Rosalind Krauss, “Richard Serra, a Translation” and “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”

Excerpts from two chapters of Rosalind Krauss’ The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. I included a lot of the piece, because frankly, it all seems important for me to understand the concepts she is laying out:


Richard Serra, a translation

For Serra the abstract subject only yields itself up within a kind of experiential ground through which space and time are felt to be functions of one another.  For it is within the very moment of a shift in vision that what is seen is experienced as not bounded by the condition of being fixed, as is an image.  In this insistence on an abstraction that unifies space and time into a continuum, so that the bridge of Serra’s film is imaginable as a medium only because, like the gears of the camera itself, it is turning, one continues to feel a phenomenological preoccupation: “This quasi-synthesis is elucidated if we understand it as temporal.  When I say that I see an object at a distance, I mean that I already hold it, or that I still hold it, it is in the future or in the past as well as being in space….But co-existence, which in fact defines space, is not alien to time, but is the fact of two phenomena belonging to the same temporal wave.” (Merleau-Ponty)  And once again Merleau-Ponty links the space of this continuum to something pre-objective and abstract: “There is, therefore, another subject beneath me, for whom a world exists before I am here, and who marks out my place in it.  This captive or natural spirit is my body, not that momentary body which is the instrument of my personal choices and which fastens upon this or that world, but the system of anonymous ‘functions’ which draw every particular focus into a general project.” (ibid)

If the Phenomenology of Perception furnishes one kind of critical gloss on this aesthetic premonition, other texts provide other types of access.  One of these is the famous passage from A la recherche du temps perdu, where Proust links his desire to write with a need to penetrate the surfaces of things to find the ground of the pleasure he derives from them, and he produces as the first example of his “writing” the fragment in which the bell towers of Martinville appear to him from within a particular confluence of space and time:

“….we had left Martinville some little time, and the village, after accompanying us for a few seconds, had already disappeared, when lingering alone on the horizon to watch our flight, its steeples and that of Vieuxvicq waved once again, in token of farewell, their sunbathed pinnacles.  Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the light like three golden pivots, and vanished from my gaze.  But, a little later, when we were already close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above and low line of fields.” (Proust, Swann’s Way”)

For the young Proust it is the changing relationship that makes perceptible the link between his winding road and the choreography of the appearances and disappearances of the three towers.  This change occurs in time and it is that which lies behind the aesthetic object, as its subject. (273-274)

Sculpture in the Expanded Field

[S]culpture and painting have been kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity, a display of the way a cultural term can be extended to include just about anything.  And though this pulling and stretching of a term such as sculpture is overtly performed in the name of vanguard aesthetics–the ideology of the new–its covert message is that of historicism.  The new is made comfortable by being made familiar, since it is seen as having gradually evolved from the forms of the past.  Historicism works on the new and different to diminish newness and mitigate difference.  It makes a place for change in our experience by evoking the model of evolution, so that the man who now is can be accepted as being different from the child he once was, by simultaneously being seen–through the unseeable action of the telos–as the same.  And we are comforted by this perception of sameness, this strategy for reducing anything foreign in either time or space, to what we already know and are. (emphasis added) (277)

[W]e know very well what sculpture is.  And one of the things we know is that it is a historically bounded category and not a universal one.  As is true of any other convention, sculpture has its own internal logic, its own set of rules, which, though they can be applied to a variety of situations, are not themselves open to very much change.  The logic of sculpture, it would seem, is inseparable from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation. (emp. added)  It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place…Because they thus function in relation to the logic of representation and marking, sculptures are normally figurative and vertical, their pedestals an important part of the structure since they mediate between actual site and representational sign…

But the convention is not immutable and there came a time when the logic began to fail.  Late in the nineteenth century we witnessed the fading of the logic of the monument…[T]wo cases come to mind, both bearing the marks of their own transitional status.  Rodin’s Gates of Hell and his statue of Balzac were both conceived as monuments.  the first were commissioned in 1880 as the doors to a projected museum of decorative arts; the second was commissioned in 1891 as a memorial to literary genius to be set up at a specific site in Paris.  The failure of these two works as monuments is signaled not only by the fact that multiple versions can be found in a variety of museums in various countries, while no version exists on the original sites–both commissions having eventually collapsed.  Their failure is also encoded onto the very surfaces of these works: the doors having been gouged away and anti-structurally encrusted to the point where they bear their inoperative condition on their face; the Balzac executed with such degree of subjectivity that not even Rodin believed (as letters by him attest) that the work would ever be accepted.


With these two sculptural projects, I would say, one crosses the threshold of the logic of the monument, entering the space of what could be called its negative condition–a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of place.  Which is to say one enters modernism, since it is the modernist period of sculptural production that operates in relation to this loss of site, producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential…It is these two characteristics of modernist sculpture that declare its status, and therefore its meaning and function, as essentially nomadic…

In being the negative condition of the monument, modernist sculpture had a kind of idealist space to explore, a domain cut off fro the project of the temporal and spatial representation…it began by about 1950 to be exhausted.  It began, that is, to be experienced more and more as pure negativity.  At this point modernist sculpture appeared as a kind of black hole in the space of consciousness, something whose positive content was increasingly difficult to define, something that was possible to locate only in terms of what it was not…

Sculpture, it could be said, had ceased being a positivity, and was now the category that resulted from the addition of the not-landscape to the not-architecture…Now, if sculpture itself had become a kind of ontological absence, the combination of exclusions, the sum of the neither/nor, that does not mean that the terms themselves from which it was built–the not-landscape and the not-architecture–did not have a certain interest.  This is because these terms express a strict opposition between the built and the not-built, the cultural and the natural, between which the production of sculptural art appeared to be suspended.  And what began to happen in the career of one sculptor after another, beginning at the end of the 1960s, is that attention began to focus on the outer limits of those terms of exclusion.  For, if those terms are the expression of a logical opposition stated as a pair of negatives, they can be transformed by a simple inversion into the same polar opposites but expressed positively.  That is, the not-architecture is, according to the logic of a certain kind of expansion, just another way of expressing the term landscape, and the not-landscape is, simply, architecture…By means of this logical expansion a set of binaries is transformed into a quaternary field which both mirrors the original opposition and at the same time opens it.  It becomes a logically expanded field which looks like this:


[E]ven though sculpture may be reduced to what is in the Klein group the neuter term of the not-landscape plus the not-architecture, there is no reason not to imagine an opposite term–one that would be both landscape and architecture–which within this schema is called the complex.  But to think the complex is to admit into the realm of art two terms that had formerly been prohibited from it: landscape and architecture–terms that could function to define the sculptural (as they began to do in modernism) only in their negative or neuter condition…Labyrinths and mazes are both landscape and architecture; Japanese gardens are both land-landscape and architecture; the ritual playing fields and processionals of ancient civilizations were all in this sense the unquestioned occupants of the complex….They were a part of a universal or cultural space in which sculpture was simply another part–not somehow, as our historicist minds would have it, the same.  Their purpose and pleasure is exactly that they are opposite and different…

By 1970, with the Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, in Ohio, Robert Smithson had begun to occupy the complex construction

Similarly, the possible combination of landscape and not-landscape began to be explored…The term marked sites is used to identify work like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)…as it also describes some of the work in the seventies by Serra, Morris, Carl Andre, Dennis Oppenheim, Nancy Holt…But in addition to actual physical manipulations of sites, this term also refers to other forms of marking…


The first artists to explore the possibilities of architecture plus not-architecture were Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Christo.  In every case of these axiomatic structures, there is some kind of intervention into the real space of architecture, sometimes through partial reconstruction, sometimes through drawing, or as in the recent works or Morris, through the use of mirrors…a process of mapping the axiomatic features of the architectural experience–the abstract conditions of openness and closure–onto the reality of a given space…

[I]t is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material.  It is organized instead through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation…I have been insisting that the expanded field of postmodernism occurs at a specific moment in the recent history of art.  It is a historical event with a determinant structure. (279-290)


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