PRINT November 1971

Problems of Criticism X: Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, a tone of expansive confidence infused modernist analysis, so that the ear could detect immediately the distance between this new esthetic theory and the old. For, at the heart of earlier esthetic argument, a note of worried imperative had always sounded—as though anxiety about trust were the price to pay for being the child of a broken philosophical home.

The different tone of modernism seemed to be a consequence of inhabiting a house of critical discourse built upon a rock of hard, irrefutable fact. And that fact had to do with the nature of pictorial space. Whether one took pictorial space as a function of perceptual or cultural givens, its role within the making and the viewing of art was clear, and from it one could derive a set of operable definitions. Arguments or judgments which began and ended with the nature of pictorial illusion were open to verification. They could be tested against experience in a way that other arguments (involving either the psychological response to, or the objective conditions of, beauty) could not. Therefore if, a few years ago, I had set about talking of pictorial space and its relation to literal space, I would have assumed that I was dealing with a question that was ontological in kind. I would have thought that I was concerned with an objective category whose terms were discoverable through some kind of analysis. I would have presupposed that it had been the task of generations of painters to carry on such an analysis, and that as a critic it was my job to understand and respond to their findings.

Today, I no longer think of pictorial space as an entity of that kind. Rather, I see it as a function of conditions external to art itself which call it into being and which determine its meaning by defining how it will be used. Should those conditions change, so will it change—not just quantitatively but qualitatively. At the present, we have reason to think that painters themselves are reacting to a change in objective conditions and it is to the symptoms of that reaction that I want to turn.

In doing so it seems to me important to look at two special features of painting in the last ten years. They are features which have been pointed to—in fact heralded—by those critics and artists who have concerned themselves with Conceptual art. As such they are not news. Yet their import seems to me to have been less well-documented and that is what I intend to discuss. The two features are: first, serialization, and second, a narrative relation to the past.

By the term “serialization” I am obviously not talking about the practice of theme and variation, which has to it the ring of a somewhat leisurely and almost gentlemanly enterprise. Rather, I am talking about the constitution of an image (or visualizable idea) which is in principle permutable, and which often includes in the terms of its presentation the rules for its serial transfer. Examples would be work from Stella’s Protractor Series begun in 1968, where permutation involves shape as well as color; or from two years earlier, the irregular polygons of his Wolfboro Series which permute color only. This is true also of Noland’s diamond-shaped canvases from the same year.

What the specific range of intentions were of these painters, I cannot say. I can however talk about the effect of looking at the pictures themselves. And that effect first came upon me most sharply when I saw the Wolfboro Series by Stella when it was exhibited at Castelli’s in 1966. I had been told that there were eleven images in the series, each of which had been, or were in the process of being, executed in four color variations. I think only seven pictures were actually hung in the gallery. Their impact was extraordinary, both in the sense of positive force by which the images stated themselves, and in the sense that the force was somehow being vitiated by the knowledge I had about the pictures: the knowledge of their serialization. In front of any one of them, I felt somehow that I was seeing less than the whole painting; more precisely, that I was sharing the same space with one-quarter of the full pictorial experience, the other three-quarters being elsewhere.

Of course, one could respond to this that mine was an absurd reaction. In hearing a melody played in a given key, for example, we do not feel that because we know that it could be transposed throughout the cycle of key signatures, we are therefore hearing only one-twelfth of the full range of the melody. But the possibility of transposition in music does not seem to me to be analogous to color permutation, possibly because of the temporality of music, or possibly because we know that in strict transposition nothing material about the melody will be changed. Whereas in the experience of a serial painting, there is the knowledge that a great deal will be changed; and that premonition acts to undermine an encounter in the present which is felt to be complete.1 In the case of serialized painting, what seems to happen—and happen with increased force the more obviously permutable the image is—is a lessening of one’s sense that one is copresent with the painting in question or that one is copresent, which is to say, sharing the same space, with all of it.

The other aspect of recent painting has to do with the way in which looking at a work of art in the present seems to subtend an aspect of one’s past—the way pictures seem simultaneously to summarize and culminate parts of the past. Indeed, one of the tasks of modernist criticism has been to show that the way a painting or sculpture makes the past part of its present, the way it both gives access to and outmodes the past is as material to it as anything else one might say about the experience of it.

Thus, seeing a picture like Sketch for Les Indes Galantes (1962) by Stella is to see a particular conflict which has a history in previous painting, and simultaneously to feel its resolution. The conflict is between, first, designating any part of the pictorial field as a focus for vision, by (for example) having it yield up an object, and second, being able to assert the logical continuity of the field: the fact that it is literally unbroken from edge to edge and from corner to corner. In Sketch for Les Indes Galantes, Stella uses diagonal divisions which relate to the system of perspective projection. But in his way of handling their coming together at the center, he unmakes the notion of a vanishing point. And by doing so he converts the means of organizing a virtual, illusionistic space into the means of organizing the givens of a flat and bounded field. Where perspective had before been used as a way of making things visible it now makes visible the terms of illusion. A painting like this of Stella’s transforms what had before been the normative conditions for visibility—namely, the differentiation of figure against ground—by totally internalizing those relationships. So that in Sketch for Les Indes Galantes the image appears to contain an afterimage from the past as the “ground” against which its figuration or meaning is understood.

But at some point, it seems to me, this felt transparency between past and present becomes silted up, so that the image no longer contains the terms of its past—understood as the terms of the problem to which it is seen to be a response. Rather, both the past and the problem are felt to reside outside it, and access to them can only be achieved by a long chain of explanation which characteristically takes the form of narrative.

For me this point begins in Stella’s work with the irregular polygons and in Noland’s in the diamond-shaped pictures.

The results of what I have been calling the narrative connection to the past, or the narrative context of these paintings, are I think similar to the results of serialization. Namely, some crucially important aspects of the object are no longer included in the immediate givens of that object. And the consequence of this is a withering away of one’s feeling that one is copresent with the painting in any full sense.

Now, the sudden loss of a copresence with the work of art is a phenomenon which may be new to painting, but it is not new to our relationship to art taken as a whole. It was the task of Walter Benjamin in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” to define the unique functions of both photography and film in terms of a withdrawal of the sense of copresence.2 Briefly, Benjamin’s argument is that it is material to the condition of a traditional work of art—a painting say—that it be authentic: that it not be fake; and further, that one share the same space with that authentic object. This aspect of the work of art Benjamin calls its aura, and in discussing the mechanical or photographic reproduction of the work of art, Benjamin alleges that the one aspect of a painting that can never be reproduced is precisely that aura.

What Benjamin goes on to say is that given their means of production, both photography and film are, by their very nature, without aura. Thus it is absurd to ask which is the authentic one among the multitude of prints that can be taken from a given negative. And similarly, it is wildly beside the point to talk of one’s felt co-presence with the projected images of a film. And, Benjamin argues, if aura was essential to the original cult functions of the art object—either within a sacred or secularized context—the decay of the aura in film and photography is concomitant with the new functions those enterprises can or might perform.

Now what I was discussing earlier in relation to recent painting is connected to Benjamin’s notion of the decaying of the aura. But while this is a natural result of the way photographs are made, it cannot be felt to be natural to painting. And my own feeling about what has happened to painting is that it has grafted onto itself something of the quality of the reproducible without grafting on as well the function of the reproducible. For that function in its deepest sense is to give testimony about or evidence of the real: by recording events that exist in literal space. In referring to the descriptions that were made of Eugène Atget’s photographs of the empty streets of Paris, Benjamin remarked, “it has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime too is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences and acquire a hidden political significance.”

If the function of photography must be located within the nature of documentary, its medium, as I have said, is literal space. But it is a literal space which is recorded and later produced as evidence, or if not later, then as in the case of television newscasts, simultaneously broadcast to different spaces. What is intrinsically foreign to it is the use of it to reestablish copresence.

If we see the painting of the last decade as having become involved in the subversion (conscious or not) of its own aura, then we might understand literalist sculpture in terms of a strategy to reconvene the experience of art within a space felt by the viewer to be unequivocally shared by him. This reassertion of copresence is not of course a resurrection of the full sense of aura as Benjamin uses the term—since literalist sculptors, Morris and Judd for instance, suspend the question of authenticity by insisting that their works be produced by hands other than their own, that is, by manufacturers working to specifications drawn up by these men. But even if authenticity is suspended, the literalist object seems to want to secure copresence on the most basic possible level. For the extreme simplicity of the object’s shape moves toward making the viewer’s perception of it coextensive with the sculptor’s act in its conception.3 And this tactic seems to assert that nothing of the esthetic experience exists outside the actual situation in which one confronts the work. However, the moves that Morris and Judd make are still located on grounds of illusionism, if only because it is that issue that they want to overcome. And it is because of that that I feel illusionist, and ultimately idealist, questions are continually being raised by their work.

An extreme case of this would be Morris’ mirrored boxes, where the reflective visual surfaces of the cubes raise questions about what possible grounds vision itself could provide for assertions about knowledge of the object. The mirrored surfaces literally carry information about everything but the four objects. Yet their cubic shapes read, through that visual camouflage, with a kind of crystalline clarity. And the question that arises for the viewer is why this should be so. The feeling I have in front of a work like this is that there is the implicit suggestion that the recognition of the single cube depends on grasping the way the six sides of the form are internally transparent to one another—much the way exterior surfaces of solid geometrical forms are rendered mutually transparent in a diagram. And this notion of grasping three-dimensionality through an intuition of the internal reciprocity or interdependence of its surfaces is symbolized for us in the mutual reflectivity that occurs in real space among the four cubes. Morris may talk about gestalts, but his sculpture from this period comes across with a kind of hard-edged idealism.

In Judd’s case as well, the works seem to be probing the way in which sense data could possibly open up onto a perceptual experience which is fully cognitive, and therefore to be examining the grounds for certainty. My own reaction to such an endeavor is to feel the kind of impatience that Wittgenstein expresses in his Essay on Certainty when he says:

[115]. If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

[125]. If a blind man were to ask me “Have you got two hands?” I should not make sure by looking. If I were to have any doubt of it, then I don’t know why I should trust my eyes. For why shouldn’t I test my eyes by looking to find out whether I see my two hands? What is to be tested by what? . . .

Wittgenstein then addresses himself to the kind of proposition that G. E. Moore uses to isolate out areas which are for him beyond doubt. These are a family of propositions which have a lot to do with literalist sculpture. For instance, one of them is Moore’s statement, “I know that here is a hand.” To this Wittgenstein says:

[155]. In certain circumstances a man cannot make a mistake. (“Can” is here used logically, and the proposition does not mean that a man cannot say anything false in those circumstances.) If Moore were to pronounce the opposite of those propositions which he declares certain, we should not just not share his opinion: we should regard him as demented.

[164]. Doesn’t testing come to an end?

[166]. The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.

And finally Wittgenstein says:

[204]. Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e., it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.

I take it to be the enterprise of an artist like Smithson that he is not asking what kind of evidence our senses could possibly provide us with, but what is the nature of the evidence the world provides us with.

In this sense the Great Salt Lake can be seen as part of a system of the world’s giving evidence of its own past—in this case of that unaccountable geological occurrence which formed the lake. The Spiral Jetty is part of a strategy to catalyze that knowledge, to precipitate it out of the vast numbers of ways of experiencing the lake, just as the physical presence of the jetty precipitates from the water a documentary crust of its contents. Smithson writes, “Each drop that splashed onto the Spiral Jetty coagulated into a crystal. Undulating waters spread millions upon millions of crystals over the basalt.”4 The Jetty itself is a kind of document for which the film and photographs of it are yet another document. They are evidence of evidence, and thus, given Smithson’s preoccupations, they are internally consistent means of testifying to those concerns. The physical distance between document and event repeats in space the parallel distance that existed already in time. Literal space for Smithson is a completely different medium than it had been for Morris and Judd—it is a medium that is deeply affected by the issues of documentary and therefore naturally intersects with the modes of film.

Film makers themselves have of course become increasingly concerned with exploring the terms of documentary: not only to exploit it as a formal device but to understand it as a means of registering consciousness in such a way that it can affect consciousness. Thus the organizing principle of Godard’s Masculine-Feminine is the opinion poll, understood through the formal structure of the interview. The major protagonists interact by interviewing each other—and what we see on the screen are those interviews. Action, in the dramatic sense of lovemaking or death or crime happens to the characters of the story, but happens always offscreen—even though the onscreen space of the film is littered with acts of violence which are extraneous to its plot. We see several murders, a suicide, and preparations for a self-immolation, but these are events unexplained by the action; they are merely taken note of. Their appearance raises questions about the boundary conditions of documentary space, and how one might determine what is and what is not relevant to it. And conversely, the absence of footage showing the momentous events in the lives of the central characters expresses the actual limits of access that affect documentary footage. For example, climaxes of action are often inaccessible to the camera, or the early moments of something frequently escape the camera and later have to be reconstructed or supplied through narrative. That this is the normal limitation of documentary makes it ordinarily unnoticeable. But within a narrative film we do notice it; it becomes a palpable and very special documentary fact. Further, what seems material to the film itself turns on the question of what is known through the interview.

At first we understand Godard’s use of the interview on formal terms: namely, that it is a model for people coming to know each other. We ourselves have such a model as a point of reference in our own sense of what happens in front of a televised interview of a prominent person: that sense that we are finding out what the person is really like, that we are entering into his or her private space, that we are gaining special access to the individual. But halfway through the film there is a “real” interview. We are given the documentary of the hero Paul’s interview with the Miss Seventeen of France of 1965. It is during the course of this opinion-taking that we begin to understand the depths to which the sense of access or intimacy that appears to be held out by the interview situation are delusive. Miss Seventeen is wholly inaccessible to us, partly because of the limits inherent to documentary, and partly because she has a notion of privacy that renders her opaque. But Godard uses the device of the interview to interrogate this very notion of privacy: of a psychological reality unique to each of us and accessible only to ourselves. Since the title that opens the interview with Miss Seventeen labels her as “a consumer product,” Godard suggests that the contents of what she thinks of as her exclusive psychological space were installed there by the media output of a consumer society. She has been shaped by a clearly documentable public space, and because of that her sense of her own privacy is an illusion. This delusive notion of privacy is repeated in other interviews between the protagonists; and throughout the film Godard raises the question of whether this idea of psychological privacy has not finally become an extension of consumerism—of people seeing themselves as valuable and therefore saleable objects. For what we see through the documentary interview with Miss Seventeen is that what makes her an opaque object for us is the obverse of what makes her both opaque and an object for herself. The sequence as a whole is an extended alienation device—but it is as well a documentary of self-alienation. Throughout Masculine-Feminine Godard tests in various ways the boundary conditions of documentary footage, always understanding that enterprise as involving a test of the conditions of a given social structure and those are the facts of the film.

Masculine-Feminine is subtitled “15 Precise Facts.” Godard wants us to acknowledge that those facts are located in real space. If our access to them is limited, Godard moves us towards realizing the parameters of that limiting condition, making those intersect with our physical limits of access to the projected film image.

What I am suggesting then is that film by its very nature synthesizes virtual and actual space in such a way as to reverse the viewer’s physical relationship to those categories. In doing so, the conditions of those categories are felt themselves to be radically altered. And this does not seem to be happening just within the limits of film and photography, but across the board—through the very actions taken by the practitioners of the other arts as well.

Our situation in the present has a parallel in the past. It is like the circumstance in which, understanding art to have an esthetic function, we alter the meaning of the object that was originally fashioned for magical purposes, seeing in it principally the pleasure of design. Only now it is the esthetic function which is itself opening up to doubt. And that doubt rebounds onto the notion of pictorial space. So that, far from taking the notion as a kind of abstract universal, we see its very existence as temporal: tied to, and affected by, and finally challenged by historical conditions.

Rosalind Krauss



1. For a model of the kind of completeness we associate with pictorial experience, we might take something like Vélasquez’s Las Meninas in which there is an express statement of the copresence of the real space in which the viewer stands and the virtual space of the painting. At the extreme right side of Las Meninas there is a break in the wall which we read as a window frame—since the light which floods the room specifically has its source at that point. Yet the window itself is intersected by the plane of the picture; so that if we were mentally to complete the window, it would exist entirely in our own space. But since the light that makes the painting visible to us does comes from our space, the device of the window underlines the sense of the picture plane as an interface between two territories which are mutually complete and completing: the one pictorial, the other literal.

2. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York, 1969.

3. Marcia Tucker makes this point in her essay in the catalog, Robert Morris, The Whitney Museum, New York, 1970.

4. Robert Smithson, unpublished essay.