A photograph by James Welling in Michael Fried’s Promesse du Bonheur. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Books
The New York-born art critic and historian Michael Fried's new book of poetry, Promesse du Bonheur, which is published by David Zwirner Books and nonsite.org, is something of a memoir. It includes many mentions of old friends—Clement Greenberg, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland—stories from Fried's childhood, memories of past love and reflections on his long-held critical convictions.
Those convictions come to him quickly. In a poem titled "Revelation," he describes his first experience of Anthony Caro's work at the artist's studio, where he saw the sculpture Midday (1960). The work overwhelmed Fried in "a moment/of metaphysical clarity, gone as soon as arrived".
His poetry also comes to him in flashes. "It's not something I'm really in control of," he says. "I find it very easy and straightforward to write critical or art historical prose. I just sit down and I'm clear in my head about what I want to say. Poetry is much more a question of inspiration and there are times when it starts to come. The one rule I have in my life has been that when that happens, when I think I can do it, I drop everything else. I mean everything. When I was teaching and had to cut a class, I would cut a class. That was my priority."
But the poems still have to be refined. "Intensity without formal perfection is just some kind of shouting, or whining," Fried says. The intensity needs to be channeled into something that feels "absolutely right," which Fried also finds in the artists he respects, like Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand. "I've been very consistent over the past 50 years about the qualities I admire in art and they all have to do with some kind of absolute motivated-ness. Everything should be called for," he says, adding that poetry is like building a sculpture, which is done part-by-part.
Many of the poems in his new book have an elegiac feel, which a friend, the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, pointed out to Fried. "What struck him was that there was a sense of a world—my world—in the book, and part of that world is that, at this point, I'm not 25 anymore," Fried says. "A lot of people who have meant a lot to me aren't around anymore." Among them are the writers Ian Hamilton and Allen Grossman and the composer Seymour Shifrin (both have inspired poems).
The melancholic tone also comes through in James Welling's accompanying photographs, which have not been published elsewhere. Fried says the pictures give the book a kind of "density" and preserve it from disappearing. "When you bring out a book of poems, it's very much a non-event, as if you wrote it in the middle of the night and let it off the boat," he says. "It just sinks to the bottom." But with Welling as a collaborator, the book "has an existence in the world".
As with his criticism and his historical writing, Fried is concerned most of all with tapping into a long tradition. "It's all closely related to high Modernism, which was supposed to have been totally blown away," he says. "Of course, my allegiance to it never waivered. And those essential values have never really gone away."