Michael Fried

Michael Fried

Michael Fried (born 1939, New York City) is a Modernist art critic and art historian. He studied at Princeton University and Harvard University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford University. He is currently the J.R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and Art History at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, United States.

Fried's contribution to art historical discourse involved the debate over the origins and development of modernism. Along with Fried, this debate's interlocutors include other theorists and critics such as Clement Greenberg, T. J. Clark, and Rosalind Krauss. Since the early 1960s, he has also been close to philosopher Stanley Cavell.


Early career

Fried describes his early career in the introduction to Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (1998), an anthology of his art criticism in the 60s and 70s. Although he majored in English at Princeton it was there that he became interested in writing art criticism. While at Princeton he met the artist Frank Stella and through him Walter Darby Bannard. In 1958 he wrote a letter to Clement Greenberg expressing his admiration for his writing and first met him in the Spring of that year. In September 1958 he moved to Oxford, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and then to London in 1961-2, where he studied philosophy part-time at University College, London, under Stuart Hampshire and Richard Wollheim. In 1961 Hilton Kramer offered him the post of London correspondent for the journal Arts. In the fall of 1961 Fried began his friendship with the sculptor Anthony Caro; Caro had invited him to write the introduction to his Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition in 1963.

In the late summer of 1962, Fried returned to the U.S, where he combined studying for a Ph.D in art history at Harvard with writing art criticism, initially for Art International, and curating the exhibition Three American painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum.

Art and Objecthood

In his essay, "Art and Objecthood," published in 1967, he suggested that Minimalism had betrayed Modernism's exploration of the medium by becoming emphatic about its own materiality as to deny the viewer a proper aesthetic experience. Minimalism (or "literalism" as Fried called it) offered an experience of "theatricality" rather than "presentness"; it left the viewer in his or her ordinary, non-transcendent world. The essay inadvertently opened the door to establishing a theoretical basis for Minimalism as a movement based in phenomenological experience.[1]

Absorption and theatricality

In "Art and Objecthood" Fried criticised the "theatricality" of Minimalist art. He introduced the opposing term "absorption" in his 1980 book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot.[2] Drawing on Diderot's aesthetics,[3] Fried argues that whenever a consciousness of viewing exists, absorption is sacrificed, and theatricality results.[4] As well as applying the distinction to Eighteenth Century painting, he also uses it to assess post-1945 American painting and sculpture, which he values to the extent to which they are liberated from theatricality.[4] Fried is dismissive of critics who wish to conflate his art-critical and art-historical writing.[5]

Stephen Melville accepts that Fried is right to draw attention to the fear since the time of Diderot that art is threatened by the forces of theatricality, entertainment, kitsch, and mass-culture, but he argues that Fried's analysis is limited by accepting on its own terms the response of art to this threat.[6] Melville maintains that theatricality is a necessary condition of art[6] and that absorption is itself theatrical.[7] Martin Puchner holds that Fried's distinction rests on a Modernist resistance to interference from the public sphere and a defence of the artist's control over the external circumstances of reception.[8]

In a somewhat surprising turn, Fried revisits these concerns via a study of recent photography—Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (London and New Haven 2008). In a reading of works by prominent ‘Art’ photographers of the last twenty years (Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand among others) Fried asserts that concerns of anti-theatricality and absorption are central to the turn by recent photographers towards large-scale works "for the wall.".[9]

Selected bibliography

In more recent years, Fried has written several long and complex histories of modern art, most famously on Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Adolph Menzel, and painting in the late 18th century.

  • Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Awarded 1980 Gottschalk Prize.
  • Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Awarded 1990 Charles C. Eldredge Prize.
  • Courbet's Realism Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Manet's Modernism Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. French translation awarded 2000 Prix Littéraire Etats-Unis.
  • Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Menzel's Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Fried is a poet, having written The Next Bend in the Road, Powers, and To the Center of the Earth.


  1. ^ Hal Foster The Crux of Minimalism, From "The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century" 1996, Mit Press ISBN 0-262-56107-7
  2. ^ Charles Green, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, UNSW Press, p140. ISBN 0-86840-588-4
  3. ^ Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2006, p114. ISBN 0-19-929587-5
  4. ^ a b Tracy C. Davis, Thomas Postlewait, Theatricality, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p20. ISBN 0-521-01207-4
  5. ^ Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p73. ISBN 0-226-26319-3
  6. ^ a b Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, Blackwell Publishing, 1997, p98. ISBN 0-631-20052-5
  7. ^ Stephen W. Melville, Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p11. ISBN 0-8166-1437-7
  8. ^ William B. Worthen, Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p131. ISBN 0-521-84184-4
  9. ^ Michael Fried: Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before: London and New Haven, 2008, p14. ISBN 978-0-300-13684-5

See also

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