One day while the show, ‘Three American Painters’ was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleries. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student who had entered the gallery approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. ‘What’s so good about that?’ he demanded. Fried looked back at him. ‘Look,’ he said slowly, ‘there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velazquez, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velazquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.’ Fried’s voice had risen. ‘He wants to be Velazquez so he paints stripes.”
I don’t know what the boy thought, but it was clear enough to me. That statement, which linked Velazquez’ needs to Stella’s in the immense broad jump of a single sentence, was a giant ellipsis whose leap cleared three centuries of art. But in my mind’s eye it was more like one of those strobe photographs in which each increment of the jumper’s act registers on the single image. I could see what the student could not, and what Fried’s statement did not fill in for him. Under the glittering panes of that skylight, I could visualize the logic of an argument that connected hundreds of separate pictorial acts into the fluid clarity of a single motion, an argument that was as present to me as the paintings hanging in the gallery – their clean, spare surfaces tied back into the faint grime of walls dedicated to the history of art. If Fried had not chosen to give the whole of that argument to the student, he had tried to make the student think about one piece of the obvious: that Stella’s need to say something through his art was the same as a seventeenth-century Spaniard’s; only the point in time was different. In 1965, the fact that Stella’s stripes were involved with what he wanted to say – a product, that is, of content – was clear enough to me.
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The content question has been always just under the surface of the writing of most ‘modernist’ critics. So when Michael Fried wrote the extended essay for his exhibition, ‘Three American Painters’ [see VIb8], he of course called attention to his experience ‘that both Noland and Olitski are primarily painters of feeling and that what I take to be their preeminence among their contemporaries chiefly resides not in the formal intelligence of their work, which is of the very highest order, but in the depth and sweep of feeling which this intelligence makes possible.’ In characterizing the ‘passion, eloquence and fragile power’ of Noland’s painting, or in speaking of Noland as ‘a tense, critical, almost hurting presence in his work,’ Fried pointed to both color and design (or structure) as the sources of these. But he confined his analysis to the structure and not the color, because the first being the result of rational decisions could be usefully described, while the second being arbitrary could not. And the partialness of this analysis was not seen as a kind of cheating or shying away from the responsibility to confront the total work, because it was precisely in that very mixture of rationality and arbitrariness that the work’s meaning was seen to reside. Fried saw Noland’s painting as a response to a general ‘crisis of meaning’ generated by a particular history – one that made imperative the invention of a self-evident, reflexive structure and drove lyricism onto an increasingly narrow highland of color.
That whole story … is offered in evidence of the fact that most people who attack the ‘modernist’ critical position, do so by omitting or distorting various parts of that position. Of course, they could reply that they cannot be expected to take into account what is left out of most ‘modernist’ writing; that if questions of content and feeling really are central to ‘modernist’ critics, they themselves are keeping it a secret since such questions are never really up front in what they write. But upfrontness is a rather tricky criterion when discussing a large body of theory. It’s a bit like saying that the philosophical position of Wittgenstein is an argument for behaviorism because that’s what is up front in his writing. Yet anyone reading the late Wittgenstein must realize that his work taken as a whole offers an impassioned and profound attack on behaviorism, along with idealism. It is simply a method of argumentation that is up front.
With ‘modernism,’ too, it was precisely its methodology that was important to a lot of us who began to write about art in the early 1960s. That method demanded lucidity. It demanded that one not talk about anything in a work of art that one could not point to. It involved tying back one’s perceptions about art in the present to what one knew about the art of the past. It involved a language that was open to some mode of testing. [. . .]
In the ’50s we had been alternately tyrannized and depressed by the psychologizing whine of ‘Existentialist’ criticism. It had seemed evasive to us – the impenetrable hedge of subjectivity whose prerogatives we could not assent to. The remedy had to have, for us, the clear provability of an ‘if x then y.’ The syllogism we took up was historical in character, which meant that it read only in one direction; it was progressive. No a rebours was possible, no going backward against the grain. The history we saw from Manet to the Impressionists to Cezanne and then to Picasso was like a series of rooms en filade. Within each room the individual artist explored, to the limits of his experience and his formal intelligence, the separate constituents of his medium. The effect of his pictorial act was to open simultaneously the door to the next space and close out access to the one behind him. The shape and dimensions of the new space were discovered by the next pictorial act; the only thing about that unstable position that was clearly determined beforehand was its point of entrance. [. . . ]
Insofar as modernism was tied to the objective datum of that history, it had, I thought, nothing to do with ‘sensibility.’
Obviously modernism is a sensibility – one that reaches out past that small band of art critics of which I was a part, to include a great deal more than, and ultimately to criticize, what I stood for. One part of that sensibility embraces analysis as an act of humility, trying to catch itself in the middle of the very act of judgment, to glimpse itself unawares in the mirror of consciousness. The attention to self-reflexivity, or what the Structuralist critics term dedoublement, is thus one of the most general features of the larger modernist sensibility. And because of that attention, another part of the modernist sensibility feels extreme wariness over the question of perspective. [. . .]
Perspective is the visual correlate of causality that one thing follows the next in space according to rule. In that sense, despite differences of historical development, it can be likened to the literary tradition of the omniscient narrator and the conventional plot, . . . and within that temporal succession – given as a spatial analogue – was secreted the ‘meaning’ of both that space and those events. And it is that very prior assumption of meaning that the larger modernist sensibility abhors [. . .]
We can no longer fail to notice that if we make up schemas of meaning based on history, we are playing into systems of control and censure. We are no longer innocent. ‘For if the norms of the past serve to measure the present, they also serve to construct it.’
If someone asks us what’s so good about a painting by Stella and our answer is that he has to paint stripes because of Manet, etc., etc., and Impressionism, etc., etc., and then Cubism, and then onto a history of the necessity of flatness, what we have made the Stella painting into is a particular kind of screen onto which we project a special form of narrative. The flatness that modernist criticism reveres may have expunged spatial perspective, but it has substituted a temporal one – i.e., history. It is this history that the modernist critic contemplates looking into the vortex of, say, Stella’s concentric stripes: a perspective view that opens backward into that receding vista of past doors and rooms, which because they are not re-enterable, can only manifest themselves in the present by means of diagrammatic flatness.
Modernist criticism is innocent. And its innocence obtains on three counts: it refuses to see the temporality which it never tires of invoking – ‘the entire history of painting since Manet’ – as that perspectival armature on which it structures the art in question (and on which that art has increasingly tended to structure itself); it thinks of that history as ‘objective’ – beyond the dictates of sensibility, beyond ideology; and it is unself-critically prescriptive. Failing to see that its ‘history’ is a perspective, my perspective – only, that is to say, a point of view – modernist criticism has stopped being suspicious of what it sees as self-evident, its critical intelligence having ceased to be wary of what it has taken as given. Although its disclaimers to being a prescriptive position are sincerely meant, it has failed to put a check on the ways that its belief in the ‘reality’ of a certain version of the past has led it to construct (in its coercive sense) the present. [. . .]
Published in Artforum, New York, September 1972.