Rosalind Krauss


Dates: 1941-

Nationality: American

Rosalind Krauss is an American art critic, professor, and theorist who is based at Columbia University. Like many, Krauss had been drawn to the criticism of Clement Greenberg, as a counterweight to the highly subjective, poetic approach of Harold Rosenberg. The poet-critic model proved long-lasting in the New York scene, with products from Frank O’Hara to Kynaston McShine to Peter Schjeldahl, but for Krauss and others, its basis in subjective expression was fatally unable to account for how a particular artwork’s objective structure gives rise to its associated subjective effects.

Greenberg’s gifted way of assessing how an art object works, or how it is put together, became for Krauss a fruitful resource; even if she and fellow ‘Greenberger’ Fried would break first with the older critic, and then with each other, at particular moments of judgment, the commitment to formal analysis as the necessary if not sufficient ground of serious criticism would still remain for both of them. Decades after her first engagement with Greenberg, Krauss still used his ideas about an artwork’s ‘medium’ as a jumping-off point for her strongest effort to come to terms with post-1980 art in the person of William Kentridge. Krauss would formulate this formalist commitment in strong terms, against attempts to account for powerful artworks in terms of residual ideas about an artist’s individual genius, for instance in the essays “The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodernist Repetition” and “Photography’s Discursive Spaces.” For Krauss and for the school of critics who developed under her influence, the Greenbergian legacy offers at its best a way of accounting for works of art using public and hence verifiable criteria (unsurprisingly, Wittgenstein could also be found in Krauss’s arsenal); at its worst, in a repetition of the late Greenberg, an apodictic monologue in pseudoscientific jargon cloaks essentially unverifiable judgments of taste in a mantle of spurious authority.

Whether about art from earlier moments of modernism (Cubist collage, Surrealist photography, early Giacometti sculpture, Rodin, Brancusi, Pollock) or about art contemporaneous to her own writing (Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman), Krauss has a gift for translating the ephemeralities of visual and bodily experience into precise, vivid English, which has solidified her prestige as a critic. Her usual practice is to make this experience intelligible by using categories translated from the work of a thinker outside the study of art, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille, or Roland Barthes. Her work has helped establish the position of these writers within the study of art, even at the cost of provoking anxiety about threats to the discipline’s autonomy.

In many cases, Krauss is credited as a leader in bringing these concepts to bear on the study of modern art. For instance, her Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977) makes important use of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (as she had come to understand it in thinking about minimal art) for viewing modern sculpture in general. In her study of Surrealist photography, she rejected William Rubin’s efforts at formal categorization as insufficient, instead advocating the psychoanalytic categories of “dream” and “automatism,” as well as Jacques Derrida’s “grammatological” idea of “spacing.” See “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism” (October, winter 1981).

Concerning Cubist art, she took Picasso’s collage breakthrough to be explicable in terms of Saussure’s ideas about the differential relations and non-referentiality of language, rejecting efforts by other scholars to tie the pasted newspaper clippings to social history. Similarly, she held Picasso’s stylistic developments in Cubist portraiture to be products of theoretical problems internal to art, rather than outcomes of the artist’s love life. Later, she explained Picasso’s participation in the rappel à l’ordre or return to order of the 1920s in similar structuralist terms. See “In the Name of Picasso” (October, spring 1981), “The Motivation of the Sign” (in Lynn Zelevansky, ed., Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, 1992), and The Picasso Papers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

From the 1980s, she became increasingly concerned with using a psychoanalytic understanding of drives and the unconscious, owing less to the Freudianism of an André Breton or a Salvador Dalí, and much more to the structuralist Lacan and the “dissident surrealist” Bataille. See “No More Play”, her 1984 essay on Giacometti, as well as “Corpus Delicti”, written for the 1985 exhibition L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism, Cindy Sherman: 1975–1993 and The Optical Unconscious (both 1993) and Formless: A User’s Guide with Yve-Alain Bois, catalog to the exhibition L’Informe: Mode d’emploi (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1996).

Years after her time at Artforum in the 1960s, Krauss also returned to the drip painting of Jackson Pollock as both a culmination of modernist work within the format of the “easel picture”, and a breakthrough that opened the way for several important developments in later art, from Allan Kaprow’s happenings to Richard Serra’s lead-flinging process art to Andy Warhol’s oxidation (i.e. urination) paintings. For reference, see the Pollock chapter in The Optical Unconscious, several entries in the Formless catalog, and “Beyond the Easel Picture”, her contribution to the MoMA symposium accompanying the 1998 Pollock retrospective (Jackson Pollock: New Approaches). This direction provided intellectual validation for the explosive Pollock markets; but it exacerbated already tense relations between herself and more radical currents in visual/cultural studies, the latter growing steadily impatient with the traditional western art-historical canon.

In addition to writing focused studies about individual artists, Krauss also produced broader, synthetic studies that helped gather together and define the limits of particular fields of practice. Examples of this include “Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on Post ’60s Sculpture” (Artforum, Nov. 1973), “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” (October, spring 1976), “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America”, in two parts, October spring and fall 1977), “Grids, You Say,” In Grids: Format and Image in 20th Century Art (exh. cat.: Pace Gallery, 1978), and “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (October, spring 1979). Some of these essays are collected in her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Rosalind E. Krauss’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 October 2010, 01:21 UTC, <>

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