ART and Objecthood – Michael Fried

Edwards’s journals frequently explored and tested a meditation he seldom allowed to reach print; if all the world were annihilated, he wrote . . . and a new world were freshly created, though it were to exist in every particular in the same manner as this world, it would not be the same. Therefore, because there is continuity, which is time, ‘it is certain with me that the world exists anew every moment; that the existence of things every moment ceases and is every moment renewed.’ The abiding assurance is that ‘we every moment see the same proof of a God as we should have seen if we had seen Him create the world at first.’

Perry Miller, Jonathan Edward


The enterprise known variously as Minimal Art, ABC Art, Primary Structures, and Specific Objects is largely ideological. It seeks to declare and occupy a position – one that can be formulated in words, and in fact has been formulated by some of its leading practitioners. If this distinguishes it from modernist painting and sculpture on the one hand, it also marks an important difference between Minimal Art – or, as I prefer to call it, literaiist art – and Pop or Op Art on the other. From its inception, literaiist art has amounted to something more than an episode in the history of taste. It belongs rather to the history -almost the natural history – of sensibility; and it is not an isolated episode but the expression of a general and pervasive condition. Its seriousness is vouched for by the fact that it is in relation both to modernist painting and modernist sculpture that literaiist art defines or locates the position it aspires to occupy. (This, I suggest, is what makes what it declares something that deserves to be called a position.) Specifically, literaiist art conceives of itself as neither one nor the other; on the contrary, it is motivated by specific reservations, or worse, about both; and it aspires, perhaps not exactly, or not immediately, to displace them, but in any case to establish itself as an independent art on a footing with either.

The literaiist case against painting rests mainly on two counts: the relational character of almost all painting; and the ubiquitousness, indeed the virtual inescapability, of pictorial illusion. In Donald Judd’s view,

when you start relating parts, in the first place, you’re assuming you have a vague whole – the rectangle of the canvas – and definite parts, which is all screwed up, because you should have a definite whole and maybe no parts, or very few. 1

The more the shape of the support is emphasized, as in recent modernist painting, the tighter the situation becomes. [. . . ] Painting is here seen as an art on the verge of exhaustion, one in which the range of acceptable solutions to a basic problem – how to organize the surface of the picture – is severely restricted. The use of shaped rather than rectangular supports can, from the literaiist point of view, merely prolong the agony. The obvious response is to give up working on a single plane in favor of three dimensions. [. . .]

The literaiist attitude toward sculpture is more ambiguous. Judd, for example, seems to think of what he calls Specific Objects as something other than sculpture, while Robert Morris conceives of his own unmistakably literaiist work as resuming the lapsed tradition of Constructivist sculpture established by Tatlin, Rodchenko, Gabo, Pevsner, and Vantongerloo. But this and other disagreements are less important than the views Judd and Morris hold in common. Above all they are opposed to sculpture that, like most painting, is ‘made part by part, by addition, composed’ and in which ‘specific elements . . . separate from the whole, thus setting up relationships within the work.’ (They would include the work of David Smith and Anthony Caro under this description.) It is worth remarking that the ‘part-by-part’ and ‘relational’ character of most sculpture is associated by Judd with what he calls anthropomorphism: ‘A beam thrusts; a piece of iron follows a gesture; together they form a naturalistic and anthropomorphic image. The space corresponds.’ Against such ‘multipart, inflected’ sculpture Judd and Morris assert the values of wholeness, singleness, and indivisibility – of a work’s being, as nearly as possible, ‘one thing,’ a single ‘Specific Object.’ […] For both Judd and Morris … the critical factor is shape. Morris’s ‘unitary forms’ are polyhedrons that resist being grasped other than as a single shape: the gestalt simply is the ‘constant, known shape.’ And shape itself is, in his system, ‘the most important sculptural value.’ Similarly, speaking of his own work, Judd has remarked that

the big problem is that anything that is not absolutely plain begins to have parts in some way. The thing is to be able to work and do different things and yet not break up the wholeness that a piece has. To me the piece with the brass and the five verticals is above all that shape.

The shape is the object: at any rate, what secures the wholeness of the object is the singleness of the shape. It is, I believe, this emphasis on shape that accounts for the impression, which numerous critics have mentioned, that Judd’s and Morris’s pieces are hollow.


Shape has also been central to the most important painting of the past several years. In several recent essays I have tried to show how, in the work of Noland, Olitski, and Stella, a conflict has gradually emerged between shape as a fundamental property of objects and shape as a medium of painting. Roughly, the success or failure of a given painting has come to depend on its ability to hold or stamp itself out or compel conviction as shape – that, or somehow to stave off or elude the question of whether or not it does so. Olitski’s early spray paintings are the purest example of paintings that either hold or fail to hold as shapes; while in his more recent pictures, as well as in the best of Noland’s and Stella’s recent work, the demand that a given picture hold as shape is staved off or eluded in various ways. What is at stake in this conflict is whether the paintings or objects in question are experienced as paintings or as objects: and what decides their identity as painting is their confronting of the demand that they hold as shapes. Otherwise they are experienced as nothing more than objects. This can be summed up by saying that modernist painting has come to find it imperative that it defeat or suspend its own objecthood, and that the crucial factor in this undertaking is shape, but shape that must belong to painting – it must be pictorial, not, or not merely, literal. Whereas literalist art stakes everything on shape as a given property of objects, if not, indeed, as a kind of object in its own right. It aspires, not to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, but on the contrary to discover and project objecthood as such.

In his essay ‘Recentness of Sculpture’ Clement Greenberg discusses the effect of presence, which, from the start, has been associated with literalist work. 2

Presence can be conferred by size or by the look of non-art. Furthermore, what non-art means today, and has meant for several years, is fairly specific. In ‘After Abstract Expressionism’ Greenberg wrote that ‘a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily as a successful one.’ 3 For that reason, as he remarks in ‘Recentness of Sculpture,’ the ‘look of non-art was no longer available to painting.’ Instead, ‘the borderline between art and non-art had to be sought in the three-dimensional, where sculpture was, and where everything material that was not art also was.’ Greenberg goes on to say:

The look of machinery is shunned now because it does not go far enough towards the look of non-art, which is presumably an ‘inert’ look that offers the eye a minimum of ‘interesting* incident – unlike the machine look, which is arty by comparison (and when I think of Tinguely I would agree with this). Still, no matter how simple the object may be, there remain the relations and interrelations of surface, contour, and spatial interval. Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today – including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper. . , . Yet it would seem that a kind of art nearer the condition of non-art could not be envisaged or ideated at this moment.

The meaning in this context of ‘the condition of non-art’ is what I have been calling objecthood. It is as though objecthood alone can, in the present circumstances, secure something’s identity, if not as non-art, at least as neither painting nor sculpture; or as though a work of art – more accurately, a work of modernist painting or sculpture – were in some essential respect not an object.

There is, in any case, a sharp contrast between the literalist espousal of objecthood – almost, it seems, as an art in its own right – and modernist painting’s self-imposed imperative that it defeat or suspend its own objecthood through the medium of shape. In fact, from the perspective of recent modernist painting, the literalist position evinces a sensibility not simply alien but antithetical to its own: as though, from that perspective, the demands of art and the conditions of objecthood are in direct conflict.

Here the question arises: What is it about objecthood as projected and hypostatized by the literalists that makes it, if only from the perspective of recent modernist painting, antithetical to art?


The answer I want to propose is this: the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.

Literalist sensibility is theatrical because, to begin with, it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work. Morris makes this explicit. Whereas in previous art ‘what is to be had from the work is located strictly within [it],’ the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation – one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.

Morris believes that this awareness is heightened by ‘the strength of the constant, known shape, the gestalt,’ against which the appearance of the piece from different points of view is constantly being compared. It is intensified also by the large scale of much literalist work [. . . ] The larger the object the more we are forced to keep our distance from it:

It is this necessary, greater distance of the object in space from our bodies, in order that it be seen at all, that structures the nonpersonal or public mode [which Morris advocates]. However, it is just this distance between object and subject that creates a more extended situation, because physical participation becomes necessary.

826 Institutions and Objections

The theatricality of Morris’s notion of the ‘nonpersonal or public mode’ seems obvious: the largeness of the piece, in conjunction with its nonrelational, unitary character, distances the beholder – not just physically but psychically. It is, one might say, precisely this distancing that makes the beholder a subject and the piece in question … an object. But it does not follow that the larger the piece the more securely its ‘public’ character is established; on the contrary, ‘beyond a certain size the object can overwhelm and the gigantic scale becomes the loaded term.’ Morris wants to achieve presence through objecthood, which requires a certain largeness of scale, rather than through size alone [. . .] … the things that are literalist works of art must somehow confront the beholder – they must, one might almost say, be placed not just in his space but in his way. None of this, Morris maintains,

indicates a lack of interest in the object itself. But the concerns now are for more control of. . . the entire situation. Control is necessary if the variables of object, light, space, body, are to function. The object has not become less important. It has merely become less self-important.

It is, I think, worth remarking that ‘the entire situation’ means exactly that: all of it – including, it seems, the beholder’s body. There is nothing within his field of vision – nothing that he takes note of in any way – that, as it were, declares its irrelevance to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question. On the contrary, for something to be perceived at all is for it to be perceived as part of that situation. Everything counts – not as part of the object, but as part of the situation in which its objecthood is established and on which that objecthood at least partly depends.


Furthermore, the presence of literalist art, which Greenberg was the first to analyze, is basically a theatrical effect or quality – a kind of stage presence. It is a function, not just of the obtrusiveness and, often, even aggressiveness of literalist work, but of the special complicity that that work extorts from the beholder. Something is said to have presence when it demands that the beholder take it into account, that he take it seriously – and when the fulfillment of that demand consists simply in being aware of it and, so to speak, in acting accordingly. (Certain modes of seriousness are closed to the beholder by the work itself, i.e., those established by the finest painting and sculpture of the recent past. But, of course, those are hardly modes of seriousness in which most people feel at home, or that they even find tolerable.) Here again the experience of being distanced by the work in question seems crucial: the beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended – and unexacting – relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor. In fact, being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person; the experience of coming upon literalist objects unexpectedly – for example, in somewhat darkened rooms – can be strongly, if momentarily, disquieting in just this way.

There are three main reasons why this is so. First, the size of much literalist work, as Morris’s remarks imply, compares fairly closely with that of the human body. [. . .] Second, the entities or beings encountered in everyday experience in terms that most closely approach the literalist ideals of the nonrelational, the unitary and the wholistic are other persons. Similarly, the literalist predilection for symmetry, and in general for a kind of order that ‘is simply order . . . one thing after another,’ is rooted, not, as Judd seems to believe, in new philosophical and scientific principles, whatever he takes these to be, but in nature. And third, the apparent hollowness of most literalist work – the quality of having an inside – is almost blatantly anthropomorphic. [. . .]

I am suggesting, then, that a kind of latent or hidden naturalism, indeed anthropomorphism, lies at the core of literalist theory and practice. The concept of presence all but says as much, though rarely so nakedly as in Tony Smith’s statement, ‘I didn’t think of them [i.e., the sculptures he ‘always’ made] as sculptures but as presences of a sort.’ The latency or hiddenness of the anthropomorphism has been such that the literalists themselves have, as we have seen, felt free to characterize the modernist art they oppose, e.g., the sculpture of David Smith and Anthony Caro, as anthropomorphic – a characterization whose teeth, imaginary to begin with, have just been pulled. By the same token, however, what is wrong with literalist work is not that it is anthropomorphic but that the meaning and, equally, the hiddenness of its anthropomorphism are incurably theatrical. [. . .] The crucial distinction that I am proposing so far is between work that is fundamentally theatrical and work that is not. It is theatricality that, whatever the differences between them, links artists like Bladen and Grosvenor, both of whom have allowed ‘gigantic scale [to become] the loaded term’ (Morris), with other, more restrained figures like Judd, Morris, Andre, McCracken, LeWitt and – despite the size of some of his pieces – Tony Smith. 4 And it is in the interest, though not explicitly in the name, of theatre that literalist ideology rejects both modernist painting and, at least in the hands of its most distinguished recent practitioners, modernist sculpture.

In this connection Tony Smith’s description of a car ride taken at night on the New Jersey Turnpike before it was finished makes compelling reading [see VIA 16] [. . .] What seems to have been revealed to Smith that night was the pictorial nature of painting – even, one might say, the conventional nature of art. And this Smith seems to have understood not as laying bare the essence of art, but as announcing its end. In comparison with the unmarked, unlit, all but Unstructured turnpike – more precisely, with the turnpike as experienced from within the car, traveling on it – art appears to have struck Smith as almost absurdly small (‘All art today is an art of postage stamps,’ he has said), circumscribed, conventional. . . . There was, he seems to have felt, no way to ‘frame’ his experience on the road, that is, no way to make sense of it in terms of art, to make art of it at least as art then was. Rather, ‘you just have to experience it’ – as it happens, as it merely is. (The experience alone is what matters.) There is no suggestion that this is problematic in any way. The experience is clearly regarded by Smith as wholly accessible to everyone, not just in principle but in fact, and the question of whether or not one has really had it does not arise. [. . .]

. . . what was Smith’s experience on the turnpike? Or to put the same question another way, if the turnpike, airstrips, and drill ground are not works of art, what are they? – What, indeed, if not empty, or ‘abandoned’, situations? And what was Smith’s experience if not the experience of what I have been calling theatre? It is as though the turnpike, airstrips, and drill ground reveal the theatrical character of literalist art, only without the object, that is, without the art itself- as though the object is needed only within a room (or, perhaps, in any circumstances less extreme than these). In each of the above cases the object is, so to speak, replaced by something: for example, on the turnpike by the constant onrush of the road, the simultaneous recession of new reaches of dark pavement illumined by the onrushing headlights, the sense of the turnpike itself as something enormous, abandoned, derelict, existing for Smith alone and for those in the car with him. . . . This last point is important. On the one hand, the turnpike, airstrips, and drill ground belong to no one; on the other, the situation established by Smith’s presence is in each case felt by him to be his. Moreover, in each case being able to go on and on indefinitely is of the essence. What replaces the object – what does the same job of distancing or isolating the beholder, of making him a subject, that the object did in the closed room – is above all the endlessness, or objectlessness, of the approach or on-rush or perspective. It is the explicitness, that is to say, the sheer persistence, with which the experience presents itself as directed at him from outside (on the turnpike from outside the car) that simultaneously makes him a subject – makes him subject – and establishes the experience itself as something like that of an object, or rather, of objecthood. [. . .]


Smith’s account of his experience on the turnpike bears witness to theatre’s profound hostility to the arts, and discloses, precisely in the absence of the object and in what takes its place, what might be called the theatricality of objecthood. By the same token, however, the imperative that modernist painting defeat or suspend its objecthood is at bottom the imperative that it defeat or suspend theatre. And this means that there is a war going on between theatre and modernist painting, between the theatrical and the pictorial – a war that, despite the literalists’ explicit rejection of modernist painting and sculpture, is not basically a matter of program and ideology but of experience, conviction, sensibility. [. . . ]

The starkness and apparent irreconcilability of this conflict is something new. I remarked earlier that objecthood 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 this 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 painting 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, 5 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 through the medium of shape. The view of modernist painting as tending toward objecthood is implicit in Judd’s remark, ‘The new [i.e., literalist] work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting’; and it is in this view that literalist sensibility in general is grounded. Literalist sensibility is, therefore, a response to the same developments that have largely compelled modernist painting to undo its objecthood – more precisely, the same developments seen differently, that is, in theatrical terms, by a sensibility already theatrical, already (to say the worst) corrupted or perverted by theatre. Similarly, what has compelled modernist painting to defeat or suspend its own objecthood is not just developments internal to itself, but the same general, enveloping, infectious theatricality that corrupted literalist sensibility in the first place and in the grip of which the developments in question – and modernist painting in general – are seen as nothing more than an uncompelling and presenceless kind of theatre. It was the need to break the fingers of this grip that made objecthood an issue for modernist painting.

Objecthood has also become an issue for modernist sculpture. This is true despite the fact that sculpture, being three-dimensional, resembles both ordinary objects and literalist work in a way that painting does not. Almost ten years ago Clement Greenberg summed up what he saw as the emergence of a new sculptural ‘style,’ whose master is undoubtedly David Smith, in the following terms:

To render substance entirely optical, and form, whether pictorial, sculptural, or architectural, as an integral part of ambient space – this brings anti-illusionism full circle. Instead of the illusion of things, we are now offered the illusion of modalities: namely, that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage. 6

Since 1960 this development has been carried to a succession of climaxes by the English sculptor Anthony Caro, whose work is far more specifically resistant to being seen in terms of objecthood than that of David Smith. A characteristic sculpture by Caro consists, I want to say, in the mutual and naked juxtaposition of the I-beams, girders, cylinders, lengths of piping, sheet metal, and grill that it comprises rather than in the compound object that they compose. The mutual inflection of one element by another, rather than the identity of each, is what is crucial – though of course altering the identity of any element would be at least as drastic as altering its placement. [. . . ] The individual elements bestow significance on one another precisely by virtue of their juxtaposition: it is in this sense, a sense inextricably involved with the concept of meaning, that everything in Caro’s art that is worth looking at is in its syntax. Caro’s concentration upon syntax amounts, in Greenberg’s view, to ‘an emphasis on abstractness, on radical unlikeness to nature.” 7 And Greenberg goes on to remark, ‘No other sculptor has gone as far from the structural logic of ordinary ponderable things.’ It is worth emphasizing, however, that this is a function of more than the lowness, openness, part-by-partness, absence of enclosing profiles and centers of interest, unperspicuousness, etc., of Caro’s sculptures. Rather they defeat, or allay, objecthood by imitating, not gestures exactly, but the efficacy of gesture; like certain music and poetry, they are possessed by the knowledge of the human body and how, in innumerable ways and moods, it makes meaning. It is as though Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such – as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible. All this, it is hardly necessary to add, makes Caro’s art a fountainhead of antiliteralist and antitheatrical sensibility. [. . .]


At this point I want to make a claim that I cannot hope to prove or substantiate but that I believe nevertheless to be true: viz., that theatre and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting (or modernist painting and sculpture), but with art as such – and to the extent that the different arts can be described as modernist, with modernist sensibility as such. This claim can be broken down into three propositions or theses:

1 The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than within theatre itself, where the need to defeat what I have been calling theatre has chiefly made itself felt as the need to establish a drastically different relation to its audience, (The relevant texts are, of course, Brecht and Artaud.) For theatre has an audience – it exists for one – in a way the other arts do not; in fact, this more than anything else is what modernist sensibility finds intolerable in theatre generally. Here it should be remarked that literalist art, too, possesses an audience, though a somewhat special one: that the beholder is confronted by literalist work within a situation that he experiences as his means that there is an important sense in which the work in question exists for him alone, even if he is not actually alone with the work at the time. [. . .]

It is the overcoming of theatre that modernist sensibility finds most exalting and that it experiences as the hallmark of high art in our time. There is, however, one art that, by its very nature, escapes theatre entirely – the movies. This helps explain why movies in general, including frankly appalling ones, are acceptable to modernist sensibility whereas all but the most successful painting, sculpture, music, and poetry is not. Because cinema escapes theatre – automatically, as it were – it provides a welcome and absorbing refuge to sensibilities at war with theatre and theatricality. At the same time, the automatic, guaranteed character of the refuge – more accurately, the fact that what is provided is a refuge from theatre and not a triumph over it, absorption not conviction -means that the cinema, even at its most experimental, is not a modernist art.

2 Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre. Theatre is the common denominator that binds a large and seemingly disparate variety of activities to one another, and that distinguishes those activities from the radically different enterprises of the modernist arts. Here as elsewhere the question of value or level is central. For example, a failure to register the enormous difference in quality between, say, the music of Carter and that of Cage or between the paintings of Louis and those of Rauschenberg means that the real distinctions – between music and theatre in the first instance and between painting and theatre in the second – are displaced by the illusion that the barriers between the arts are in the process of crumbling (Cage and Rauschenberg being seen, correctly, as similar) and that the arts themselves are at last sliding towards some kind of final, implosive, hugely desirable synthesis. Whereas in fact the individual arts have never been more explicitly concerned with the conventions that constitute their respective essences.

3 The concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself- are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre. It is, I think, significant that in their various statements the literalists have largely avoided the issue of value or quality at the same time as they have shown considerable uncertainty as to whether or not what they are making is art. To describe their enterprise as an attempt to establish a new art does not remove the uncertainty; at most it points to its source. Judd himself has as much as acknowledged the problematic character of the literalist enterprise by his claim, ‘A work needs only to be interesting.’ For Judd, as for literalist sensibility generally, all that matters is whether or not a given work is able to elicit and sustain (his) interest. Whereas within the modernist arts nothing short of conviction – specifically, the conviction that a particular painting or sculpture or poem or piece of music can or cannot support comparison with past work within that art whose quality is not in doubt

– matters at all. (Literalist work is often condemned – when it is condemned

– for being boring. A tougher charge would be that it is merely interesting.)

The interest of a given work resides, in Judd’s view, both in its character as a whole and in the sheer specificity of the materials of which it is made [. . .] Like Judd’s Specific Objects and Morris’s gestalts or unitary forms, Smith’s cube is always of further interest; one never feels that one has come to the end of it; it is inexhaustible. It is inexhaustible, however, not because of any fullness

– that is the inexhaustibility of art – but because there is nothing there to exhaust. It is endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example.

Endlessness, being able to go on and on, even having to go on and on, is central both to the concept of interest and to that of objecthood. In fact, it seems to be the experience that most deeply excites literalist sensibility, and that literalist artists seek to objectify in their work – for example, by the repetition of identical units (Judd’s ‘one thing after another’), which carries the implication that the units in question could be multiplied ad infinitum. Smith’s account of his experience on the unfinished turnpike records that excitement all but explicitly. [. . .]

Here finally I want to emphasize something that may already have become clear: the experience in question persists in time, and the presentment of endlessness that, I have been claiming, is central to literalist art and theory is essentially a presentment of endless, or indefinite, duration. Once again Smith’s account of his night drive is relevant . . . Morris, too, has stated explicitly, ‘The experience of the work necessarily exists in time’ – though it would make no difference if he had not. The literalist preoccupation with time – more precisely, with the duration of the experience – is, I suggest, paradigmatically theatrical: as though theatre confronts the beholder, and thereby isolates him, with the endlessness not just of objecthood but of time; or as though the sense which, at bottom, theatre addresses is a sense of temporality, of time both passing and to come, simultaneously approaching and receding, as if apprehended in an infinite perspective . . . 9 This preoccupation marks a profound difference between literalist work and modernist painting and sculpture. It is as though one’s experience of the latter has no duration – not because one in fact experiences a picture by Noland or Olitski or a sculpture by David Smith or Caro in no time at all, but because at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest. [. . . ] It is this continuous and entire presentness, amounting, as it were, to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness: as though if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it. (Here it is worth noting that the concept of interest implies temporality in the form of continuing attention directed at the object, whereas the concept of conviction does not.) I want to claim that it is by virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist painting and sculpture defeat theatre. In fact, I am tempted far beyond my knowledge to suggest that, faced with the need to defeat theatre, it is above all to the condition of painting and sculpture – the condition, that is, of existing in, indeed of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present – that the other contemporary modernist arts, most notably poetry and music, aspire.


This essay will be read as an attack on certain artists (and critics) and as a defense of others. And of course it is true that the desire to distinguish between what is to me the authentic art of our time and other work, which, whatever the dedication, passion, and intelligence of its creators, seems to me to share certain characteristics associated here with the concepts of literalism and theatre, has largely motivated what I have written. In these last sentences, however, I want to call attention to the utter pervasiveness – the virtual universality – of the sensibility or mode of being that I have characterized as corrupted or perverted by theatre. We are all literalists most or all of our lives. Presentness is grace.

This was said by Judd in an interview with Bruce Glaser, edited by Lucy R. Lippard and published as ‘Questions to Stella and Judd, 1 Art News, LXV, no. 5, September 1966. The remarks attributed in the present essay to Judd and Morris have been taken from this interview, from Judd’s essay ‘Specific Objects/ Arts Yearbook, 8, 1965, or from Robert Morris’s essays, ‘Notes on Sculpture’ and ‘Notes on Sculpture, Part V … I should add that in laying out what seems to me the position Judd and Morris hold in common I have ignored various differences between them, and have used certain remarks in contexts for which they may not have been intended. [. . . ]

Published in the catalogue to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, ‘American Sculpture of the Sixties.’

[. . . ] In its broad outline this is undoubtedly correct. There are, however, certain qualifications that can be made.

To begin with, it is not quite enough to say that a bare canvas tacked to a wall is not ‘necessarily’ a successful picture; it would, I think, be less of an exaggeration to say that it is not conceivably one. It may be countered that future circumstances might be such as to make it a successful painting; but I would argue that, for that to happen, the enterprise of painting would have to change so drastically that nothing more than the name would remain. (It would require a far greater change than that that painting has undergone from Manet to Noland, Olitski, and Stella!) Moreover, seeing something as a painting in the sense that one sees the tacked-up canvas as a painting, and being convinced that a particular work can stand comparison with the painting of the past whose quality is not in doubt, are altogether different experiences: it is, I want to say, as though unless something compels conviction as to its quality it is no more than trivially or nominally a painting. This suggests that flatness and the delimitation of flatness ought not to be thought of as the ‘irreducible essence of pictorial art’ but rather as something like the minimal conditions for something’s being seen as a painting; and that the crucial question is not what these minimal and, so to speak, timeless conditions are, but rather what, at a given moment, is capable of compelling conviction, of succeeding as painting. This is not to say that painting has no essence; it is to claim that that essence – i.e., that which compels conviction – is largely determined by, and therefore changes continually in response to, the vital work of the recent past. The essence of painting is not something irreducible. Rather, the task of the modernist painter is to discover those conventions that, at a given moment, alone are capable of establishing his work’s identity as painting.

[. . . ] I would argue that what modernism has meant is that the two questions – What constitutes the art of painting? And what constitutes good painting? – are no longer separable; the first disappears, or increasingly tends to disappear, into the second. [. . .] It is theatricality, too, that links all these artists to other figures as disparate as Kaprow, Cornell, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Flavin, Smithson, Kienholz, Segal, Samaras, Christo, Kusama … the list could go on indefinitely.

One way of describing this view might be to say that it draws something like a false inference from the fact that the increasingly explicit acknowledgment of the literal character of the support has been central to the development of modernist painting: namely, that literalness as such is an artistic value of supreme importance. [. . . ] ‘The New Sculpture,’ Art and , Boston, 1961, p. 144.

This and the following remark are taken from Greenberg’s essay, ‘Anthony Caro,’ Arts Yearbook, 8, 1965. […]

Exactly how the movies escape theatre is a beautiful question, and there is no doubt but that a phenomenology of the cinema that concentrated on the similarities and differences between it and the theatre – e.g., that in the movies the actors are not physically present, the film itself is projected away from us, the screen is not experienced as a kind of object existing, so to speak, in a specific physical relation to us, etc. – would be extremely rewarding. [. . . ] The connection between spatial recession and some such experience of temporality – almost as if the first were a kind of natural metaphor for the second – is present in much Surrealist painting (e.g., De Chirico, Dali, Tanguy, Magritte . . . ). Moreover, temporality – manifested, for example, as expectation, dread, anxiety, presentiment, memory, nostalgia, stasis – is often the explicit subject of their paintings. There is, in fact, a deep affinity between literalists and Surrealist sensibility. . . Both employ imagery that is at once holistic and, in a sense, fragmentary, incomplete; both resort to a similar anthropomorphizing of objects or conglomerations of objects . . . both are capable of achieving remarkable effects of ‘presence’; and both tend to deploy and isolate objects and persons in situations – the closed room and the abandoned artificial landscape are as important to Surrealism as to literalism. . . . This affinity can be summed up by saying that Surrealist sensibility, as manifested in the work of certain artists, and literalist sensibility are both theatrical [. . . ]


First published in Artforum, Summer 1967.

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