The “death of modernism” did not mean that the new abstract painters had any less admiration for modernist artists. What they opposed were the critical theories summed up [as] “reductivist modernism,” a compound of Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Yve-Alain Bois…. All of these writers made different arguments, but they seemed to share the belief that what defined the avant-garde was the struggle to uncover the essential qualities of art. The simplicity and clarity of the reductivist model gave it tremendous authority…. But it turned out this privileged position was actually a prison cell.
-Pepe Karmel, from the essay “Still Conceptual After All These Years”
I was given the slender volume Under Blue Cup, published in 2011 and written by the well-known art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss, and I was asked whether Rosalind Krauss still mattered. I said yes, even if her reputation were to rest on the contents of a single book. Not this new one, but Bachelors, published in 1999. Bachelors is still essential reading on the importance of nine single-minded women artists, but I’ll come back to this text later. The task at hand is to tackle Krauss’ most recent investigations and find their relevance to contemporary art in the twenty-first century. After reading Krauss’ new book, it became clear to me that this notoriously brainy and extremely influential writer, editor, cofounder of October magazine, and professor at Columbia University, seemed hopelessly stuck in the past century.
Krauss appeared mired at the point where “reductivist modernism” met a bifurcating path in the road, and she sat there in disbelief while the many-headed beast of Postmodernism gave birth to varied incarnations of itself—incarnations that went spinning off and away from the French post-structuralists that Krauss had helped to introduce into the lexicon of contemporary art theory. But Postmodernism wasn’t going to stop in its tracks under the Freudian/Marxist sway of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and company. Krauss wrote in her acknowledgments page in Under Blue Cup, “Incited by over a decade of disgust at the spectacle of meretricious art called installation, this book was made possible by fortuitous encounters with what I saw as its strong alternatives…” and she goes on to list artists such as William Kentridge, James Coleman, and Sophie Calle whose work she champions.
After her dismay with installation art—also known as “relational aesthetics”—is established at the beginning of the book, Krauss proceeds with her narrative about suffering a brain aneurysm in 1999 and the challenges she met trying to regain her short-term memory and the same fluid use of language she previously enjoyed. Under Blue Cup becomes at once a simple stratagem for memory and verbal association and a treatise on her ideas about the “aesthetic medium”—or as I began to understand her thesis, the rather straight-laced scaffolding that surrounds the concept of truth to materials. Krauss’ idea of aesthetic medium can be seen as “the specific support for a given practice [italics hers]—the recursive source of the object’s meaning.” And the authority of the physical support became, in the Greenbergian trajectory of opinions on Modernism, an absolute. It was as if Krauss equated the universal systems of cognition in the brain—which are fairly strict and inviolate in their tendencies—with a universal pathway that represented aesthetic tradition; as if avant-garde art (i.e., Modernist art) had at its center essential qualities and recursive tendencies that were also absolute and inviolate. However, in the heavy-breathing air of the many-headed postmodern beast, trying to tell art what it can and cannot be is like whistling against the wind. Enter the Dragon Lady.
The highly regarded French curator Catherine David, who at one time worked at the Centre Georges Pompidou, was chosen to be the artistic director of documenta X in Kassel, Germany, in 1997. Given that this was to be the last documenta of the twentieth century—a century marked by devastating ruptures, intense economic expansions and contractions, and seismic cultural shifts that we are still dealing with—David used documenta X as a lens to focus on history and a density of social/cultural themes that reflected a global perspective. Bearing in mind the ascendancy of site-specific work in contemporary art, David’s documenta was awash in installations that emphasized relational aesthetics. In David’s view, politics and visual culture were bound together in complex ways that continued to pose questions about what was art, what was life, and how each was strengthened by a series of arranged marriages to the other. The union of the two could produce variations of form and content conceivably without end, and were completely relevant to contemporary society, not to mention contemporary art. Here is where one could almost envision the origin of Krauss’ brain implosion as she proceeds in her book to catalog her hatred of David’s curatorial stance.
Under Blue Cup is, in part, an attack against David’s aesthetic imperative to merge art, life, politics, economics, materials, history, as well as critical thinking, into a kind of filmic flow of events that recreates the leading edges of a new avant-garde. And in her critiques of David, Krauss resorts to a decidedly snarky tone. She mocks the curator by calling her Kha-tee, mimicking David’s assistant Hortensia Voelker’s pronunciation of David’s informal name, Katy. I found this Kha-tee name-calling shtick to be the most irritating aspect of Krauss’ book—as if Krauss could categorically reduce David’s importance by pushing her into a zone of extreme derision. It was like a stick of dynamite thrown at her every time Krauss resorted to this petulant, perverse behavior. Here is Krauss’ description of Voelker: “To be Catherine David’s double seems like a distant dream; she visualizes Kha-tee’s French elegance as she picks her way through the materials in the studio of the artist she is visiting, dressed, as she always is, in her black pants suit, her tightly sheathed legs deliberately extending below its jacket like the talons of an exotic bird."
Metaphorical blood drips from Krauss’ pen because, in her eyes, David has committed the biggest sin of all: putting the finishing nails in the coffin of the Great White Cube of the gallery or the museum space in favor of showing art as, say, a pig hut or as plants growing in the spaces of the railroad tracks that lead in and out of Kassel. David herself stated, “Unless you are naïve or a hypocrite, or stupid, you have to know that the white cube is over.” Krauss, for convoluted philosophical reasons, sees David’s acceptance of the death of the holy of holies, the modernist white cube, as symptomatic of “the ‘loss of desire,’ of the post-medium condition’s ‘refusal of bliss.’” When everything is admitted into the game of art, the concept of art’s “essential qualities” comes off as quaint, and David’s political and aesthetic moralism and relativism appeared to amputate Krauss’ theoretical upper hand. At the fulcrum of Krauss’ railing against relational aesthetics is the following paragraph: “Under Blue Cup is a polemic, adamantly shouting ‘fake’ and ‘fraud’ at the kitsch of installation.
The effect of the genuine is not lost to memory, not swept away. A polemic is a call to remember, against the siren song of installation [art] to ‘forget.’” Forget what? That a sea change in contemporary art has already occurred? Forget that the motivations behind an artist’s complex configuration of materials, spatial refinements, and textural, as well as textual, epiphanies do matter, as in the works of Ann Hamilton, for example? The visual, historical, and often political associations that Hamilton embeds within her intensely beautiful installations are so much more than kitsch.
Under Blue Cup is an odd and unsatisfying diatribe against the wide-open nature of contemporary art in all its fertile and infinite possibilities. On the other hand, her provocative book Bachelors is one of the best scholarly investigations into criteria by which to evaluate contemporary women artists. Writing on Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Francesca Woodman, Krauss considers the ideas these women grappled with as they invented their own singular visual logic. Hence, the authoritative empowerment within their work is key to a more lasting sense of self-determination and provides a set of controls through which to assess the meaning of their work. It must be said, though, that Krauss is not an easy read. Bachelors is a book born of an intellectual feminism tempered in the fires of Krauss’ rigorous study within multiple disciplines—Freudian analysis, Marxism, and all those thorny French philosophers like Jacques Lacan and Georges Bataille. Nonetheless, this is a book worth all the effort it takes to plumb its depths.
One might think that Krauss’ near-death experience and intense period of recuperation, described in Under Blue Cup, might have made her a more generous writer in her assessment of art’s evolution; made her more open to the vitality that exists everywhere in today’s art world, to art’s continual rebirth. That Krauss’ recovery seemed to make her more stingy, sarcastic, and entrenched in her thinking is unfortunate. And that she should be defined as the heir apparent of Clement Greenberg—who has been soundly deconstructed himself for his extremely doctrinaire thinking—is a weird case of reductio ad absurdum; a case of a writer writing herself into the confines of a sleek white box with no doors or windows or even a mirror.
Diane Armitage is a video artist, free-lance writer, and art history teacher at the Santa Fe Community College.