The Shape of Modern Art

Which shape do you prefer?

Shape is possibly one of the most expansive and yet basic concepts conceivable to human beings, and Michael Fried makes an interesting analysis of it in his paper Art and Objecthood.  Fried states, “Shape has also been central to the most important painting of the past several years,” but what great work of art has been shapeless (Fried 119)?  What could possibly be a focus apart from shape?  Fried explains that the alternative focus is what he sums up as “multipart, inflected” art that stand in as symbols or representations for an understood abstraction.  It is not the thing itself that is crucial, it is the ideas alluded to by the thing.

Fried’s presentation of Judd and Morris, however, “assert the values of wholeness, singleness, and indivisibility–of a work’s being, as nearly as possible, ‘one thing,’ a single ‘Specific Object’ (Fried 119).  Instead of representing a more abstract relationship, this sort of art is itself the presentation… the shape alone is all that is being offered for evaluation.  For example, “Morris’s “unitary forms” are polyhedrons that resist being grasped other than as a single shape… shape itself is, in his system, ‘the most important sculptural value’… (Fried 119).  This opposition to the “inflected” representational art, is then the justification–or at least explanation–for moving away from realistic representative paintings on canvas which are only “illusionary relics of European art”.  These “illusions” are outmatched by “actual space” which is “intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface” (Fried 118).  Here, the illusion of the representative painting is its definitive property, degrading its “inherent power”, thus moving artists in the direction of painting polyhedrons, boxes, stripes, and splatters, all in the almighty name of shape.

It is interesting to me above all that Michael Fried, an art critic, along with artists such as Judd and Morris have had more thoughtful and nuanced discussions on the nature of “objects” than physicists and philosophers, who won’t even touch the question of the “fundamental nature of objects” anymore.  Physicists especially, since their claim is to understand and explain how objects work in nature, ought to be held responsible for a complete understanding of the very foundation of their discipline, yet they have not… so the artists have taken a go at defining objecthood, and they have discovered shape.

This is a marvellous insight, in my opinion.  All of our thoughts and ideas have shapes underlying them– shapeless void is synonymous with nothing.  To have things, and then to have ideas, some shape or form must come to mind.  In modern times, we think in symbols: words, numbers, and signs, but even those are said to “mean nothing” if they do not refer to some other thing… not to another word or sign, but to a thing itself. And I think I am in agreement with Judd and Morris in saying that the “The shape is the object” or the thing, in itself.

I must admit, then, that I find it more than a little comical and ironic that the artists who place the most emphasis on shape produce only the most rudimentary and banal shapes imaginable.  They produce stripes and polyhedrons and boxes and other elementary patterns, step back and say, “Behold! The power of shape!”  If Mother Nature were around to hear Morris and Judd, whispering to each other about the power of their contrivances, she would not be able to conceal her amusement. For what resists the grasp of understanding beyond shape alone greater than Nature herself? She is perhaps, under our grasp in terms of shape alone, and even in this, we humans have barely begun to trace her rich contours.

This is why I cannot understand the opposition against the representation of real objects.  The objects of reality (and of our realistic imaginations) have breathtaking detail in shape, from the microscopic to the cosmic.  Even relatively simple objects, such as a bowl of fruit, drawn on a 2-dimensional canvas, are immeasurably more powerful than the dull boxes produced by Morris’s ilk.  If shape is the primary value, what about the shape of a beautiful woman at the height of her vigor in life? What about the shape of a mighty oak tree, surrounded by a rolling meadow, full of flowers? What about the shape of two men, locked in battle to the death? What more do these scenes and objects need to represent to captivate an audience? For me, nothing more, the form is alone to bring pleasure to my senses. Yet, real (and realistic) objects also hold the sister virtue of representation– they can remind, relate, symbolize, evoke, enact, etc. real connections and real emotions that are connected to the real world around us and the real things that are really happening there, at the same time as being things in and of themselves, pleasant to view in a profoundly superficial way.

I would suggest that the basic boxes of a Morris are not interesting for their shape the way a beautiful person or landscape is… nor do they hold any real power of representation. I would suggest that Morris’s boxes and other works done in the same spirit, are actually interesting because of this pretense about “getting art down to shape alone” and not because of their “shape alone”.  So, Morris’s art is just as “inflected” as any other modern art.  They are, in fact, recursive and self-contradictory representations.  They are things which are based in a philosophy that the interest of a thing is its shape– yet the interest of these things is not the shape itself, but the idea that a thing should be interesting by virtue of its shape.

-M. Huttner


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