Medium's Message

Perpetual Inventory BY Rosalind E. Krauss. The MIT Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $29.

The cover of Perpetual Inventory

“Spare me smart Jewish girls with their typewriters,” quipped Clement Greenberg, the legendary critic of modernism, to Rosalind Krauss, his most brilliant disciple. It was 1974: Krauss had made a name for herself writing on Minimalism in the pages of Artforum but would soon leave the magazine to cofound October. As promised by the journal’s name, a revolution in art history was afoot.

All of which is as familiar to students of contemporary art as the legacy of Richard Serra—one of many artists whose reputations are bound to Krauss’s pioneering analyses. Her key essays remain mainstays of academia, and for good reason. With a tenacity unmatched by other critics of her time, Krauss insisted on the possibility, the necessity, of shoring up valid art-historical methodologies at a moment when “art” and “history” appeared to be collapsing.

Greenberg’s remark graces the back cover of Perpetual Inventory, a collection of Krauss’s writing from the mid-1970s to today, most of it previously published. It’s no accident that Greenberg is literally inscribed onto this volume: Each of the book’s six chapters is organized to tell the story of its author’s debt to, and distance from, her mentor’s central claim. As formulated most succinctly in his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” Greenberg proposed that the art of the twentieth century was engaged in a process of self-awareness and critique, honing its “area of competence” to a set of increasingly small but necessary refinements of the essential material conditions of its medium. Famously, this entailed foregrounding the “flatness” of painting’s picture plane, a developmental narrative that the critic suggested stretched from Manet to Pollock. This “pure” modernism excluded everything and everyone else: the social, political, historical, and literary; Warhol and Duchamp, Balthus and Tchelitchew.

Greenberg’s claim extended about as far as Color Field painting, beyond which he could find nothing of value. It was into that curious beyond (Pop, Minimalism, performance, video art), as well as those aspects of modernism elided from the Greenbergian narrative (Dada, Surrealism), that Krauss ventured with a new set of theoretical tools: psychoanalysis, structuralism, deconstruction. Perpetual Inventory insists that “the abandonment of the specific medium spells the death of serious art.” The key word there is serious. Like Greenberg before her, Krauss has been intensely invested in delineating values: the establishment, paradoxically, of precisely the sort of qualitative hierarchies thrown into doubt by the postmodern discourses she so brilliantly imported into the practice of criticism. The rigor of Krauss’s project, her relentless search to isolate and clarify the structural premises of contemporary art, calls to mind the purist position diagnosed by Greenberg in a 1940 essay as “the translation of an extreme solicitude, an anxiousness as to the fate of art, a concern for its identity.”

Perpetual Inventory proceeds from a declaration of principles: “I consider the ‘post-medium condition’ a monstrous myth.” Krauss sets about dismantling this myth by reframing the concept of “medium” as “technical support,” a term inclusive of such “strange new apparatuses” as the automobile (the operative support of Ed Ruscha), the slide show (James Coleman), animation (William Kentridge), and the synchronous sound track (Christian Marclay). Under Kraussian analysis, even the work of Bruce Nauman, paradigmatic figure of the postmedium condition, becomes, well, Kraussian.

And why not? One can agree with the insights produced by Krauss while rejecting her larger, polemical project. Her claims for seriousness, her aversion to kitsch, her methodical reduction of art to a set of formal concerns, bespeak not just the specific inheritance of Greenberg but the whole tenor of a modernist discourse predicated on manifestos and territorial claims. Krauss is at her best when handling tactile objects, such as collage and sculpture. Both the strengths and the shortcomings of her structuralist critique are illustrated in an essay from the first issue of October, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” which makes a case for common ground in early works by Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Peter Campus, Nauman, and Serra. Proceeding from the observation that video can’t be pinned to a specific, stable set of material conditions, Krauss proposes “psychology” as its medium, a curious proposition derived by eliminating everything open to variation (recording and playback technologies) and focusing on what remains (“instant feedback” capacity, new dynamics of moving-image time).

Billions of videos, hundreds of platforms, and much theorizing later, the uncertainty of video as form is no closer to resolution, and artists continue to mine the self-reflexive, performative strategies employed by the first generation of video artists. Nothing Krauss wrote in 1976 feels out of place when applied to, say, the YouTube hissy fits of Ryan Trecartin. What has changed is the desire to locate an inviolable set of rules, formal or otherwise, underpinning the practice of such an artist. Neither Trecartin’s work nor his audience is much invested in such questions. For Krauss, this is a travesty. For everyone else, it is culture. Deriding this state of affairs in defense of the “serious” in art is more than a little paternalistic, though Krauss would be the first to admit her biases. “What I must acknowledge is not some idea of the world’s perspective but simply my own point of view,” she writes. “One’s own perspective, like one’s own age, is the only orientation one will ever have.” Criticism and art history after Krauss are profoundly indebted to the force of her perspective, if only as a means to define their own.

Nathan Lee is a writer and curator in New York.