Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Michael Fried, 2008, leading from the rear. 

I have always liked photography, and in a low-key way I was always interested in it. I bough t a Berenice Abbott print of an Atget bedroom at the Willard Gallery in New York City more than thirty years ago, and have lived for a long time with photographs by Evans, Baldus, Frith, and O'Sullivan (a particular favorite). Over the years, too, I attended numerous exhibitions of photography, though rarely with the sense of urgency that I felt with respect to exhibitions of modern painting or sculpture. But until recently I did not have any strong intuitions about photography, and without such an intuition - some sort of epiphany, real or imagined - I have never been motivated to write on anything. Then several things happened. First, I got to know James Welling and his work because friends in Baltimore walked into his first show at Metro Pictures and bought several of the "Diary" photographs; soon they became close to him. l found that I liked his photographs enormously, and we, too, became friends . And then about ten years ago, by sheer chance, I met Jeff Wall at the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam and discovered that, to put it mildly, we were interested in many of the same pictorial issues. I had been aware of Wall's work for years and had even had an inkling of our shared concerns, but meeting him and exchanging thoughts was galvanizing for me. From that moment on I started looking seriously at recent photography, a process greatly aided by major exhibitions of work by figures such as Welling, Wall, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Demand, Rineke Dijkstra, Candida Hofer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Luc Delahaye, among others. To my surprise I fairly quickly became gripped by the though that all that work, and much else besides, hung together artistically in ways that it seemed to me no one else writing about the topic had quite recognized. At that point, I began drafting what I hoped would be a short book on recent art photography that would convey the gist of my thinking. Pretty soon, though, it became clear that no such short book was in the cards. Rather, if I wanted to do justice to my subject, I would have to deal with the work of more than fifteen photographers(and, it turned out, video and filmmakers) in sufficient detail to convey a sense of what each was up to and at the same time to allow the connections I saw among their individual projects to emerge. This is what I have tried to do in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.

 Sauerländer is so much more interesting. 

Rail: Were you aware of Modern Art at that time?

Sauerländer: Yes, in a moderate sense, but I would say that I developed a vivid interest in it only after coming to New York. I can’t deny it, it came with Pop Art. Not with Abstract Expressionism, not Barnett Newman, not Rothko. I’ve written on Rothko a couple of times, but I’m a little skeptical of his religious and mystical aura. It was in the 60s that I became interested in the works of Rauschenburg, [Claes] Oldenburg, and even Warhol (Warhol before 1970, Warhol after 1970 is a different thing) we had liberation, even if today I am skeptical of it. Suddenly the thick reality of a consumer’s world, of a media world, entered the art and that was liberating.

Rail: How did you feel about the German artists who became very visible in the decade of the 1980s, for example, Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer?

Sauerländer: Beuys was an enormous event and we all were fascinated because he transformed cold reality, real things of the everyday world, into symbols of misery, death, extinction. It fascinated us though I admit that I always mistrusted the man a little. There was something tricky about it. The man was not very agreeable if you met him. Kiefer, on the other hand, is a man who lives from the darkest of the German meeds, which I don’t care much for. I remember the 1988 Kiefer exhibition [opening] at the MoMA full of drunken American ladies, if possible also Jewish. They looked as if they were in a Wagner opera, staring at all these symbols of German fire, blockhaus, the Reich Chancellor. I know Kiefer personally and there I would make a great distinction. There is something intelligent and even enlightened in Beuys whereas in Kiefer it’s a sort of fundamentalism that doesn’t interest me. Due to my health, I couldn’t go to see the 2007 Kiefer exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris, which must have been gigantic. People were very impressed, but I have a suspicion that Kiefer is exactly what the French think Germany should be—Wagner and mysticism and so on.

Rail: Now getting back to where we had left off before: What was your impression of the U.S. when you came to Princeton in 1961?

Sauerländer: We had a totally idealistic image of America, it was the perfect democracy, the Bill of Rights, we believed in all of that. It was the moment of President Kennedy who everyone saw as young, progressive, and enlightened. Whether that was true, well that’s another question.

So we arrived in September just in time for the International Congress [of Art History]. Upon arriving at the Columbia dormitory where we were housed, my wife asked: “Goodness, who is that?” There was man who looked like an Old Testament prophet! It was Meyer Schapiro and he was the first person we saw. Apart from participating in the Congress, it was a great experience to come from truncated Germany and suddenly encounter all these émigrés. It was Panofsky, his wife, and Walter Friedländer; suddenly we discovered a Germany that no longer existed in Germany. We couldn’t help but just listen to them because they had very much remained German. With that said they, especially Panofksy naturally, regarded themselves as American. Suddenly a pre-Nazi German past came back on us and it was astonishing. During this first phase in the United States, between ’61 and ’62, we became close friends with Panofsky, Friedländer and Krautheimer. Later I invited Freidländer to Freiburg where he taught before ’33 and Panofsky took an honorary position there; [seeing these scholars return to Germany, if only temporarily] was a very important part of my American experience....

I must say that I remained in unbroken admiration of the U.S., even in ’64-’65, I found it all wonderful. Then I came back to teach in 1970 during the centenary of the Metropolitan Museum and there were all these parties with rich ladies—Panofsky, Friedländer, all were dead, the emigrés, in part, had disappeared. I suddenly saw all the poor people on the streets and I discovered the dark side of America. It was actually the moment when Panofsky’s great illumination was at its end—everyone imitated him. Panofsky himself said, “Well if I am punished for what I did to art history, I will come into the seventh stage of Hell.” In ’65 he gave those Titian lectures, which with all respect for Panofsky were a disaster. I mean, reducing Titian to iconography naturally doesn’t work....

Rail: Was your enthusiasm for America and Pop Art something shared by Germans at the time? 

Sauerländer: I don’t think there were many people in Germany who were aware of it. There was Evelyn Weiss in Cologne who wrote on Pop Art and I’m not absolutely sure at what moment Peter Ludwig, a collector of art in Cologne who bought an enormous number of Pop Art pieces, began acquiring it. It was relatively early even in New York as well. [Barnett] Newman, [Mark] Rothko, [Meyer] Schapiro were shocked by Pop, they thought it was the end. It was a break that others have to write about. I couldn’t have done it in 1970, which I regret it to this day. This break coincides with all the social and mental changes of the 60s—before and after 1968.

Rail: Even in America, it has taken time for Pop to enter scholarly discourse.

Sauerländer: The disturbing question is what remains? I was very fascinated by [Edward] Kienholz, [Robert] Rauschenberg, and [Claes] Oldenburg, but where are they today? Warhol remains an icon—Warhol until 1970. Later the factory goes wrong. At this moment I find photography seems to be more interesting than other fields, especially, there are very good photographers in Germany, for example [Thomas] Struth, [Andreas] Gursky.

Rail: How about Bernd and Hilla Becher, Candida Höffer?

Sauerländer: Höffer, yes, too many libraries, a little bit sterile. I have great problems with the Bechers. There is a great human message with Walker Evans, but never were with the Bechers or Höffer. [Bernd] told me that he photographed at 5 a.m. and made scaffolding above the human level, on an abstract level. The [Robert] Bergman catalogue that you gave me is something different altogether.  [August] Sander is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. [Thomas] Struth and [Thomas] Demand are interesting.

Panofsky's book on Titian begins with an editor's acknowledgment, quoting Panofsky, that he never intended to do an overview of Titian's career and the focus on iconography was in no way an attempt to set a limit on the work itself, and that the the images were all black and white "not in spite but because of the fact that Titian was the greatest ‘colorist’ who ever lived.” And then the passage I remember from his description of The Flaying of Marsyas, even though he was wrong in wanting to deny attribution, is key to any understanding of Titian.

When Panofsky writes that Titian, “like Henry James’ Linda Pallant, ‘knew the value of intervals’” he’s describing Titian’s focus on the space between objects and people, and implicitly between viewer and canvas.  The connecting line isn’t a formal cue, an arrow or the edge of a table or the stripes on a piece of fabric; space is crossed often only by a line of sight. As in the theater, actors’ success or failure isn’t measured in inches or millimeters to match the perfect ratio of  the sides of a triangle, but in faces and gestures directed at each other. And Titian makes sure the space isn’t so cluttered that things get in the way. The sense of time as the our eyes move observing others’ eyes, the fleeting sense of intimacy is beyond anything in Florence.  It’s an an art that doesn’t even try to give us an illusion of perfection, except perhaps as a ‘perfect’ description of its lack.

I'm not going to quibble with other criticisms of the book. I take things that strike me and ignore others. As a scholar I'm an amateur. As for the interview I'd be surprised if Germans didn't know Warhol by the early 70s. According to a timeline I found at the Met, in 1968 he had a retrospective that went from the Moderna Museet to the Stedelijk and he had work in Documenta. But his interest in Warhol, until 1970—it's be too much to wish he'd added Rauschenberg until 64—after his scepticism about Newman and Rothko as religious theater, and then Kiefer...  we all try to distinguish between observing and imposing, reading and reading in, but the 20th century was a century of enthusiasts.  "Newman, Rothko, Schapiro were shocked by Pop, they thought it was the end." I'm sure Panofsky laughed.  

Fried spends a good deal of time on Douglas Gordon, and his documentary with Philippe Parreno—in the form of "video art"— on Zidane, but says nothing about its predecessor. I din't know about it either until I found on the Wikipedia page about their film, but they knew about it of course, and never bothered to tell Fried. Gordon and Parreno's film has a theatrical intimacy, and with the music, an aestheticized, poeticized, melancholy; it's a film about the past in the sense that Hellmuth Costard's film is about its present. And the new film fits with the culture of music videos and advertising that grew out of video art.

Fried is the sort of critic who has a better idea of what good art should be than why anyone would want to make art to begin with. He's easily seduced by the impression of seriousness. Sauerländer saw seriousness in Warhol's work and knew the rest was secondary. Fried was right to see immaturity in the work of the late 60s and he's right to see maturity now, but he doesn't understand history, time, and change. 

A Man United fan account has put Costard's film on Youtube. We'll see how long it lasts.

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