The Real Thing: An Interview with Rosalind E. Krauss
In this candid and penetrating interview with novelist David Plante, renowned art historian Rosalind Krauss delves into her personal background and reveals the formative influences underlying her critical interests in artists as diverse as David Smith and William Kentridge, Joan Miró and Richard Serra. And despite her affinity with the historical avant garde she pulls no punches when it comes to her antagonism towards installation art and video.
Author’s note: I interviewed Rosalind in my apartment in New York, in October, 2003, typed out the interview, then cut myself out and somewhat edited Rosalind’s responses to my questions, eliminating the hems and haws and tightening the syntax a little. As Rosalind is very articulate, this was no problem. Curiously, what I remember vividly of the interview is the way Rosalind gestured elegantly with her hands, her long fingernails clearly lacquered, sometimes delicately touching her cheek or lips with an index finger. I can’t recall which publication the interview was meant for. DP
When I was a child, in Washington, D.C., I painted in a way a lot of children do. My parents took this very seriously and sent me to art school. My father was an attorney for the Department of Justice, which was down town right next to the National Gallery of Art, where he and I would have lunch together then go through the galleries. In the modern galleries, my father would make objections to the works and I would defend them. I adopted a certain militancy, for I had to try to convince my father that these modern works of art were not phoney, that they were really important. This sharpened my desire to explain.
Also, I was introduced to the Phillips Collection, in the most wonderful 19th century house. This big house, generally empty of people, was filled with furniture and pictures. Over the piano in the dining room was Renoir’s remarkable Luncheon of the Boaters, which was like sunlight in the room. Upstairs in the bedrooms was a collection of paintings by Klee, a lot of very beautiful Braque and late Cubist paintings, and I would sit on the nice carpets on the floors of these bedrooms and look at these works, completely enchanted by them.
Later, I tried to deal with the work of Mark Rothko hanging in the Phillips Collection. I found the paintings very beautiful and at the same time very difficult. I read all the critical literature, which was taking me nowhere until I came across a chapter of a wonderful book by Adrian Stokes in which he wrote about the difference between surface colour and film colour. It was very clear to me that film colour was a way of describing Rothko’s colour. I felt that Stokes was developing a very beautiful, very pertinent critical vocabulary.
As an undergraduate at Wellesley College, I studied art history, and I at first accepted that the way art history was taught accounted for or didn’t account for art. I became very aware of this accepted way of looking at art when I decided to do my senior thesis on the work of Willem de Kooning. I realized that nothing I had been taught at Wellesley up until then had given me any kind of access to his work, which I thought very important. Access came to me with the just published book of Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, and in reading Art and Culture I began to understand what the vocabulary had to be in order to account for the power of De Kooning’s work. I understood that certain formulations of pictorial structure — such as analytic cubism — are what later artists like De Kooning call on, and, like De Kooning, are essentially dependent upon.
When I went to Harvard as a graduate student, I was introduced to Clem and we became friends. My break with him was complicated. It was pretty much over the Vietnamese War. He was a big hawk on Vietnam and of course I was a dove. I found conversations with him increasingly painful because they were political, and his politics were very distasteful to me. What really did it was, in New York, where I went every month from Cambridge in order to review for Artforum where I was on the editoral board, I began to be very, very convinced about the work of Richard Serra, which Clem dismissed as he dismissed all of Minimalism. I thought he was wrong. So we had a parting of the ways about contemporary work and about politics.
Everything I understood about sculpture had to do with the externalisation of an internal armature that is put into stress by the relationship of weight and gravity, with the internal armature that resists weight and gravity, and that’s what I saw in Serra’s work. In fact, I saw his work as hooking itself onto the most important traditions of Renaissance sculpture. I thought Clem’s hostility to it was just not appropriate, not for me.
I think he was hostile to the work because its materiality offended him. Clem’s whole relationship to art was incredibly teleological. His idea was that art had to end up in a certain place, and if it didn’t contribute to that trajectory then he dismissed it. The extreme materiality of Serra’s work, I think, transgressed Clem’s notion that sculpture was moving increasingly toward what he called opticality—to a kind of diaphanous quality, which he found in the work of David Smith.
My first book was on David Smith. At Harvard, I was worried about what I was going to do my dissertation on because I was married to a former husband and because it was complicated for me to go to Europe to work on a European subject. I woke up one morning to the clock radio announcing that a sculptor had been killed in Bennington, Vermont. I was very upset because I thought that must have been Tony Caro who lived in Bennington, but I heard it was David Smith who had died and I jumped out of bed thinking, ‘Gee, I have my dissertation topic—an American sculptor I can work with it’. So that was it – pure opportunism. I finished it. It was published. Clem, who was an executor of the Smith estate, liked it, though I don’t have the same teleological vision that Clem had.
I think what I’m more interested in is stumbling on work that for one reason or another I recognise as genuine and then I try to understand where it comes from and what it is that secures the notion of it as authentic. I don’t think there’s a development in my work because I’m very opportunistic in terms of the kinds of arguments that seem to me to be helpful to demonstrate whatever it is I’m trying to demonstrate, so if there are gaps I don’t really care. Each individual artist presents to me a different problem. When I became convinced about the importance of the work of William Kentridge, I took his work as a very special problem.
At the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona, called MACBA, where I was doing some work, there was an exhibition of the work of William Kentridge. I had seen one of Kentridge’s films before but not enough to have a kind of collective sense of the real ambition and importance of his work. Over the course of the four or five days that I spent at the museum, I looked at his work every day, and I left feeling that I had discovered another major artist. The question for me was, how do I explain to other people – most primitively, I guess, my father – why Kentridge is a really important artist, why his work is the genuine article? Stanley Cavell, the philosopher, says that the problem of modern art is a problem of fraudulence. The traditional way of rejecting the avant garde was for the audience to get up and shout ‘phoney, fraud, fake, this isn’t the real thing’ and storm out, which was of course what my father would say when we were in the National Gallery. So the problem the critic has is how to convince the viewer who’s saying ‘phoney, fake, inauthentic’ that the work is authentic, that this is the real thing, that here is a real example of what art is.
I believed that the work of the Irish artist James Coleman is the real thing when I saw it. Outraged people weren’t saying ‘fake and phoney’, but the critical arguments for the work were themselves, I felt, fake and phoney. The defence of the work was made on grounds that I thought were irrelevant to the interest of the work. The grounds were national identity, the construction of identity, all this constructionalist stuff, which I thought had nothing to do with the work. What had to do with the work was the fact that he had essentially invented a medium. He invented a medium as the technical support for the work. Oil and canvas are a technical support. The armature and clay plaster of the sculpture are another technical support. Greenberg’s position on Modernist painting is that a work of art essentially secures its meaning by specifying its medium and by essentially securing something new about the nature of the medium, and this seems to me to be irrefutable. In most work that we know and respect, particularly abstract art which has broken all kinds of links with the observed world, and which could be said to be about the nature of the medium itself– the two dimensional canvas, the colours, the drawing, the frame of the canvas—the medium is absolutely essential – is crucial — in terms of my appreciation of a work of art. This appreciation really comes from my relation to Clem, because one of Clem’s most important essays is called Modernist Painting, in which he writes that in Modernism the work of art has to secure itself by demonstrating the nature of its medium. The issue of the medium was thoroughly inbred to his idea of art, was made absolutely central to the possibility of the work meaning anything at all. I think anything can be a work of art, but only if that thing has been worked on in such a way that it becomes a technical support, in other words a medium. You have to keep working on it. A medium is a little bit like a language—you can’t just speak it once, it is repeated. The way that an artist secures the nature of his support as a medium is to continue to work at it, repeating it. The repetition is very important. This became clear to me seeing the work of James Coleman, who has invented a medium because the slide tape, which is the technical support for his work, is repeated over and over and over again.
Yet, I have to say I hate the medium of printmaking. The only artist I can think of who is an interesting printmaker is Ellsworth Kelly; otherwise I think that prints have nothing to do with Modernism and therefore I’m not interested in them as a medium. Other forms of reproducibility interest me, like photography and various decorative arts. Photography has a certain distance from Modernism, which creates an interesting tension between the two. In my book L’Amour Fou, about photography, I found it paradoxical that Surrealism, which we think of as courting states of psychological indeterminacy such as dreaming or whatever form the unconscious takes to manifest itself, should be celebrated in the very mechanical medium of photography. It was the paradox of the Surrealists acceptance of photography that interested me. I seem to be attracted to paradoxical conditions in art. Salvador Dalí is one example of a Surrealist working in the medium of photography. Miró is another one. And there is a deeper paradox in Miró. Everybody thinks of his work as childish, or childlike and comical, but I think of it as violent and sexual, which is not at all the popular conception of Miró. When I was analysing surrealist photography, it seemed to me that those photographers were attracted to strategies for undermining categories, so, for instance, in the Man Ray photographs of hats the categories of male and female are undermined. The condition of the formless, which is to say the collapse of oppositional categories, is the basis of my analysis of surrealist photography. But as I began to move from area to area where the collapse of categories was important, form became important, emerged as a major resource, intellectual resource, conceptual resource.
I don’t really like video very much. I don’t know any video work that I find interesting. William Kentridge works in film, not video. I think my most instinctive connection is with painting, and I also I think I’m very instinctive to sculpture, but I’ve had a very long and intense experience of film. At a certain point in the late sixties, I decided I wanted to teach film, so I had to teach myself the history of film. I was in Paris one summer and every day I went to the Cinémathèque and tried to experience the whole history of film. The kind of film that particularly interested me was American independent cinema, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, Paul Sharits, all these people. When I moved to New York to teach at Princeton, the first subject I taught was American independent film. This interest took me to the anthology film archives in New York, where I went every night. There would be Richard Serra and Bob Smithson and Carl Andre and all of these American artists watching the cycle go around and around and around all over again. This gave me an instinctive connection to their work.
I hate installation art, and my hatred energises me in relation to the book I’m now writing on the medium. I just hate it. I think it’s pandering, like belly dancers shaking their stuff and trying to seduce the viewer. I find it utterly meretricious. I especially hate the installations of Louise Bourgeois, a not very interesting artist who has been hyped up partly because she’s an old lady. So irritated by the endless, what seemed to be completely trumped up, exhibitions of this or that person’s installation, I decided that it was important to polemicize against these by making the medium, as I’ve said, crucial to the work of art. Installation art professes a contempt for painting, but nonetheless embodies the pictorial within its space. I think of an essay by Jacques Lacan, Seminar on the Purloined Letter, about the Poe story “The Purloined Letter,” in which a letter to a queen stolen by a minister ends up with the detective Dupin, each one of whom becomes effeminised or castrated, so passive that each one allows herself or himself to be the victim of a theft. Lacan’s argument is that the letter is the signifier of effeminacy and castration, and as it circulates among the various figures they each become the subject of that signifier and are marked by it. The parallel with installation art that does interest me to argue against is that each of the installation artists, like Rebecca Horn or Jessica Stockholder, becomes marked by the very thing they wish to repress, namely painting, so in a sense they become the subject of (subjected to) painting. There seems to me to be a certain strange paradox in installation art in that it continues to refer to painting.
Why I don’t like conceptual art is because it is pretty simple-minded in condemning the medium, the specificity of the medium.
After my first book, my dissertation on David Smith, was published, I decided that all the essays that I had been publishing in magazines should be anthologized, but it was very hard for me to get a publisher to agree to this. I guess they thought, who was I? it would never sell. Finally MIT Press agreed to publish it: The Originality of the Avant Garde. At MIT I had taught a course on sculpture, and it seemed to me that the critical vocabulary in relationship to sculpture was very underdeveloped and that it would be worth writing a book, which would address the history of 20th century sculpture. My books take up the various gaps in the discourse on contemporary art that I encounter from time to time.
I sometimes use diagrams in my writing. It amuses me to use them because people – especially students – freak out when they see diagrams and think they can’t understand, and artists think seeing art in terms of diagrams is a gas. When I was learning about structuralism I got very turned on by the diagrams. I thought it was amazing that you could say something true about the history of something with something as static and two-dimensional as a diagram. I learned all of this from Fred Jameson’s book The Political Unconscious, in which he uses diagrams. I thought this remarkable, and, trying to imitate him, I found diagrams incredibly satisfying. They are not, the diagrams, about a given work, but more about how to understand something as seemingly complex as deconstruction. It is possible to understand that through a diagram. In my book The Optical Unconscious, I tried to show Modernism through diagrams. In this case, Mondrian’s was the specific work. I tried to show Modernism’s withdrawal from the world, from the political/ historical context, into a state of art for art’s sake. That seemed to me to be something that the frame of the diagram captures and in a way I felt that it was interesting that the diagram could stand for various very important aspects of the modernist situation, that it could withdraw into the sanctified ground of the work of art, and also such issues as the importance of formal conditions like figure ground relations.
After my aneurism, which washed away synapses of my brain in blood, I went to sessions of cognitive therapy, where I was taught about memory. Essentially, what I was told was that “if you can remember who you are you can teach yourself to remember anything!” the “who you are” is a kind of scaffolding onto which bits of new information can be attached or to which they can be associated. So, for instance, they used flash cards to teach me, and sometimes the flash cards had little drawings, one, that I remembered showed a tennis player and a zipper – tennis player and a zipper, why? Because I play tennis, I know that as a tennis player you never wear clothes with a zipper. Once I’d made this connection with my own experience, boom, I was able to identify the things on the flash card. This connection led to the title of my book, Under Blue Cup, (2011) which didn’t come from a drawing on a flash card, but from a disconnected bit of text. My husband, Denis Hollier, every morning brought to the hospital my breakfast—coffee and a little sweet roll from a coffee shop he passed called A Kind of Blue, and knowing this made it easy for me to think of the title, Under Blue Cup. The subject of Under Blue Cup is the medium, the specificity of a work of art in terms of its medium.
I don’t think you can understand Malevich’s White on White painting without seeing the degree to which the specificity of the canvas and the specificity of the frame are paramount to him. Malevich is an artist for whom the specificity of painting is primary. It seems to be obvious.