Friday, July 16, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 3/4): Killing Rosalind Krauss

Death and the Maiden: Rosalind Krauss, Ingmar Bergman,s The Seventh Seal, Clement Greenberg


The reason Clement Greenberg was inconsistent on the subject of sculpture is because in constructing his formalist theories he had conceptually painted himself into a corner. He insisted that the ideas in  Modernist Painting were never intended to be prescriptive, but he had successfully mapped a generation worth of artistic production, starting with Frank Stella's black painting (which he evidently didn't much like), right up through to the minimalist (who he down right disliked), and dribbling out among the earth artists (those guys were totally formalists - see PMD 2/3). That is no small achievement, even accounting for the mixed results (in Greenberg's opinion). His rejection of minimalism wasn't arbitrary - he clearly hoped to extend his influence for another decade or two.

The problem was he had unintentionally built into the fabric of his program for modernist painting the death of the formalist cannon he championed - what Theiry de Duve calls the Lessing-Wolfflin-Roger-Fry lineage. The painter Frank Stella had cracked Greenberg’s code and the minimalists had carried the Greenbergian system to its alogical conclusion. At the height of his powers the critic was left squirming at what he saw done with his ideas, and the artists were left to try and make sense of his rejection - Donald Judd would later admit, “I thought he wanted the same thing.”
Alfred Barr (the founding director of MoMA), had invented, almost out of whole cloth, the discipline of modern art history. Greenberg had built on the work of Barr and others. Doing so Greenberg rejected the poetic and subjective model of art criticism and helped create a literature of what Rosalind Krauss calls "normative criticism." His writings remain some of the clearest and most enjoyable texts in the Modernist Canon. Krauss and his other followers (allies and enemies alike) would hone Greenberg's Post-War black box formalism into the basis of what is now the well entrench discipline of art theory. Krauss especially would become the master of the genre and, in her own way, as powerful a player within the New York art world as Greenberg had been. In that role she would be a conduit for the post-modern theories Fredric  Jameson refers to.

Robert Morris, Mirrored Boxes (1969); August Brömse,  The Girl and Death (1902); Robert Morris, Plywood Show (1964)


Like the earth art it championed, the Expanded Field’s particular brand of post-modernism was still very formalist however. Krauss was not looking forward towards a future beyond modernism, she was firing back over her shoulder, aiming to kill modernism. She was still trying to beat Greenberg on his own terms. Paradoxically her essay does not refute or debunk Greenberg, but instead her defense of minimalist and post-minimalist art extended the half-life of Grenberg's formalism. Starting with her opening ambit: her choice of Auguste Rodin's Balzac and The Gates of Hell as precedents for modernist sculpture. These two works put her at odds with her former mentor (one imagine he would have landed solidly on Constantin Brâncuşi's Endless Column), but the negative and theoretically abstract tone Krauss used to discuss Rodin's masterpieces Greenberg himself had made the recognized the coin of the realm  within the art world's loftiest precincts. Here is how Krauss explained her choice of Rodin:
With these two sculptural projects, I would say, one crosses the threshold of the logic of the monument, entering the space of what could be called its negative condition-a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of place. Which is to say one enters modernism, since it is the modernist period of sculptural production that operates in relation to this loss of site, producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential.
Krauss beats Greenberg at his own game - the logic of her arguments are tighter than the loop of logic he constructed for Modernist painting - but Krauss's logic is far from air tight.  Contrary to what the essay promised, Krauss does not convincingly explain the “definitive ruptures” of either the 1880-90s or the full relationship of 1960-70’s art to those early ruptures.
The gaping hole in Krauss’s argument is that Balzac and The Gates of Hell were never intended by the artist to create "a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness." Both Balzac and The Gates failed to get sited because Rodin's relationship with his patrons were so tortured (more about this in the next essay in this series). Balzac and the Gates are both mundane instances of professional failure, neither represent a conceptual breakthrough of any magnitude, much less the magnitude one would expect to separate the modern world form the pre-modern. Curiously a different failure of Rodin, is what I believe locates and cleaves a point that can truly be said to separate “different types of happening." (Again, more about that in the next essay.) This second failure/breakthrough was invisible to Krauss because her Expanded Field lacked a crucial third axis.
Auguste Rodin, Balzac (1898), Andy Warhol, Ambulance (1973); Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell (1885-1917)

Krauss’s field was a 2 axis (or flat) diagram. She does point to a 3rd axis. She mentions a function that is "vertical" - what she calls the "logic of marking and representing" - but does not include it as an aspect of her Expanded FieldKrauss was making the case for a post-modernism of abstract art and the vertical function of marking "a particular place for a specific meaning/event" was, she explained, "normally figurative." Krauss's Expanded Field was conceptualized in direct opposition to Greenberg's modernism. Just as there was no room in Greenberg's black box theories for the messiness art-and-life, Krauss's  omission of the vertical function of the monument meant she described the pedestal in the highly formal terms as that Greenberg described flatness (see FF 1/3). She wrote that the pedestal was “an important part of the structure” that “mediate between actual site and representational sign.” That is a weirdly dry description, for such a loaded historical form. A pedistal is a convention of representing power - the third, vertical axis is the loaded  question marking a particular place for a specific meaning/event. That is a question of power.
Krauss was perfectly aware of just how loaded the historical context of pre-modernist art was and is - she signaled her awareness with the inclusion of a still from Sergei Eisenstien's film, October as on of the very first images in her book, Passages in Modern Sculpture. In contrast to the middling-post-modernism of the Expanded Field, mean while, feminism represents a far more radical break with the historic forms of the past. Of all the intellectual breakthroughs of the twentieth century -- relativity, the atom bomb, landing a man on the moon, the Internet - it is the feminist critique that will stand out as the most radical and most transformative. The feminist art historian Anna Chave made her reputation by interrogating minimalism in terms of the third axis Krauss whistled past. In her 1990 essay Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power Chave wrote:
What concerns me about Minimalist art is what Teresa de Lauretis describes as 'the relations of power involved in enunciation and reception', relations 'which sustain the hierarchies of communication ... the ideological construction of authorship and mastery; or more plainly, who speaks to whom, why and for whom.
Chave is a second sophisticated second wave feminist, so it is interesting/perplexing to me that she faults the minimalist artists for refusing to offer any Utopian promise with their art. She complained that, “Being avant-garde implies being ahead of, outside, or against the dominant culture; proffering a vision that implicitly stands (at least when it is conceived) as a critique of entrenched forms and structures." She imagined a "distinctively female power” – or "capacity – of nurturance in the context of which masculine power is formed and against which it reacts.” Chave was proffering a vision outside and against power, but not just as some generalized abstraction. She was reacting against power as it was formulated by the French social theorist Michel Foucault. She faults Foucault for admitting "no possibility of a radical dismantling of systems of power and undertakes no theorizing or imagining of a society or world without domination." for himself, Foucault wrote that:
I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behavior of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination.

Sergei Eisenstien, October (1962), Judy Chicago, Rainbow Pickets (1965)

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