by Michael Fried
A recent review of shows by Helen Frankenthaler at Gagosian Gallery and Morris Louis at Mnuchin Gallery gave New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl the chance to express his considered views on Color Field painting:
Color-field reacted against the juicy, muscular styles of Willem de Kooning and his many followers, which [Clement] Greenberg deemed spurious and passé. It won that scrap, in the court of uptown galleries, but soon succumbed to the juggernauts of Pop art and minimalism, which had behind them forces of more than rarefied aesthetic theory: by 1962, Andy Warhol’s silk-screened works equalled the formal strength of color-field and surpassed its éclat, with the added bonus of Marilyn Monroe. Greenberg’s dialectic made color-field sound formidable, but the art proved lightweight in practice, a genteel sort of taste—the visual equivalent of second-Martini euphoria.
Might I suggest to Schjeldahl that in the future he should do his best to avoid the epithet “lightweight”? It so perfectly expresses the level of his thinking and perception. Note, for a start, the appeal to the concept of “formal strength” on the part of a critic who would never for a moment subscribe to any version of “formalism.” But what, then, does “formal strength” mean? Would Schjeldahl seriously suggest that a Warhol, any Warhol at all, could stand up to the test of being hung next to a first-rate Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Olitski, or Poons? And note, too, the continued hostility to Clement Greenberg, who died twenty years ago yet continues to haunt the diatribes of critics like Schjeldahl, who sense rightly that they would have been powerless to match their convictions about art with his during his lifetime—hence the posthumous revenge they never tire of taking against a caricature of his thought and writing.
But enough about Schjeldahl and his ilk. What led me to volunteer these remarks was the experience of walking into Mnuchin and seeing a spectacular gathering of nine Veils by Louis, among them Beth Samach, 1958; Curtain, 1958 (a sister to the sublime Terranean, made the same year); Tzadik, 1958; and Dawn, 1958–59; plus a smaller pair, End of Fall,1959–60; and the fiercely intense Italian Veil, dated 1960 but probably painted earlier, to name my favorites on this occasion. As it happens, Louis was one of the first new abstract painters who attracted my attention, to put it mildly, when I returned to New York after three years in England in the fall of 1962. In fact, Louis died of cancer roughly a week after my return; I had seen just a few paintings by him up to that point, and in the year that followed I saw more, but the great revelation as to the magnitude of his achievement came in September 1963, when an exhibition of seventeen paintings from various phases of his mature career, organized by Lawrence Alloway, opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The exhibition was stunning; what I remember most vividly is the experience of discovering, in the lower room off the spiral (the Guggenheim’s holy of holies), a ravishing Unfurled, the first I had ever seen—a moment comparable to my first encounter with Anthony Caro’s Midday in his courtyard in the fall of 1961. I don’t recall the sequence of events that followed, but before long I had a contract from Abrams to write a book about Louis (this eventually appeared in 1970), and I was also appointed (on Greenberg’s recommendation) to organize the artist’s first retrospective exhibition, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1967. In the course of preparing that exhibition I saw pretty much all of Louis’s oeuvre, much of it still unstretched; the Mnuchin catalogue includes a color photograph from 1966 of Greenberg; André Emmerich; Louis’s widow, Marcella Brenner; the estate’s lawyer, I. S. Weissbrodt; and me looking at a dark Veil being unrolled on the floor of the Santini Bros. warehouse in New York.
Why am I going into all this now? Partly, I guess, out of nostalgia for a vanished moment in the evolution of High Modernism (and for my youth). But more importantly, because standing before Louis’s Veils at Mnuchin, I felt my gaze as before sinking into their richly glowing depths of color, then being brought back continually to their dark-grained surfaces. And I registered with the same excitement as years ago the surfaces themselves spreading with tremendous authority across the veil configurations as if in compliance with impersonal forces. All but two of the paintings were large, just under twelve feet wide by between seven and eight feet high (one was larger than that, in fact), but they held their scale effortlessly, with majestic aplomb. There was nothing rarefied or genteel about the experience; rather, there was a sense of quiet exhilaration in the face of works that count among the transcendent pictorial accomplishments of the twentieth century. Despite lacking the bonus of Marilyn Monroe.
Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone professor of humanities and the history of art at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.