Rosalind E. Krauss  

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"I think Botero's work is terrible. I think his work is the Pillsbury Doughboy."--Rosalind E. Krauss cited in the 1998 Don Millar documentary on Botero

"In October of 1998, just a few weeks into my graduate school career, I was invited to attend a seminar with Jane Gallop and Rosalind Krauss."--The Argonauts (2015) by Maggie Nelson

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Rosalind Krauss (1941) is an American art critic best known for her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985).



She grew up in the area of Washington D.C., where she recalled, as a formative experience, visiting art museums with her father. After graduating from Wellesley in 1962, she viewed Columbia, under Meyer Schapiro, as the logical place to continue the study of modern art; in the event, she went to Harvard, whose Department of Fine Arts (now Department of History of Art and Architecture) had a strong tradition of the intensive analysis of actual art objects under the aegis of the Fogg Museum. The death of the sculptor David Smith made him, as a no-longer living artist, acceptable as a dissertation subject at Harvard, and Krauss received her Ph.D. in 1969; it was published as Terminal Iron Works in 1972.

In the same period, Krauss had gotten off to an early start as a remarkably self-assured and penetrating art critic, writing first for Art International and later for Artforum International which, under the editorship of Philip Leider, migrated from California to New York to become a home for many of the strongest and most contentious voices in art criticism of the time. Along with Annette Michelson and Barbara Rose, Krauss and her Harvard colleague Michael Fried would become key members of this clique. She began by writing the "Boston Letter" for Art International, but only a few years out of college, was soon publishing major articles on Jasper Johns (Lugano Review, 1965) and Donald Judd ("Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd," Artforum, May 1966). Her commitment to the emerging "minimal art" in particular set her apart from Fried, who was oriented toward the continuation of modernist abstraction in Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Anthony Caro. Krauss's article "A View of Modernism" (Artforum, September 1972), was one signal of this break.

After Leider left Artforum, Krauss and Michelson became less satisfied and eventually left the magazine to found October in 1976. This was one important symbol of the eclipse of serious non-academic critics like the New York intellectuals, and the rise of an academic intelligentsia in step with the post-GI Bill expansion of higher education. Just as much, the title indicated another trend: the uneasy yoking of the academic study of art with a French intellectual frame of reference and a vaguely radical—though increasingly bourgeois—politics.

Teaching at Hunter College, the City University of New York, and MIT from 1974 and at Columbia since 1992, Krauss and October became a powerful inspiration for students and colleagues who aspired to the rigorous, philosophically study of contemporary art. One measure of her influence is that her example inspired both Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh to migrate across the Atlantic and settle in the United States. Both would become, in succession, chairs of modern art at Harvard (and Bois at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton). Along with Hal Foster at Princeton, they together established the dominant graduate programs for modern art, eventually consolidating their methods in the undergraduate textbook Art Since 1900. Although Bois and Buchloh eventually placed more of their own protegés in influential academic positions than Krauss did, her influence remained strong, and she supervised the graduate work of scholars including Maurice Berger, David Deitcher, Kathy O'Dell, Ann Morris Reynolds, Alastair Wright, and George Baker, as well as the dissertations of Foster, Buchloh and Douglas Crimp, who were already established critics when they received their doctorates.


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, 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 Andre 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.


Krauss attends to a rich variety of artists and artworks, explaining them in the terms of a number of different critics. Still, a certain fundamental modernist orientation is arguably always present, so taken for granted as to never need to be openly articulated. That is the assumption that the artist, as someone possessing advanced technical competence in the means of visual production, is, in the service of enlightenment, entrusted with the task of wrenching, tearing or cajoling the beholder's habits of perception out of their ossified, conventionalized, academicized and ultimately falsified norms.

Sharing this orientation with artists ranging along the trajectories from Picasso through surrealism to Pollock, or from abstract painting through minimalism to "indexical" post-minimalism, Krauss's arguments in this field have been widely persuasive. Both she and these artists would deny that the significance of their work could be equated to either a succession of changing fashions or of epiphenomena of social history or biography.

However, like critics of many other stripes, she and the October editors seem to be less well equipped to deal with a more recent art world in which this assumption has rapidly declined in currency, with the professional definition of 'artist' shaped much less by any convictions about its autonomy, special privileges or obligations, and much more by its interweaving with a multifaceted and all-pervasive media culture, historical amnesia and the commodification of everyday life. If the prestige of Krauss's legacy has been relativized by these rather chaotic developments, her work still offers among the best examples of a philosophically serious attempt to translate, categorize and analyze visual-phenomenal experience in the verbal register.


Krauss taught at Wellesley, MIT and Princeton before joining the faculty at Hunter College in 1974. She was promoted to professor in 1977 at Hunter and was also appointed professor at the Graduate Center of CUNY .She held the title of Distinguished Professor at Hunter until she left to join the Columbia University faculty in 1992. Previously Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia, in 2005 Rosalind Krauss was promoted to the highest faculty rank of University Professor. She has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and has been a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and of the Institute for Advanced Study. She received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for criticism from the College Art Association in 1973. She has been a fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities since 1992 and was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of London.

She has been curator of many art exhibitions at leading museums, among them exhibitions on Joan Miro at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1970-73), on surrealism and photography at the Corcoran Museum of Art (1982-85), on Richard Serra at the Museum of Modern Art (1985-86), and on Robert Morris at the Guggenheim (1992-94). She prepared an exhibition for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris called "Formlessness: Modernism Against the Grain" in 1996.

Krauss is known for her scholarship in 20th-century painting, sculpture and photography. As a critic and theorist she has published steadily since 1965 in Artforum, Art International and Art in America. She was associate editor of Artforum from 1971 to 1974 and has been editor of October, a journal of contemporary arts criticism and theory that she co-founded in 1976. Professor Krauss's attempts to understand the phenomenon of modernist art, in its historical, theoretical, and formal dimensions, have led her in various directions. She has, for example, been interested in the development of photography, whose history-running parallel to that of modernist painting and sculpture-makes visible certain previously overlooked phenomena in the "high arts," such as the role of the indexical mark, or the function of the archive. She has also investigated certain concepts, such as "formlessness," "the optical unconscious," or "pastiche," which organize modernist practice in relation to different explanatory grids from those of progressive modernism, or the avant-garde.


Selected Books by Krauss

  • Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971.
  • The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 73. New York: Garland, 1977.
  • The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.
  • L'Amour fou: Photography & Surrealism. London: Arts Council, 1986. Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, July to September 1986.
  • Le Photographique (1990)
  • The Optical Unconscious (1993)
  • A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (1999)

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