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Pe rpetual Inve ntory

Rosalind E. Krauss


The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England

2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher. MIT Press books may be purchased at special quantity discounts for business or sales promotional use. For information, please email or write to Special Sales Department, The MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142. This book was set in Bembo by Graphic Composition, Inc. Printed and bound in the United States of America. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Krauss, Rosalind E. Perpetual inventory / Rosalind E. Krauss. p. cm. An October book. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-262-01380-2 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Art, Modern20th century. 2. Art, Modern21st century. 3. Art criticism. I. Title. N6490.K73 2010 709.04dc22 2009028899 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


In a conversation with Barbara Rose, Robert Rauschenberg mused on the title for a future work. I went in for my interview for this fantastic job, he said. The job had a great nameI might use it for a paintingPerpetual inventory. During the years I wrote criticism for Artforum (19641976), I didnt think of it as a job; but nonetheless it had a great name: perpetual inventory. A critic constantly revises not only her conception of the direction and most important currents of contemporary art, but also her convictions about the most significant work within them. This entails a perpetual reassessment of the field she surveys and the demand that it be articulated in her writing. The first collection of my inventory resulted in The Originality of the AvantGarde and Other Modernist Myths, assembling essays that spanned the years 1976 to 1983. A second, Bachelors, performed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek collection of my essays on women artistsoriginally eight of them, but at the insistence of my editor at the MIT Press, Roger Conover, that there were in fact nine bachelors, a ninth was summoned into my introduction: Claude Cahunanother irony, because the bi-gendered French name Claude might mistakenly identify her as a male intruder. Rauschenbergs own inventory was organized in fi les in his studio on Captiva Island, Florida. It primarily consisted of photographic illustrations, cut


from newspapers and magazines and kept in reserve for the works he would later embark on, such as the Dantes Inferno series. Constructed entirely of image transfers, the works were made by saturating the illustrations with lighter fluid and then rubbing on them over drawing paper (Max Ernsts example of frottage comes to mind) so that the image plus the gesture of rubbing would leave a ghostly trace on the sheet below. This inventory was also the source for the photo-silkscreen paintings Rauschenberg had begun in the early 1960s, works that established his place within Leo Steinbergs important analysis Other Criteria, in which the proliferation of images produced what Steinberg named a shift from nature to culture and called (in the first usage of this word) postmodern. The writers inventory requires a technical tool; mine was my constant companion, the typewriter. Whenever I look at the cover photograph for this collection, I think of Clement Greenbergs comment to me in 1974, Spare me smart Jewish girls with their typewriters! By the late 1970s, two theoretical movements had begun to infi ltrate my visual experience, with wide implications for my inventory. These were structuralism and its poststructural revision, both of which had already had an impact on my early essays, such as Grids, Notes on the Index, and Sculpture in the Expanded Field. Poststructuralisms attack on self-identity (le propre) opened its reader to the influence of Georges Bataille in his work of dismantling form (by means of his destructive tool of the informe). Such a connection is explored in this volume in Michel, Bataille et Moi, an essay on the work of Joan Mir as he absorbed the lessons of Bataille. My connection to Rauschenbergs title has to do not only with the shift in and openness of my experience as a critic, but with the centrality of photography for the silkscreen works. Here I found myself, indeed, within the postmodern condition, as Jean-Franois Lyotard called ita situation I would come to name the post-medium condition. Lyotard argues that postmodernism spells the end of what he terms the master narrative, or the account of a broad sweep of history (such as the industrial revolution) in the light of a consistent worldview (such as utilitarianism) that shapes and interprets its meaning.



The master narrative of modern art turns on the importance of specific aesthetic mediums understood as simultaneously empowering artistic practice and leveraging the works possibility of meaning. In charting the development of twentieth-century painting from cubism to abstraction to abstract expressionism, critics and historians follow Clement Greenberg who, in his essay Modernist Painting, singled out flatness as the characteristic specific to painting because unshared by any of the other mediums, such as sculpture or drama. This master narrative hit the wall of Lyotards Postmodern Condition when certain aspects of artistic practice, such as conceptual art, jettisoned the use of a specific medium in order to juxtapose image and written text within the same work. The now-fashionable possibility of installation art followed in the wake of this dispatch of the medium. Installation is relentless in its refusal of specificity, fi lling galleries with mixtures of video images and taped narratives. For the most part, Perpetual Inventory charts my conviction as a critic that the abandonment of the specific medium spells the death of serious art. To wrestle new mediums to the mat of specificity has been a preoccupation of mine since the inception of October, the magazine I founded in 1976 with Annette Michelson, the first issue of which carried my essay Video and Narcissism which attempts to tie the essence of video to the specular nature of mirrors. Photography is not a new medium, of course, but isolating its specificity in order to apply it to the understanding of its artistic practice led to my consideration of the index as the type of sign essential to camerawork.1 The index proved its continuing analytic usefulness in my further treatment of Marcel Duchamps work in The Optical Unconscious. The onset of postmodernist practice in the 1980s saw the collapse of traditional mediums such as painting or sculpture. But the abandonment of the medium as the basis of artistic practice was not total. As a critic working in the 1980s and 1990s, I welcomed the perseverance of new artists in leveraging the meaning of their work in relation to what I came to call a technical support. Mediums are specified by the material support they supply for artistic practice: the way canvas and stretcher support the images of traditional painting



and plaster wall those of fresco, or the way metal armatures support the material of sculptural volume. The artists I observed persevering in the service of a medium had abandoned traditional supports in favor of strange new apparatuses, ones they often adopted from commercial culturelike Ed Ruschas appropriation of the automobile ( Specific Objects, in this volume), Christian Marclays importation of the movies synchronous soundtrack (Lip Sync, in this volume), William Kentridges exploitation of cinematic animation (The Rock, in this volume), or James Colemans use of the commercial slide tape (now displaced by Power Point; see my essay . . . And Then Turn Away?, October 81 [Summer 1977]). Calling such things technical supports would, I thought, allay the confusion of the use of medium, too ideologically associated as the term is with an outmoded tradition. The essays collected in Perpetual Inventory are for the most part concerned with the effort just sketched. If this effort works against the grain of the received ideas of contemporary criticism, I welcome this antagonism, which also characterized the work collected in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. I consider the post-medium condition a monstrous myth. If Perpetual Inventory can expose it by its example of an alternative, I will consider the book a success. New York, 2008