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Michael Fried

Michael Fried Chart


Michael Fried is one the most established and reputable art critics and historians alive today. His approach to criticism is closely linked with that of his mentor, the late Clement Greenberg, who Fried first encountered while an undergraduate at Princeton. Much like Greenberg, Fried was suspicious of academics and critics who insisted on critiquing modern art within a historical and/or cultural context, instead of formally examining the work of art on its own terms. Another of Fried's notable contributions was his staunch opposition to what he observed as the lack of differentiation between the work of art itself and the experience of viewing it, a phenomenon he described as "theatricality."

Key Ideas

Fried was wary of the dangers of categorizing art as an event. When this happened, he thought, viewers don't appreciate the artwork itself, rather its broader cultural context (i.e. Abstract Expressionism, color field painting, as opposed to a specific painting by Pollock or Rothko.). If art becomes nothing more than a cultural event, then it adversely compromises the way in which art can be appreciated; reactions will be conditioned by surrounding socio-historic circumstance, which will avoid consideration of the artwork as an independent entity.
Fried believed that great art is an untangling of historical forces, the result of a Hegelian dialectic or a synthesis of many different points in history all coming together to form something new and original.
Fried was highly critical of art critics and historians who asserted themselves as objective observers of art, which is to say, most of them. He defined the duties of the formalist critic in the following manner: "It is.. imperative that the formalist critic bear in mind at all times that the objectivity he aspires toward can be no more than relative." This statement was fairly provocative, given the tone and writing style of the era's greatest critics, who aspired to write objectively. Fried essentially called their bluff, and argued that all critical judgments are nothing more than subjective.


Education and Meeting Clement Greenberg

Michael Fried grew up in New York City and at an early age began painting using watercolors and oils. While attending Forest Hills High School, he drew cartoons for the school newspaper. Fried first became interested in art criticism while attending Princeton University as an undergraduate (class of '59). There he met and befriended Frank Stella and Walter Darby Bannard who later became prominent artists in their own right. While poetry and English literature were Fried's intended studies at Princeton, it was the writings of critic Clement Greenberg in Partisan Review and Art News that drew Fried into the world of art and art criticism.

Through some correspondence, Greenberg agreed to meet with the young Fried in 1958, and reportedly Greenberg was very impressed with Fried's views on art. According to Fried's account of the meeting some years later, "At one point [he] asked my opinion of Theodore Roszak's sculpture. I said I didn't like it, which impressed him .. He also said that art criticism as usually practiced was a pitiful activity and went on to warn me against the dangers of studying art history." Fried identified this moment as a key stage in his development as an art critic and historian.

In late 1958, Fried was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and began studying at Oxford University. Before departing for England, Fried and Frank Stella socialized with artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in New York. Fried's experiences at Oxford, however, were less than favorable. When he expressed an interest in studying history, he was turned down because he lacked any prior academic training in historical studies. This reasoning puzzled him, and began his occasionally antagonistic relationship with the strict academic constraints of art history.

Middle Years

While studying at University College London from 1961-62, Fried began visiting more galleries and writing art criticism pieces with increasing frequency. He also traveled often to Paris and Rome, familiarizing himself with the many galleries and museums available in Europe. It was also during this time that his friend Frank Stella was gaining notoriety in New York City.

By 1961, Clement Greenberg had published Art and Culture to wide acclaim, and some of Frank Stella's works had been shown at The Museum of Modern Art. Through these high-profile acquaintances, Fried was able to establish other connections in the art world that eventually earned him the steady job, at age 22, as the London correspondent for the New York based Arts magazine.

In 1962 Fried returned to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in art history at Harvard. By this time he was also writing regular criticism pieces for the journal Arts International. While at Harvard he curated an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum entitled, "Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella."

In 1967, Fried published an essay entitled "Art and Objecthood," arguably one of the most important pieces of art criticism in the 20th century.

Late Period

Michael Fried abandoned art criticism in 1977, and steered his writing toward pinpointing the trajectory and overall meaning of Modernism in art, from the 19th century to the present day.

He has devoted much of his time to writing long monographs of individual artists such as Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet. Currently he teaches the Humanities and Art History at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.


Throughout his career, Fried has been far more preoccupied with concepts of Minimalism and Modernism in art than the idea of Abstract Expressionism. He has described the 1960s as the "last great moment in Modernist art."

The critical work of Michael Fried has raised several questions about the role of theatricality, mass culture and kitsch in Modern art, and has questioned whether Modern art has suffered from these phenomena.

In justifying his emphasis on formalism, Fried noted that throughout history there have been several specific types of relationships between art and spectator, whereas in the modern era, artists produced works that invited the spectator to actively participate in the viewing experience. Perhaps Fried's greatest contributions to art criticism were his thoughts on the specific effects that art, particularly sculpture, provoked in the viewer.

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