PRINT September 1972

A View of Modernism

ONE DAY WHILE THE SHOW, “Three American Painters” was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleries. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student who had entered the gallery approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. “What’s so good about that?” he demanded. Fried looked back at him. “Look,” he said slowly, “there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velazquezes, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velázquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.” Fried’s voice had risen. “He wants to be Velázquez so he paints stripes.”

I don’t know what the boy thought, but it was clear enough to me. That statement, which linked Velázquez’s needs to Stella’s in the immense broad jump of a single sentence, was a giant ellipsis whose leap cleared three centuries of art. But in my mind’s eye it was more like one of those strobe photographs in which each increment of the jumper’s act registers on the single image. I could see what the student could not, and what Fried’s statement did not fill in for him. Under the glittering panes of that skylight, I could visualize the logic of an argument that connected hundreds of separate pictorial acts into the fluid clarity of a single motion, an argument that was as present to me as the paintings hanging in the gallery—their clean, spare surfaces tied back into the faint grime of walls dedicated to the history of art. If Fried had not chosen to give the whole of that argument to the student, he had tried to make the student think about one piece of the obvious: that Stella’s need to say something through his art was the same as a 17th-century Spaniard’s; only the point in time was different. In 1965, the fact that Stella’s stripes were involved with what he wanted to say—a product, that is, of content—was clear enough to me.

I am 31. Eight years ago I began writing art criticism. I was living in Cambridge then, so I frequently came to New York to look at art. Sometimes, on those trips, I would meet people who had known me before only through my writing. Phil Leider was one of these; I met him shortly after Artforum’s offices moved from the West Coast to New York. His reaction to me was typical. “You’re Rosalind Krauss?” he said. “I had expected that you’d be at least 40.”

Although I heard what he said I did not really notice it—or rather notice the implications of it. It did not strike me at the time that there was anything really peculiar about sounding almost twice one’s age, or at least that there was anything wrong with that when what one was writing about was art.

At that same time Donald Judd published a piece in Studio International on the then current situation in art—including criticism. In that article he spoke disparagingly of Michael Fried and myself. Referring to the intellectual debt which we, among many other writers, continually acknowledged to Clement Greenberg, he called us “Greenbergers.” Beyond its wit, Judd’s remark implied the danger of self-objectification inherent in our position, mine and the others, in espousing a doctrine, the doctrine to which we were committed which was “modernism.” But it was a danger which I suppose I was willing to run in the service of describing as objectively as possible my responses to works of art and in attempting to account for the sources of power that certain art possessed, to create or elicit those responses. Far from bothering me, the charge of being a “modernist” critic was something I was proud of.

One of the things about holding ideas or beliefs in common with a group of people is that it cuts down on the amount of explanation one member of the group has to make to the others. So once when Clement Greenberg remarked to me that “formalism” was one of the most intellectually vulgar notions he knew of, I did not really ask him to explain what he had said, because it seemed pretty clear to me what he meant. Shortly afterwards he said the same thing in print. He said, “Whatever its connotations in Russian, the term [formalism] has acquired ineradicably vulgar ones in English. . . . No proper literary critic would dream of using it.”1

Before, when he had said this to me, I had taken the expanded meaning of it to be something like the following: Clive Bell and Roger Fry had often expressed hostility toward the content of works of art, suggesting at times the usefulness of turning paintings on their sides so that their apparent subject matter would not get in the way of one’s seeing their design quality. Further, they held that this design quality was purely the function of formal relationships: the intervals of color and shape and the arrangement of those intervals on the surface of the picture. What they seemed to be saying was that the only relevant judgments one could make of a work of art were those made by assessing that design quality. But it seems clear that good design will not yield much more than good design; that it will not yield works of art. The experience of a work of art is always in part about the thoughts and feelings that have elicited—or more than that, entailed—the making of the work. And if the work is not a vehicle of those emotions, in no matter how surprising a form, then what one is in the presence of is not art but design. I assumed that the vulgarity Greenberg was talking about was the imputation that anyone could or would confuse the experience of art with the confrontation with contentless good design. And that further, there could only be two reasons for doing so. Either the person who imputed it was himself or herself confused about the difference between design and art, and thus did it out of the poverty of his or her own esthetic experience; or, it was an imputation out of bad faith: the person was fully aware of the meaning of esthetic experience but was simply not willing to credit Greenberg with an equal awareness of it. Whether it came from ignorance or bad faith made it no less vulgar. “Formalism” had become a peculiar stick for attacking other people, and to wield it against the “modernist” critics simply meant that the person who did it was either too hostile or too lazy to read what they wrote. Minus the Fry and Bell part, all of that is pretty much what Greenberg said in print: “that the quality of a work of art inheres in its ‘content,’ and vice versa. Quality is ‘content.’”

The content question has been always just under the surface of the writing of most “modernist” critics. So when Michael Fried wrote the extended essay for his exhibition, “Three American Painters,” he of course called attention to his experience “that both Noland and Olitski are primarily painters of feeling and that what I take to be their preeminence among their contemporaries chiefly resides not in the formal intelligence of their work, which is of the very highest order, but in the depth and sweep of feeling which this intelligence makes possible.”2 In characterizing the “passion, eloquence and fragile power” of Noland’s painting, or in speaking of Noland as “a tense, critical, almost hurting presence in his work,” Fried pointed to both color and design (or structure) as the sources of these. But he confined his analysis to the structure and not the color, because the first being the result of rational decisions could be usefully described, while the second being arbitrary could not. And the partialness of this analysis was not seen as a kind of cheating or shying away from the responsibility to confront the total work, because it was precisely in that very mixture of rationality and arbitrariness that the work’s meaning was seen to reside. Fried saw Noland’s painting as a response to a general “crisis of meaning” generated by a particular history—one that made imperative the invention of a self-evident, reflexive structure and drove lyricism onto an increasingly narrow highland of color.

That whole story, beginning with Greenberg’s remark to me, is offered in evidence of the fact that most people who attack the “modernist” critical position, do so by omitting or distorting various parts of that position. Of course, they could reply that they cannot be expected to take into account what is left out of most “modernist” writing; that if questions of content and feeling really are central to “modernist” critics, they themselves are keeping it a secret since such questions are never really up front in what they write. But upfrontness is a rather tricky criterion when discussing a large body of theory. It’s a bit like saying that the philosophical position of Wittgenstein is an argument for behaviorism because that’s what is up front in his writing. Yet anyone reading the late Wittgenstein must realize that his work taken as a whole offers an impassioned arid profound attack on behaviorism, along with idealism. It is simply a method of argumentation that is up front.

With “modernism,” too, it was precisely its methodology that was important to a lot of us who began to write about art in the early 1960s. That method demanded lucidity. It demanded that one not talk about anything in a work of art that one could not point to. It involved tying back one’s perceptions about art in the present to what one knew about the art of the past. It involved a language that was open to some mode of testing. That that language was also something I could hide behind, that it accounted for why I wrote like a 40-year-old, for why I, along with some of the other “modernist” critics, adopted that curiously dissociated tone, did not strike me at the time. For I was being carried by an idea of historical logic, buoyed like the others by the possibilities of clarity.

In the ’50s we had been alternately tyrannized and depressed by the psychologizing whine of “Existentialist” criticism. It had seemed evasive to us—the impenetrable hedge of subjectivity whose prerogatives we could not assent to. The remedy had to have, for us, the clear provability of an “if x then y.” The syllogism we took up was historical in character, which meant that it read only in one direction; it was progressive. No a rebours was possible, no going backward against the grain. The history we saw from Manet to the Impressionists to Cézanne and then to Picasso was like a series of rooms en filade. Within each room the individual artist explored, to the limits of his experience and his formal intelligence, the separate constituents of his medium. The effect of his pictorial act was to open simultaneously the door to the next space and close out access to the one behind him. The shape and dimensions of the new space were discovered by the next pictorial act; the only thing about that unstable position that was clearly determined beforehand was its point of entrance. In 1965, it followed logically that to work at the level of Velázquez, Frank Stella had to paint stripes; and that Noland’s choices about structure had narrowed to what Michael Fried termed “the deductive logic of the framing-edge.”

We saw the aching beauty of those works in their constant invention of formats that collapsed into one instantly perceived chord the sounds of all those doors to the past closing at once, managing in the space that was left to lodge powerful evidence of the feeling of their makers. One part of what we were seeing was a kind of history, telescoped and assessed; and the other part was the registration of feelings generated by that historical condition. I never doubted the absoluteness of that history. It was out there, manifest in a whole progression of works of art, an objective fact to be analyzed. It had nothing to do with belief, or privately held fantasies about the past. Insofar as modernism was tied to the objective datum of that history, it had, I thought, nothing to do with “sensibility.”

Obviously modernism is a sensibility—one that reaches out past that small band of art critics of which I was a part, to include a great deal more than, and ultimately to criticize, what I stood for. One part of that sensibility embraces analysis as an act of humility, trying to catch itself in the middle of the very act of judgment, to glimpse itself unawares in the mirror of consciousness. The attention to self-reflexivity, or what the Structuralist critics term dédoublement, is thus one of the most general features of the larger modernist sensibility. And because of that attention, another part of the modernist sensibility feels extreme wariness over the question of perspective.

I look at a painting. The landscape opens out before me in the measurable increments of a systematic perspective. I know what comes next after the closest thing, and how much distance separates it from the thing that comes after that. As de Kooning, describing Renaissance space, said: “It was up to the artist to measure out the exact space for a person to die in or be dead already. The exactness of the space was determined, or rather, inspired by whatever reason the person was dying or being killed for. The space thus measured out on the original plane of the canvas surface became a ‘place’ somewhere on the floor.”

Perspective is the visual correlate of causality that one thing follows the next in space according to rule. In that sense, despite differences of historical development, it can be likened to the literary tradition of the omniscient narrator and the conventional plot. As de Kooning described it, perspectival space carried with it the meaning of narrative: a succession of events leading up to and away from this moment; and within that temporal succession—given as a spatial analogue—was secreted the “meaning” of both that space and those events. And it is that very prior assumption of meaning that the larger modernist sensibility abhors. If Robbe-Grillet speaks of “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth’,” it is because he sees the traditional narrative as the representation of an order. “This order, which we may in effect qualify as natural, is linked to an entire rationalistic and organizing system, whose flowering corresponds to the assumption of power by the middle class. . . . As the technical elements of the narrative—systematic use of the past tense and the third person, unconditional adoption of chronological development, linear plots, regular trajectory of the passions, impulse of each episode toward a conclusion, etc.,—everything tended to impose the image of a stable, coherent, continuous, unequivocal, entirely decipherable universe. Since the intelligibility of the world was not even questioned, to tell a story did not raise a problem. The style of the novel could be innocent.”3

We can no longer fail to notice that if we make up schemas of meaning based on history, we are playing into systems of control and censure. We are no longer innocent. “For if the norms of the past serve to measure the present, they also serve to construct it.”4

If someone asks us what’ so good about a painting by Stella and our answer is that he has to paint stripes because of Manet, etc., etc., and Impressionism, etc., etc., and then Cubism, and then onto a history of the necessity of flatness, what we have made the Stella painting into is a particular kind of screen onto which we project a special form of narrative. The flatness that modernist criticism reveres may have expunged spatial perspective, but it has substituted a temporal one—i.e. history. It is this history that the modernist critic contemplates looking into the vortex of, say, Stella’s concentric stripes: a perspective view that opens backward into that receding vista of past doors and rooms, which because they are not re-enterable, can only manifest themselves in the present by means of diagrammatic flatness.

Modernist criticism is innocent. And its innocence obtains on three counts: it refuses to see the temporality which it never tires of invoking—“the entire history of painting since Manet”5—as that perspectival armature on which it structures the art in question (and on which that art has increasingly tended to structure itself); it thinks of that history as “objective”—beyond the dictates of sensibility, beyond ideology; and it is unself-critically prescriptive. Failing to see that its “history” is a perspective, my perspective—only, that is to say, a point of view—modernist criticism has stopped being suspicious of what it sees as self-evident, its critical intelligence having ceased to be wary of what it has taken as given. Although its disclaimers to being a prescriptive position are sincerely meant, it has failed to put a check on the ways that its belief in the “reality” of a certain version of the past has led it to construct (in its coercive sense) the present.

For example, Michael Fried can acknowledge the importance for Stella, Noland, and Olitski of working in series, holding that the series provides “a context of mutual elucidation for the individual paintings comprising a given series”;6 he can even go on to say that for Noland the series serves something like a linguistic function, signifying “related transformations of syntax in the interest of saying something new (or perhaps in the interest of saying something at all).” Yet Fried can also maintain that it is an essential feature of a modernist work to declare itself in terms of a “continuous and entire presentness, amounting, as it were, to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness.”7 Surely these two notions are mutually contradictory, or at least in apparent conflict. A series simply is diachronic in character—the experience of it is entirely temporal—and as such it is at odds with Fried’s demand for “presentness.”

If a work’s meaning depends on comparison with things that exist outside it, then that meaning cannot be seen to be entirely present in the perception of the single work. And this is not simply a conceptual matter, but a matter of experience. It became my experience of modernist painting-in-series in the late 1960s (specifically that of Stella and Noland)—a reaction that was especially disturbing due to the reliance of those paintings on a sensuous experience of color.8 Then too, it is my experience that by the late 1960s the ability of a given modernist work to make its connection of the past perceptually immediate—to make that connection, in Fried’s term, “perspicuous”—became increasingly attenuated. With that attenuation, the sense of historical necessity that had been part of the content or meaning of modernist painting no longer appeared at the moment of perception of the work itself. And the effect of this for me was to reveal the inherently narrative character of that meaning, and to heighten and exacerbate its temporal quality.

What this whole business about series and perspective adds up to is a set of anomalies which does not fit, and cannot comfortably be explained by the modernist critical theory.9 And they are not, of course, the only anomalies. Another is that modernist theory has never been able to come up with a satisfactory history of sculpture. Whatever power the modernist history of painting has had to convince comes mainly from the fact that it was able to explain as a comprehensible progression the most important pictorial evidence of the last 100 years. But this is not the case with sculpture. The conception of modernism in sculpture depends exclusively on describing the developments within constructed sculpture rather than work which is carved or cast. What this has meant is that modernist critics find themselves tactically cut off from acknowledging the work of Arp, as well as most of Brancusi. In the case of Brancusi the open, carved pieces like the Prodigal Son are admitted to the canon, while the monolithic carved and cast pieces are not; and clearly, on the grounds of sheer quality, such a distinction is untenable. And on this end of the line, modernist critics appear to have cut themselves off from what is most energetic and felt in contemporary sculpture. Their inability to deal with Richard Serra, or Michael Heizer, or Keith Sonnier, or Robert Smithson is anomalous in the extreme. Further, those critics have continually balked at admitting film to the status of a “modernist art.”10 Given the quality of recent advanced film, this position is simply no longer admissable even for critics who confine themselves to dealing just with painting and sculpture, for film as a medium has become increasingly important to sculptors themselves. Serra and Sonnier are only the most obvious examples.

Recently Clement Greenberg published an essay entitled “The Necessity of Formalism.” When I opened the journal in which it appeared I assumed, because of our discussion of a few years ago—about “formalism” as an intellectual vulgarity—that Greenberg meant his title ironically, and I was wrong. Greenberg still sees “modernism” as not exactly “coterminous with formalism,” but he does argue now, that formalism must set the terms of “modernism,” that technical preoccupations “must be [modernism] essential, defining side, at least in the case of painting and sculpture.”11 In a “Post-postscriptum,” Greenberg speaks, as he had earlier, of esthetic value originating in content. But the “necessity of formalism” underscores the way that such content arises out of technical preoccupations “when search ing enough and compelled enough.” Yet, given the rest of Greenberg’s text, this search and this compulsion are so tightly tied back into form, or what he calls “artisanal considerations,” that all I understand by this notion of content is something like, for example, that sculpture should be about the exigencies of making sculpture. Since most of contemporary sculpture is about the problems of sculpture itself, that notion no longer seems to discriminate much of anything; and further, it fails to note the obvious: that some sculpture is about more than that. Some sculpture has shared in the need to find and express a structure that w ill no longer be “innocent.” When Robbe-Grillet charges conventional narrative with innocence, this does not mean that he wants or even thinks it possible to dispense with narrative. His own novels are intense, continual, even compulsive narrations. But these stories are constantly eclipsed by the point of view of the teller, holding up this point of view, turning it around, examining it, taking responsibility for it, never allowing either himself or the reader at any moment to be innocent about it.

Richard Serra’s sculpture is about sculpture: about the weight, the extension, the density and opacity of matter, and about the promise of the sculptural project to break through that opacity with systems which will make the work’s structure both transparent to itself and to the viewer who looks on from outside. But beyond any of that there is an attention to narrative that suffuses the work, subordinating structure to a point of view. This is true of Strike and of the five-plate piece he showed in New York this winter. It is true of Circuit, Serra’s most recent sculpture, installed at Documenta, which I have not seen but which I know about from drawings and descriptions. It is also true of the large outdoor piece that he did for Joseph Pulitzer (published in Artforum, May, 1972). The narrative quality of Serra’s work demands that a given sculpture be seen successively—and that each moment of its perception supersede in affective importance, the viewer’s intuition of the work’s actual structure, whether cruciform, or fan-shaped, or whatever. The strategy that is employed in Serra’s work is to create a point from which the viewer can sense the logic of the work’s structure—can feel it fanning outward from him, like the extended perimeters of his own body—although it is exactly at this point that the material visibility of the work is most depleted. Thus the point from which one gets the “logic” of the work is one of extreme tension with the external, perceptual facts of which the work is composed. Again and again, Serra’s sculpture makes a viewer realize that the hidden meanings he reads into the corporate body of the world are his own projections and that interiority he had thought belonged to the sculpture is in fact his own interiority—the manifestation, from the still point, of his own point of view. The successiveness to which Serra’s sculpture resorts is no longer there by default or innocence; it is there by searching, almost savage, design.

As I thought about this, I remembered something else Greenberg had said in that earlier essay where the statement about the vulgarity of “formalism” appeared. He had said “Why bother to say that a Velázquez has ‘more content’ than a Salvator Rosa when you can say more simply, and with directer reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velázquez is ‘better’ than the Salvator Rosa?”12 Which is to say that it matters what the content of a work of art is, that some content is “more” than others, better than others.

Which is also to say that I am still stuck with believing that “formalism” is a vulgarity; that I began as a modernist critic and am still a modernist critic, but only as part of a larger modernist sensibility and not the narrower kind. Which is further to say that what I must acknowledge is not some idea of the world’s perspective but simply my own point of view; that it matters who one sounds like when what one is writing about is art. One’s own perspective, like one’s own age, is the only orientation one will ever have.

Rosalind Krauss



1. Clement Greenberg, “Complaints of an Art Critic,” Artforum, October, 1967, p. 39.

2. Michael Fried, Three American Painters, The Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1965, p. 39.

3. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, New York, 1965, p. 32.

4. Ibid., p. 18.

5. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, Summer, 1967, p.20.

6. Fried, Three American Painters, p. 46.

7. Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” p. 22.

8. See my essay, “Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” Artforum, November, 1971.

9. The question of anomalous behavior is raised by Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. His argument is that scientific theories are in fact paradigms that are the most economic and complete models for synthesizing the known evidence about the physical world. In characterizing scientific advance, he described those periods in which evidence begins to be assembled which the reigning paradigm cannot explain; that is, under the terms of the existing paradigm the new evidence appears anomalous, freakish. But it is the pressure of this anomalous evidence that characterizes scientific advance, calling not only for its own acknowledgement, but demanding as well the invention of an entire new paradigm, or as Kuhn puts ii an explanation of what has by then become a “new world.”

10. One modernist, however, has dealt with film: the philosopher Stanley Cavell in his book The World Viewed, New York, 1972. But in a work dealing in part with the history of film culture, Prof. Cavell manages to omit any reference to Russian film of the 1920s, and in the other part dealing with modernism in cinema, he ignores experimental film entirely, speaks pejoratively of Godard, and presents as leading modernists Bergman and Antonioni.

11. Clement Greenberg, “The Necessity of Formalism,” New Literary History, 1971–1972, II, p. 174.

12. Greenberg, “Complaints of an Art Critic,” p. 39.