Michael Fried Lecture

Last night J and I went to a lecture by Michael Fried, one of the most influential art critics/historians of the 20th century. We showed up to the lecture early, just to make sure that we could get a seat. One of the members of the museum staff noticed me there and asked me to help adjust and fix the two slide projectors for the program. I guess all my work as a TA for 201 and 202 has finally paid off – I got to meet Michael Fried and fix the slide projectors that he used! I was in art historian celebrity heaven! I wish that my friend Kiersten could have been there; she had to read everything that Fried has written (hundreds and hundreds of pages) for a graduate seminar two years ago.

I think that I understood some of Fried’s theories (and distastes!) for Minimalism better from listening to this lecture than I ever gathered from reading his seminal article, “Art and Objecthood.” Fried explained that Minimalist sculpture wants to activate the exhibition space. For example, the visitor to the gallery automatic has a relationship with the Minimalist sculpture in regards to a bodily relationship with the sculpture size (“the sculpture is bigger than me” or “the sculpture is smaller than me”) and the way the sculpture fills the exhibition space and the viewer’s space (“I can walk around this sculpture,” “The sculpture is in front of me” or “The sculpture is behind me”). Fried explained last night feels that the contrived relationship between Minimalist art and viewer is too easy and too automatic. This explanation of “easiness” and “automatic-ness” makes a lot of sense to me, especially when one contrasts the art that Fried loves (Greenbergian Abstract Expressionism and High Modernism) with Minimalism. Abstract expressionism does not easily and automatically create a relationship with the gallery visitor or surrounding space like Minimalist sculpture.

Fried also showed some paintings by one his favorite painters, Jules Olitski. He explained that the “all over intensity” throughout the canvas is what he meant when he wrote about “presentness” in “Art and Objecthood.” This made so much sense to me – I only partially grasped what he meant by “presentness” in this article. Now I’ll need to re-read the article to see if things make better sense.
Fried also promoted his new book (scheduled for January 2009), which involves the theme of absorption (a theme he has examined over and over in his work) and photography. Fried is particularly interested in how subjects in 17th and 18th century paintings seem to be completely involved (absorbed) in whatever they are doing; they are “self-forgetting” and completely unaware of the viewer. Just like paintings, photography follow this same theme of absorption. It sounds like it will be an interesting book.

  • Kiersten says:

    I’m so glad that you wrote about Fried’s lecture–and I am a bit jealous that you actually got to meet him. Did he come across as arrogant at all? For some reason his writings rubbed me that way, and I was wondering if it came out in his personality at all.

    Fried’s ideas on absorption are really interesting. He basically explains that the tensions between absorption (subject not aware of a viewer) and theatricality (for the viewer) was a fundamental aspect of the development of modernism and minimalism, although its roots go back to the seventeenth century. Interesting stuff.

  • SMA says:

    I was *severely* disappointed to miss that lecture! I’m glad to get the synopsis though – and hooray for meeting Michael Fried! Whoa!

  • M says:

    Kiersten –
    He didn’t come across as arrogant to me, but I did gather that he has had a rich and rewarding career that has involved interaction with many famous artists. At the beginning of the lecture I wondered if his interaction with these famous people would make his speech come across as arrogant, but it didn’t.

    He does, however, seem very fixed in his opinions regarding art. Although he did have some positive things to say about Minimalism (much more positive than one would gather from “Art and Objecthood”), he is obviously dedicated to the opinions he has formed. On the whole, though, I thought that the way he expressed himself was much more approachable and likeable than some of his strongly worded essays – I wonder if you would have thought the same way.

    There’s a good chance that his lecture was recorded. I noticed he was speaking into two microphones. Maybe you should contact Marian to see if she could get you a copy. I think you really would enjoy hearing it.

  • alli says:

    I loved the whole thing!!! Especially parts where I thought he might be contradicting himself, but then he would steer it back to his reasoning of why high modernism is the best thing since sliced bread.

    I thought he was very modest when dicussing his artistic friendships, like when he so nonchalantly mentioned his meeting Frank Stella as a freshman at Princeton or seeing Caro’s sculpture in London.

    I am in awe of how amazing it must have been during the 60s and working with the greatest artists to ever live (in my humble opinion!! LOL).

    It was great to finally “get it” as he was talking, especially like you said about presentness and theatricality. I would LOVE to hear what Campbell say in his next seminar class. Oh if only this happened last year 🙂 It was so great to hear the other side of the story in the Greenbergian conflict other than Mark Magleby and Campbell. I did like how he talked about Phenomonology for like a second and I loved his strong New York accent. I think it must almost be a requirment to sound authoritative on the subject! 🙂

  • Holly says:

    Hi Esthetician,

    I just discovered your blog while looking for any news on the Michael Fried lecture that I so badly wanted to attend but was unable. Your post really helped me understand his writing better. I wish I could’ve been there to hear it from him, but I was glad to have it second-hand from you. I also took some time to read some of your other art history posts – which I enjoyed immensely. I received my BA in art history from BYU in 2004 and my MA from the Courtauld in 2005. After having my first child in May, completing a fellowship at the Springville Museum of Art, and becoming a stay-at-home mom, I’ve felt very detached from the art world. I feel like I’ve found a part of me that was lost. Thanks again for your blog! Looking forward to more art historical posts,

    Holly Grierson

    We may have actually met before – your face looks familiar. Art history and Utah make a very small world…

  • M says:

    Hi Holly,

    We have met before! I was the first Stewart fellow at the SMA, and we met once when I returned to the Museum as an intern. I only came back to the Museum once or twice before I became too sick during my pregnancy to continue volunteering.

    Welcome to my blog! And congrats on your baby. As a stay at home mom, blogging about art is the only thing which helps to keep me sane between naps and diaper changes.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.