Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 1999
Rosiland Krauss Bachelors Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 222 pp.; 97 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (0262112396)

It may be that Rosalind Krauss’s work has been subject to more disparate interpretations than any postwar art historian. In one reading, her work is methodologically scattered, moving from one theory to another without apparent connection; in another, it is curiously nonfeminist despite its repeated focus on women artists; in a third, it is restricted to major media (photography, sculpture, painting) and therefore out of touch with the current media expansion. The first makes her unreliable, the second and third irrelevant.

It may be time to try to come to a more balanced and closer understanding of Krauss’s work. In particular it seems to me that her writing has a strong unity that is not brought out by these (and other) such reductive readings. In the space of this review I can only make some brief comments that I hope will open the question, but it seems to me that Krauss’s work can in some measure be described as a revaluation not only of the artists she has chosen to write about, but of certain crucial aspects of the shape of the century as a whole.

Bachelors is a collection of eight separate essays, each on a woman artist: the surrealist photographer who called herself Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob), Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, Sherrie Levine, and Louise Lawler. The first chapter is the only one written for this collection, and others (the ones I checked) are unrevised. But the book has an unusual way of acknowledging that it is a collection: there is no credit given to the original sources and no mention of what is revised and what isn’t. Instead each chapter simply ends with a marker, for example “—New York, 1986.” I take this as a sign that the book is to be considered as an independent work; and because there is no continuity between chapters, the book’s unity must come from a more general unity of purpose.

That deeper self-consistency can be located most readily in specific interpretive strategies and concepts that recur throughout Bachelors and Krauss’s other work. I’ll name just four of them here, without trying to be orderly or thorough, and then I’ll suggest where I think they point. (And I’ll close with some thoughts on Krauss’s relation to feminism.)

It is tempting to nominate the informe (the “formless”) as Krauss’s guiding concept. The book that comes closest to an inventory of her theoretical interests takes the term as its title (Formless: A User’s Guide), and if it doesn’t serve as a ruling metaphor it’s because “formless” is conceived as an operation, more than as a concept. In Bachelors “formless” appears, for example, as the operation of gender “blurring.” Cahun’s self-portraits take a “deconstructive stance on the position of the subject,” Krauss says, resulting in a "subjective blurring I have been attributing to much of surrealist production and discussing under the concepts ‘formless,’ ‘alteration,’ or ‘declassing’ " (p. 37).

2. Another leading concept (which is also an operation) is the “part-object,” an idea Krauss gets from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. (It is, briefly, the notion that desire is best figured as the interaction of desiring organs and the parts they desire; it is part of Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-psychological orientation, because it re-imagines the body as a series of desiring machines rather than a unified individual with a central psyche.) Two of the chapters in Bachelors turn on the part-object. In “Louise Bourgeois: Portrait of the Artist as Fillette,” Krauss uses the part-object to argue against earlier interpretations of Bourgeois that had placed her in the tradition of fragmented bodies from Greco-Roman sculpture through Rodin and Brancusi. In that tradition, a sculpture of a body part is a “partial figure,” and work like Bourgeois’s would be validated by its attachment to the “nineteenth-century romantic enthusiasm for the fragment” (p. 54). The part-object has the advantage of being originally a “fragment”: not something abstracted or extracted from a previous wholeness, but a “machine” (in Deleuze and Guattari’s term), something in the real world unstrung from the controlling psyche. Duchamp’s notion of the “desiring machine” was known to Deleuze and Guattari, and it appears in the chapter on Bourgeois as well as the chapter on Sherrie Levine’s sculptures called Bachelors. There, Krauss augments the theory with Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the “body without organs,” which she glosses in part as “the subject without a center,” “the locus of desire as an endless play of subtitutions” (pp. 181, 190). It is important, in assessing the role that Deleuze and Guattari play in Krauss’s analyses, to note that their work is not only anti-psychoanalytic, but also anti-romantic: the romantic fragment, the romantic sense of wholeness, is at stake in their polemic and in Krauss’s reading of Bourgeois and Levine.

3. The essay on Cindy Sherman is the longest in the book, but the most intricate is the chapter called “Agnes Martin: The / Cloud /.” I can’t do justice to its argument here: it’s a remarkable compression of Hubert Damisch’s Théorie du / nuage / (1972), Alois Riegl’s Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (1901), a phenomenological reading of Martin’s paintings by Kasha Linville (1971), and a critique of Robert Rosenblum’s reading of Abstract Expressionism as a continuation of the romantic sublime (1961 et seqq.). In outline, Krauss argues forcefully against the reading of Martin as a painter in the “subjective” tradition of late romanticism, essentially painting veiled landscape paintings under the sign of the “abstract sublime.” Thomas McEvilley, Carter Ratcliff, Lawrence Alloway, and even Jean-François Lyotard are named as examples of that mistaken reading. The purpose of the essay is to reclaim Martin as an “objective” painter, in the tradition—as she once said—of Chinese or Egyptian art, where “beauty” or the “Idea” (two of Martin’s favorite words) have an independent existence in the artwork, and are not a matter of simply transcribing American or Canadian landscapes. In this context, the salient point is the reappearance of a typographic convention Krauss has used elsewhere: slashes signifying that the word they enclose is to be understood in its function as a sign in a system of signs, rather than as a sign designating its “content.” (p. 210) The distinction Krauss intends can also be described as the difference between signifier and signified, and the systems of meaning that are bracketed can be called syntax and semantics. The semiological vocabulary varies, but the intention is clear: This is a use of semiotics intended to “bracket” the “optical” elements of Martin’s work, and to keep them from leaking out into the old-fashioned, or late romantic, discourse on the sublime. That reading is supported by Kasha Linville’s phenomenological description of the paintings. From close up they show the “fabric of the grid,” and from further off they exhibit “the wall-like stela of the impassive, perfectly square panel” (p. 89). From an intermediate distance they evoke light, atmosphere, and landscape: but those semantic moments are “close down entirely” by the “materialist” near view and the “tactile” far view. “Clouds” become, and remain, / clouds /. This particular use of the semiotic signifier, as an anti-subjective, anti-referential system of meaning, is a third concept or operation.

4. The concept of “base materialism,” is developed furthest in Formless, but deployed also in Bachelors. In the chapter on Eva Hesse, Krauss says that Hesse’s Contingent (1969) delivered “a declaration about the expressive power of matter itself, of matter held down to a level of the subarticulate” (p. 92). In other books, Krauss has stressed material and materialism as antidotes to the pervasive opticality of what she presents as high modernism, and it serves here as an entry-point for a meditation on Hesse’s focus on the boundaries between “the institutions of painting and sculpture” (p. 100). “Base materialism” is a versatile concept, and one that can do effective work against purely optical themes.

These four ideas (formless, the part-object, the semiotic signifier, and base materiality) are among a larger but finite set that articulates Bachelors and Krauss’s other writings. All four are actually operations, things done to and against preexisting assumptions of wholeness, full sense, rationality, control, opticality, and subjectivity. Together those assumptions form a coherent conceptual field that Krauss identifies partly with Greenberg.

It is worth stressing this community of concepts and purpose, because I think too often the larger import of Krauss’s work is hidden behind polemics that are of only local interest. Her work is part of a project that has the potential to reshape our sense of the century, by giving words to artistic strategies and concepts that do not find voice in art histories predicated on various definitions of modernism. Given that Clement Greenberg was largely disdainful of surrealism, and deeply unsure about Duchamp, Krauss’s position could be considered as anti-Greenbergian. Yet that would be misleading: not only because she has done other kinds of work, but also because that would make it sound as if the critical force of her writing were directed at a specific and increasingly outdated sense of painting. As the next century begins, what matters most is the shape of twentieth century art as a whole: what will be central, what marginal, and what kinds of writing will be taken to be optimal for describing it. Krauss’s work has been consistently directed toward the largest movement whose status is still contested—surrealism. Taken together, her writings provide the best reason to wonder about accounts of the century that privilege modernism at the expense of surrealism. (For working artists, I find this isn’t as much of a question as it is for art historians. A case could be made that surrealism remains the preeminent artistic strategy in virtually all media; otherwise, I’d add, there would have been no sense in calling Formless “a user’s guide.”)

I don’t mean to imply there is nothing to contest in Krauss’s individual readings, or even in her use of terms. But I have suspended all that here, in order to make a gesture in the direction of more important questions. It would be a pity if Krauss’s work continued to attract debates and reductive readings when it could be seen as a model for an alternate kind of interpretation, one the century needs if it isn’t to be an unproductive choice between heavily historical accounts of modernism and the increasingly ahistorical experiments in multimedia and cyberspace.

In assessing Krauss’s contribution it will be important to gather the various alternate models of modernism—not only Krauss’s, but Griselda Pollock’s, Thomas Crow’s, Richard Shiff’s, and T. J. Clark’s. (And more widely, outside of art history: Fredrick Jameson’s, Walter Benjamin’s, and Hans Blumenberg’s.) What Krauss identifies as modernism—with its attributes of wholeness, full sense, rationality, and opticality—comes partly from Greenberg and Barr, but also from a set of ideas that were critiqued in French poststructuralist thinking beginning in the late 1960s. It is therefore important to consider how that nexus of ideas has come to be identified with modernism, and how its opposities—the informe, base materialism, the part-object, pulse, horizontality, blur, and so forth—have come to stand for a kind of postmodernism. Any serious evaluation and ordering of the century’s art will need to begin with an attempt (no matter how partial or contingent) at locating and identifying the major alternate theories of modernism.

Just in terms of the sheer amount of art writing, there are more theories of postmodernism, so the field appears to be in even greater conceptual disarray. After all, every brief notice in Artforum is a nascent theory, and there are a number of committed critics who do not write directly about the century as a whole, but whose work implies large-scale judgments about the century (I am thinking, for example, of Thomas McEvilley, Joseph Masheck, and Dave Hickey). But the proliferation of writing on postmodernism is dependent on a smaller number of partly articulate models of modernism. In this respect, too, Krauss’s work is extremely valuable: it also provides an extended model of a particular modernism, against which other theories can be clarified and measured.

I’ll close with a brief mention of the first chapter (the one newly written for this book), and its picture of feminist art history. Krauss takes issue with previous scholarship on Surrealist women artists, which proposed that artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, Leonor Fini, and Leonora Carrington “entered the movement only after it started its decline,” and mimicked the male artists “in a way that points up the citational, often ironic status of the repetition” (p. 18). On the contrary, Krauss argues, women surrealists were full participants, making “some of the most emblematic work of the movement” and—speaking of Dora Maar—not being “in any way ironic” (pp. 18, 19). Krauss’s position is feminist initially because in her account surrealist women photographers build “a subject position into their work such that its viewer, stripped of authority and dispossessed of privilege, will be ’trapped in a cat’s cradle of representation, caught in a hall of mirrors, lost in a labyrinth’”—a move she describes as “deeply antipatriarchal” (pp. 16-17). Questions of identity are so fundamental to Surrealism, she says, that such women photographers as Claude Cahun need “no special pleading” (p. 50): surrealist portraiture was already nothing less than an exploration of “feminine” passivity and identity. This is an interesting proposition for feminist art history in general, because it clearly can’t be applied beyond Surrealism. Feminists can privilege and center women artists, and expose and critique older scholarship, but claiming “full participation” and unqualified equality is a privilege that scholars of pre-Surrealist art can’t claim. " Art made by women needs no special pleading," Krauss says at the end of the first chapter, “and in the essays that follow I will offer none.” It’s a strong position: but I wonder what the equivalent of the sentence could be for those who work in periods before Surrealism.

James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago