About us
Abstract Expressionist Theorists: Michael Fried
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 / Information
  • 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.

Later Career
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 Édouard 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.

"Art and Objecthood", Originally published in Artforum, Summer 1967
This essay was written in response to the work of Minimalists Donald Judd and Robert Morris, whom Fried deemed "literalists." Fried accused these artists of confusing the definition of "object" and "art" and of being overly theatrical in their work, to the point where they became ideologists rather than artists. According to Fried, Judd and Morris tried to free art from its flat, rectangular confines, and were opposed to painting and sculpture that was made "part by part, by addition .. in which specific elements separate from the whole, thus setting up relationships within the work." Fried believed that Modern art should not be dogmatic in this way, and by opposing such elemental constructedness (as found in the work of Johns and Rauschenberg), the work of Judd and Morris was left hollow.

"Art" and "objecthood" were essentially two opposing forces. The literalists were guilty of creating what Fried called "objecthood." In "art," the objects employed to construct the work were autonomous entities, disconnected from the surrounding world. In "objecthood" - roughly defined as the antithesis of, or objection to, art - the objects worked together to form one large object, but achieved nothing more than emphasizing that the result was, in the end, just an object.

Fried acknowledged that Minimalists like Judd and Morris challenged the ways in which the viewer developed a relationship to the object. Though, he cautioned, just because their objects existed within the same three-dimensional space as the viewer did not make the object art by default; it was still just an object, or rather a compilation of objects.

"Three American Painters", Original title: "Modernist Painting and Formal Criticism", published in The American Scholar, Autumn 1964
In this essay Fried attempted to locate the origins of Modern art and to reconcile the role of the Modern art critic. "Unlike poets," wrote Fried, "painters and sculptors rarely practice criticism; and perhaps partly as a consequence of this, the job of writing about art has tended to pass by default to men and women who are in no way qualified for their profession." In this passage, Fried questioned his own legitimacy as an art critic who was not an artist. He observed that modern visual arts "have never been more explicitly self-critical than during the past twenty years." If Modern art doubled as its own form of criticism, what purpose did the writer-critic serve?

There were many artists whose work frequently failed to profoundly capture the public's imagination; this was a natural occurrence. Not even the most advanced modern artists could consistently achieve the same rate of success. Therefore it was the responsibility of art critics to take risks and to strive to make their criticism of equal cultural importance as the artwork they critiqued. "Criticism that shares the basic premises of modernist painting finds itself compelled to play a role in its development closely akin to, and potentially only somewhat less important than, that of new paintings themselves .. it is inconceivable that he [the critic] will not be wrong a fair amount of the time. But being wrong is preferable to being irrelevant."

"The work of such painters as Noland, Olitski and Stella not only arises largely out of their personal interpretations of the particular situations in which advanced painting found itself at crucial moments in their respective developments; their work also aspires to be adjudged, in retrospect, to have been necessary to the finest modernist painting of the future." Fried's entire thesis was that Modern art - particularly that made by American painters at mid-century - represented a critical stage in art history; a fact sometimes difficult to recognize, as the manner in which people interpreted and experienced art in the Modern era changed drastically over a relatively short period of time.


Fried on Theatricality, Minimalism and Objecthood
In his 1967 essay "Art and Objecthood", Fried posited that Minimalism (what he referred to as "literalism") was compromising the quality of art because such technique was too literal in its meaning, too theatrical, and ultimately an impure practice. In the essay he wrote, "..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."

Fried objected to the work of Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, because of their clear love for the fundamental materiality of the work, which resulted in an interactive experience for the viewer. This was, according to Fried, a form of mixed media, in which art and theater commingled to the point where the work ceased to be art, and ultimately was revealed to be merely an object. This "theatricality" in Minimalist sculpture, Fried believed, relegated the work of the literalists to the realm of "anti-art." Such installations, as they eventually became, failed to achieve purity because they failed to properly distinguish between the art and the object.

One Minimalist sculptor who was in Fried's favor was Anthony Caro, whose work Fried believed maintained that ever-important differentiation between art and object. According to Fried, Caro's work sustained an internal coherence between art and media. Caro achieved this by painting his sculptures with a flat, non-reflective coat of monochromatic paint, both uniting the discrete parts of the piece and asserting a self-sufficient autonomy from its surroundings. Unlike the literalists, Fried believed, Caro did not draw attention to the objecthood (the materiality) of his works.

Fried on Post-Painterly Abstraction
If it can be said that Pollock made Greenberg's career and de Kooning made Rosenberg's, then the works of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella made Fried's. The chief aspect of abstract painting was its stark two-dimensionality; in these three artists Fried saw the neutralizing effect of flatness and "a new illusionism [that] both subsumes and dissolves the picture-surface."

Fried saw Noland, Olitski and Stella as drawing from the paintings of Pollock, Newman and Louis. These older artists were crucial practitioners in expanding the two-dimensional surface, resulting in the visual illusion of depth. The new generation of post-painterly artists took this one step further: "the development of modernist painting during the past six years [1960-66] can be described as having involved the progressive assumption by literal shape of a greater - that is, more active, more explicit - importance than ever before, and the consequent subordination of depicted shape." In other words, the post-painterly artists used literal shapes on a flat surface in order to bring together canvas, shape and color into one unified whole, where each entity ceased to be independent. Put most simply, these artists achieved a complete flatness by eliminating the illusion of depth

Fried on Clement Greenberg
No other art critic had a more profound influence of Fried's writing than Clement Greenberg. Fried perceived Greenberg's writing as the equivalent of painting with a broad brush: Greenberg's contribution was to focus on the essentialness of Modern painting in general. Instead of continuing in this vein, Fried used Greenberg's writing as a platform from which to delve into the specific cultural and social effects of Modern painting and sculpture.

However broad and formal, Fried established that Greenberg's writing was as crucial to the craft of criticism as the work of Modern artists was to abstract painting. Fried wrote, "One may deplore the fact that critics such as Fry and Greenberg concentrate their attention upon the formal characteristics of the works they discuss; but the painters whose work they most esteem on formal grounds - e.g. Manet, the Impressionists, Seurat, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Léger, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miró - are among the finest painters of the past hundred years." There had to be, in Fried's view, the establishment of formal examination of these artists' works before anyone attempted to write a deeper theoretical analysis.

Writing Style
Fried's writing can be somewhat difficult to read. His approach is very much a Hegelian one: he constantly focuses on the dialectic (oppositional forces) in art, hence his most famous essay, "Art and Objecthood," which attempts to establish the two categorical imperatives of making and viewing art.

Despite Fried's tendency to write with overly complex prose, there are constant traces of irony and self-effacement in his essays. He writes in a serious tone without taking himself - or his craft - too seriously. He once wrote that "there is nothing binding in the value judgments of formal criticism. All judgments of value begin and end in experience, or ought to and if someone does not feel that Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe..[is a] superb painting, no critical arguments can take the place of feeling it." No matter how much praise a formal critic may bestow upon a certain artwork, if the viewer was not captivated by the experience of viewing it, then that was the only perspective that mattered in that given moment.


Below are Fried's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Édouard Manet
Barnett Newman
Morris Louis
Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns
Charles Baudelaire
Karl Marx
Clement Greenberg
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Action Painting
Abstract Expressionism
Michael Fried
Years Worked: 1961 - 1977
Frank Stella
Kenneth Noland
Jules Olitski
Anthony Caro
Rosalind Krauss
Barbara Rose
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Pop Art
Color Field Painting
Combine painting

"The formal critic of modernist painting..is also a moral critic: not because all art is at bottom a criticism of life, but because modernist painting is at least a criticism of itself."

"In some ways I was virtually apprenticed to him. I sought him out when I was 19, and was reading him from my teens on. I looked at a lot of art with him. He had a great eye. He's arguably the foremost art critic of the 20th century, and I learned a tremendous amount." (Discussing the influence of Clement Greenberg)

"It's the most polemical of all these essays. It champions the art that I admired, but it also comes out against Minimalism at a crucial early moment. Some people absolutely hate it. It's an essay that almost no one agrees with." (Discussing his essay, "Art and Objecthood")

"There's very little patience today for the kind of art I was talking about. I feel that most people aren't interested in art at all, in a demanding sense. I don't care whether it's painting or poetry or music or film. The idea of caring whether something is good, for how it works, the kind of involvement that art characteristically demands and rewards, has really gone out. For me that's a loss."

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

We need your donation to maintain and grow The Art Story. Click here to help us.


The Art Story Foundation continues to improve the content on this website. This page was written over 4 years ago, when we didn't have the more stringent/detailed editorial process that we do now. Please stay tuned as we continue to update existing pages (and build new ones). Thank you for your patronage!
Written by Fried
Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (in Google Books)

Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot

Courbet's Realism

Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before

Essays by Fried
The Fallen Jockey
The Threepenny Review
Winter 2007

Essays about Fried
Looking back on "the buzz"
Johns Hopkins Magazine
June 1998
Written by Joanne P. Cavanaugh and Dale Keiger

An Evening with Michael Fried
Arma Virunque, a weblog of The New Criterion
January 7, 2006
By Roger Kimball

Photography and the Eyes of the Beholder
The Guardian
January 16, 2009