Monday, June 28, 2010

Sculpture is Dead: Rosalind Krauss is an Assassin

Le Femme Nikita (1988), Rosalind Krauss

Rosalind Krauss’s essay,  Sculpture in the Expanded Field,  is not only a corner stone of critical theory, it is a very important touchpoint for me personally. (I explained  my attachment in a recent post about her Klein group diagram & Star Wars.)  Written over thirty years ago (Krauss's essay, not my post), it remains one of the best pieces of writing about contemporary sculpture - but like the great majority of top tier art writing it can make for dense and difficult reading. I have spent the last year and a half or so combing through the essay and it was only recently, as I prepared my post for HyperAllergic that I dug up what I think is the most important element of Krauss's argument.

Here's the thing, what is most important, most radical, most interesting, most revolutionary even, Krauss never states explicitly. It is not easy to locate - none of my profs or anyone else I have ever spoken to about the essay has ever pointed pointed out what I now believe to be the crux of the expanded field. What Rosalind Krauss, one of modern sculptures most important chroniclers was asserting (implicitly, but forcefully all the same) was the grimmest of modern truths. She was arguing, that sculpture is dead.
When you think about it, it is about time someone make that claim, death is central to the modernist project. The historian T J Clark explains that,
...the modernist past is a ruin, the logic of whose architecture we do not remotely grasp. This has not happened, in my view, because we have entered a new age... On the contrary, it is just because the ‘modernity’ which modernism prophesied has finally arrived... The intervening (and interminable) holocaust was modernization.
Keep in mind that painting dies every two or three years. God dies with the regularity of a clockwork universe (but still only once every 30 years). The author hasn't come up dead since the early 1990s, but we're all still talking about it like it was yesterday. Even history is history. So it stings that sculpture hasn't come up dead till now. Google it. 313 results, that is as close to zero as you can get with a three word Google search. A search for "painting is dead" nets 76,700 results. "God is dead" a solid 466,000 hits. “History is dead” is on par with God, 304,000 results. "Death of the Author" 1,330,000. "Postmodernism" (the death of Modernism itself) about 2,900,000 results - 0.33 seconds - pow. Those are all proper returns for a search. Hell, even "Dick is dead" gets 64,388 more hits than "sculpture is dead."
So while I didn't look through the 322 results I got, I am guessing that there are no first rate art historians, or even B-list artists who have thought to announce sculpture is dead, but that is exactly what Krauss did. The expanded field was actually a killing field. This is how she described the victim:
We know very well what sculpture is. And one of the things we know is that it is a historically bounded category and not a universal one. As is true of any other convention, sculpture has its own internal logic, its own set of rules, which, though they can be applied to a variety of situations, are not themselves open to very much change.
Robert Morris, I-Box (1962), Rosalind Krauss, "the sum of the neither/nor" (1978)

Krauss placed sculpture in a shallow little diagram (shown above). The remains of Modern sculpture were buried beneath the horizontal axis of not-landscape and not-architecture. As a sculptor, I can attest to the depth of the blow she struck, this was no mere  flesh wound - she slid the thin edge of her argument in just below the "neuter" axis (shown below). Ouch. According to Krauss, sculpture is "a categorical no-man's-land: it was what was on or in front of a building that was not the building, or what was in the landscape that was not the landscape." Again she stabs, this time right through the heart, and violently twists the blade there at the end - all those nots. Krauss is a stone cold killer.
Too theoretical? Want to see some lens spatter? No worries, she went on to say that that "negative condition... was a limited vein and, having been opened in the early part of the century, it began by about 1950 to be exhausted." BOOM. Krauss, in the library, with the candle stick.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Krauss attempts to blame her victim. She says that Auguste Rodin's masterpiece, his statue of Balzac, is the first instance of "the negative condition of the monument... a domain cut off from the project of temporal and spatial representation" and cites the minimalist plywood boxes and mirrored cubes of the Robert Morris as "the purest examples that come to mind." According to our killer the purest example of Modernist sculpture are boxes that make coffins look complex (don't get me wrong, I love Morris, but she is offer us no way out - this is Cast of Amontillado territory) . She believed that "sculpture itself had become a kind of ontological absence, the combination of exclusions, the sum of the neither/nor." That’s a solid pair of double naughts, a double tap to the heart and two to the head. We’re looking at the handy work of a professional.
The ground beneath not-landscape and not-architecture is a grave, a burial ground. Krauss was clearing away the ruins of Clark’s interminable holocaust and constructing a defense for a postmodern "newness" against "the modernist demand for the purity and separateness of the various mediums." Remember postmodernism is just another way of saying “Kill White on Whitey!” But she’s not done, she goes after history next:
The new is made comfortable by being made familiar, since it is seen as having gradually evolved from the forms of the past. Historicism works on the new and different to diminish newness and mitigate difference... And we are comforted by this perception of sameness, this strategy for reducing anything foreign in either time or space, to what we already know and are.
Sculpture in the Expanded Field "Klein group diagram" and bombed out waste

Krauss wasn’t on some random spree however, she is attempting a precision assassination. She was expertly carving out what she believed was a "rigorously logical" perspective on the new. She was doing so however in the shadow of "an art criticism still in the thrall of a modernist ethos.” (One can only imagine the pressure.) Despite Krauss’s carefully constructed alibi, her defense of the new and of difference was bold (bolder than the Twinkie Defense), but it did not explain the value of newness or difference any more than Modernist critic's single-minded demands for formal innovation and purity. Leaving that question unaddressed means the "expanded field of postmodernism" simply broadened the circle of art for art's sake. She was trying to kill History, the bastard offspring of modernity, while preserving it's conjoined twin, Progress. (The perfect crime.) The theorist Walter Benjamin described History/Progress as an angel blowing backward through time:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
While Krauss was unwilling to openly announce the death of sculpture, I am not: Sculpture is Dead, and you heard it hear first (317th result). Openly acknowledging that sculpture is dead (and that Krauss is a murderer), is not only morbidly titillating (and it is), it is also freeing and productive. It sets the ground (and the tone) for an excavation of the reasons and reasoning behind death's central place within the modern ethos; and a consideration of exactly who and what is being killed when sculpture dies. The holocaust of modernization, the storm of progress, have a context more profound then Paradise; as with all things modern, it's the future.

Anne Truitt, Southern Elegy (1964) Damien Hirst, For the Love of God (2009)


  1. I love the bejeweled skull by Damien Hirst.

  2. Hmmm. If Krauss truly killed sculpture, then she is a true pro; it took anyone over 30 years to even find the body...

  3. Hirst's not-a-sculpture-but-a-media-object bejeweled skull is a lovely coda.

  4. It would be a more awesome not-a-sculpture-but-a-media-object if the key chain was a bejeweled pewter casting or some-such instead of a Shrinky Dink plastic coated photo:

    As for finding the body thirty years later, I could not be more proud of having the number one hit for a google search of sculpture is dead.