself present the eye. It is also crucial to realize that the things being described are a peculiar category of things – paintings and sculptures.
Art works differ from other objects in at least two significant ways. First, unlike other kinds of things, works of visual art really are as they appear to be; because a painting or sculpture exists as art exactly to the extent that it makes itself present to the eye of the beholder, an accurate description of the thing’s appearance is also a revelation of the thing’s essence, the kind of thing it is, as distinguished from other kinds of things we encounter in the world.
Second, a work of art is an intentional object. It was created by someone and it is meant – in the way that human actions are meant, or the way certain linguistic utterances are meant, e.g., to question, challenge, affirm, forgive, and so on. The fact that certain traditional media – media that in the past naturally conveyed artistic intention (narrative, symbolism and perspective for instance) – are no longer available means that every element of the modernist work is saturated with intentionality, not necessarily the artist’s conscious intention, but with significance. The significance, for example, of the artist’s decision to place just this mark at just this location on the canvas rather than some other mark in some other position, and so on. The significance of Anthony Caro’s decision to place any element of his sculpture just as it appears in the finished work – is similar to the significance of a speaker’s decision to use just this word rather than some other when speaking, or to speak rather than remain silent; in order to achieve significance (i.e., make sense) the speaker’s decision must be responsive to its occasion. In the modernist situation, the artist him- or herself must create the occasion and the response; therefore, the artist bears absolute responsibility for rising to the occasion, realizing it in the finished work. Whereas in moral life, human action moves precariously from intention into the world, so that excuses and justifications can mediate between good intentions and bad results, in modernism, the artist’s responsibility for realizing intention is absolute. The absoluteness of the artist’s responsibility accounts for the difficult demands the work makes on the beholder; it is a demand that the significance of every detail must be acknowledged, or not. Failure to bear up under this pressure means that the artist has failed to mean what he or she has done, so that the entire work, no matter how tasteful, pretty, interesting or aesthetically pleasing, collapses into incoherence.
Fried’s “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro” provides one of the best examples of his descriptive-evaluative criticism. The two sculptures are Prairie and Deep Body Blue, made in 1967 and 1966 respectively. Here is a reproduction of Deep Body Blue:
As a literally existing object, the sculpture may be described as two contrasting steel elements running along the ground, two parallel uprights, each about 4 feet tall, and two contrasting components that rise from the base of each upright, one cursive and one straight, connecting the two ground-running elements. The entire configuration is painted in dark blue. It is a composite object that doesn’t resemble any familiar object we’ve encountered in the world.
After describing its configuration, Fried characterizes the work as follows:
Like several other recent sculptures by Caro, Deep Body Blue explores possibilities for sculpture in various concepts and experiences that one would think belonged today only to architecture: for example, those of being led up to something, of entering it, perhaps by going through something else, of being inside, of looking out from within … it shares with architecture a preoccupation with the fact, or with the implications of the fact, that humans have bodies and live in a physical world….For example, it is essential to our experiencing the two uprights in Deep Body Blue as a kind of door that they stand in the same plane. It doesn’t matter that they are no more than four feet high, that they lack any sort of lintel, that we are not tempted nor even able to pass between them: the fact that they stand several feet apart in the same plane is enough to make us experience them as an abstract door (and a large, or wide, one at that). By the same token, if they are moved even slightly out of alignment their “doorness” disintegrates and the sculpture as a whole begins to fall apart, to become arbitrary and therefore meaningless as art. This aspect of Caro’s achievement may be described in different ways. One can say that he discovered what constitutes an abstract door, or that he discovered the conventions – corresponding to deep needs – which make something a door. Caro did not consciously set out to discover anything of the kind. On the contrary, it is because Deep Body Blue began in a preoccupation with particular modes of being in the world that its very success as sculpture came to depend on the making of the above discovery in, or by, the piece itself. It is as though with Caro sculpture has become committed to a new kind of cognitive enterprise: not because its generating impulse has become philosophical, but because the newly explicit need to defeat theater in all its manifestations has meant that the ambition to make sculpture out of a primordial involvement with modes of being in the world can now be realized only if antiliteral – that is, radically abstract – terms for that involvement can be found.[x]
This analysis of Deep Body Blue illuminates the “pressure” under which modernist art must succeed if it succeeds. Fried observes that if the two uprights are even slightly out of alignment, the sculpture as a whole begins to fall apart, to become arbitrary and therefore meaningless. That is because the alignment of the two uprights – their standing in the same plane – is what allows them to be seen as a kind of “abstract door”. Without that alignment, the uprights – and therefore the rest of the sculpture – would become arbitrary because it would be seen not as a kind of door but as a kind of complex multi-part but literal object. Its “objecthood” would eclipse its illusiveness.
Fried’s observation shows that the kind of illusiveness sought by modernist sculpture is not the same as “illusion.” We experience Deep Body Blue as a kind of door but not as a representation of a door; that mode of illusiveness – the traditional media by which sculpture was able to represent the world – was no longer available to Caro in 1966. Those media had by that time lost their power to convey sculptural significance, and therefore compel conviction in the beholder. It follows that the “objecthood” of the sculpture – the materials from which it is made, the identity of the steel elements and the way they are welded one to another – all of that could not be hidden or covered up or masked or presented in any way that is not completely obvious to the beholder. Hence the pressure in the teeth of which modernist illusiveness must be secured.
Fried’s remark about the alignment of the uprights also indicates the kind of “door” that is discovered in Deep Body Blue. The door is discovered in the placement of the elements that comprise the sculpture and not in their identity, especially the placement of the two upright columns on the same plane. It is the parallel placement of the upright columns, aligned in the same plane separated by a space wide enough to allow a human body to pass between them, but not so wide that the body does not pass through them – in short, their placement so as to create a passage as if into or out of one region to or from another – that illusively establishes a door. In approaching Deep Body Blue I come upon something that for some reason I want to call a “door” – although it looks nothing like any actual door I have ever encountered in the world. And the fact that I want to call this a door allows me to realize that I don’t really know my reasons (or if I have a reason) for calling any of those other those familiar things a “door”, any more than I know my reasons for calling this a “door” – yet I do want to call it a door.
This is why Fried says that in Deep Body Blue we discover an “abstract door.” We discover the “conventions” that make something a door – the essence of “doorness” as it were. Immediately following the passage quoted above, Fried inserts a parenthetical:
(At the risk of seeming to overload the point, I will add that the cognitive enterprise in question is related, in different ways, both to European phenomenology [Merleau-Ponty] and to the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. It isn’t only modernist art that has found it necessary to defeat theater.)
The reference to Wittgenstein is worth exploring if only briefly. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein wrote: “Essence is expressed by grammar.”[xi] “Grammar” refers not to the definitions found in dictionaries or the rules contained grammar texts but to certain conventions of usage. Wittgenstein also uses the word “criteria”; the grammar of a word reveals the criteria for the thing to which the word refers. So, for example, when we recall how the word “door” is used in significant utterances, we will know what counts as a door and what doesn’t. A thing is not a door by virtue of participation in Platonic forms, or by being an instance of a logical “universal”, but by virtue of the fact that we engage with it as a door – opening it to enter, closing it (or not) upon exiting, locking to keep others out, unlocking it to allow others in, passing through it from one room to another, and so on. These and similar ways of engagement constitute the criteria for something’s being a door, and they are grounded in what Fried calls “particular modes of being in the world” – entering, exiting, coming, leaving, arriving, being inside, looking out, passing through, and so on. If we were not the sort of beings we are – embodied beings, with bodies within a certain range of height and width, ambulant on two legs, which construct shelters often (but not always) divided into discrete rooms, and which provide security and privacy but can sometimes be invaded – we wouldn’t find it worth talking about doors. Nothing would count as a door.
Deep Body Blue can be said to discover or lay bare the conditions for something’s being a door in our world because the sculpture makes manifest those modes of being in the world within which anything counts as a (literal) door. Doors are approached, entered and gone through, and nothing is more familiar in our world than approaching, entering and going through doors, from one place to another on a daily basis throughout our lives. But when we approach, enter and go through the abstract door that is Deep Body Blue, we do not pass from one place to another – and of course, we do not approach, enter or go through anything in the literal sense of those words. We encounter modes of being in the world that are deeply and pervasively familiar to us, but in a way that allows those modes of being to be experienced as something quite extraordinary. In this sense, Deep Body Blue reveals something we might think of as the extraordinariness that inheres in the ordinary. We approach, enter and go through the abstract door to get to the place where we already are but transformed. The literalness of our lives is for a moment suspended, so that we at least for that moment are able to stop theatricalizing ourselves and others. Deep Body Blue is finally “about” the resources of art in general, its capacity to redeem our lives.
[i] I am referring to “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” (1966), “The Achievement of Morris Louis” (1967), “New Work by Anthony Caro” (1967), “Ronald Davis: Surface and Illusion” (1967), “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro” (1968), “Recent Work by Kenneth Noland” (1969), “Caro’s Abstractness” (1970), “Problems of Polychromy: New Sculptures by Michael Bolus” (1971) and “Larry Poons’s New Paintings” (1972). These articles (including an expanded version of the Morris Louis article) are collected in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood (Chicago 1996) (hereinafter “Art and Objecthood”).
[ii] In § 124 of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein wrote: “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.” And in § 109: “And we may not advance any sort of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (New York 1968).
[iii] Fried has written that beginning in the late 1960s, “the kind of criticism Greenberg and I practiced, each in his own way, was intimately linked with the values, qualities and aspirations of the high modernist art we found so compelling, and that with the ever growing eclipse of high modernism in the later 1960s and 1970s (and after), the role of criticism became transformed – into cultural commentary, ‘oppositional’ position taking, exercises in recycled French theory, and so on.” Art and Objecthood, p. 15.
[iv] Roughly, Greenberg’s theory was that the modernist enterprise involved testing a variety of conventions to determine which were inessential and could be discarded; what was left over, so to speak, constituted the essence of a particular art. In “After Abstract Expressionism” Greenberg wrote: “Under the testing of modernism more and more of the conventions of the art of painting have shown themselves to be dispensable, unessential. By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture; thus a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily as a successful one.” Clement Greenberg, Modernism with a Vengeance 1957-1969, vol. 4 of The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago, 1993), p. 30.
[v] The concept of conviction became critical to the experience of art during the modern period when the traditional devices of art-making (e.g., the devices of representing reality) had lost their capacity to self-evidently identify an object as a painting or a sculpture, thus creating the risk that any purported painting or sculpture might be seen as nothing more than an object.
[vi] In § 128 of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein wrote: “If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.” Stated otherwise: To the extent that one does advance theses, one is not doing philosophy but rather politics, or perhaps religion. In Wittgenstein’s later work, the advancement of philosophical theses is seen as a temptation in philosophy, which must be resisted not by the imposition of counter-arguments (anti-theses) but by the disappearance of philosophical “problems” themselves.
[vii] Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, p. 163.
[viii] Michael Fried, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (New Haven and London, 2011), pp., 22-23.
[ix] It should be noted that in recent years, Fried has resurrected in a limited way his art-critical writing, specifically in a valuable book on contemporary photograph. See Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven, 2009).
[x] Fried, “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro” in Art and Objecthood, pp. 180-81.
[xi] Philosophical Investigations, § 371.