Rosalind Krauss’s Brain: The Combative Academic Is Back With a New Book

An extended recovery from an aneurysm is transformed into a critical treatise

In 1976, Ms. Krauss provided contemporary art history with one of its pivotal moments when she and fellow writer Annette Michelson joined with artist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe to start the journal October, named for the 1927-28 film of the same name by Russian modernist Sergei Eisenstein. “October was the result of Annette Michelson and me quitting—walking out of Artforum—because we thought Artforum had become so totally terrible,” Ms. Krauss said.

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Near the end of 1974, Artforum ran an ad from the Paula Cooper Gallery that featured Lynda Benglis, stark naked and gleaming with oil, holding a large dildo between her legs. “I was really disgusted by that,” Ms. Krauss said. But there were other issues, she said, like the leadership of editor in chief John Coplans, who she said rejected her and Ms. Michelson’s intellectual interests as well as the mediums—like performance, video and cinema—that artists were increasingly exploring. “I thought he was a total fool,” she said. “His hostility to us was so intense that we were really happy to leave.”

While she was teaching at Hunter College, Ms. Krauss and a team of other writers used the pages of October to launch vociferous attacks on vast segments of the art establishment. Ms. Krauss tackled biographical art criticism, lambasting writers who interpreted Picasso’s work through his biography; German critic Benjamin Buchloh went after the German artist Joseph Beuys on the occasion of his 1980 Guggenheim retrospective.

“In a way, she treated art history and art criticism as a contact sport,” said Pepe Karmel, an art historian at New York University. “She made it clear that she felt that this really, really mattered. God knows I’ve spent a lot of my career arguing with her, but I have to say, she made people feel that this was something of tremendous importance, and that the way you feel about art is really the way you feel about life.”

In 1981, a young American critic named Douglas Crimp argued in October that painting had reached an end point, that its possibilities had been exhausted. “[Frank] Stella’s recent works are,” he wrote, “as Gerhard Richter said of painting, pure idiocy.”

That argument continues to provoke. When Time Out New York critic Howard Halle noted its endurance in a 2009 review of a show by Mr. Richter, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz offered $10,000 to anyone who could “prove” that painting was, in fact, dead. “No one has actually believed this since at least the Nixon administration!” Mr. Saltz wrote on his Facebook page.

And yet the belief that painting is dead is central to Ms. Krauss’s approach to art. “The artist has to come to terms with the sense that mediums like painting or sculpture have been exhausted,” she told us. “You can’t just keep being the same old modernist, the same Cubist.” In Under Blue Cup she identifies a handful of artists—Ed Ruscha and Christian Marclay among them—who “invent a medium,” using a specific set of rules to guide their practice.

“The medium, for an artist who practices it, is who he or she is,” she explained in her office. In Under Blue Cup, she discusses mediums in terms of technical supports, citing examples like oil and canvas or egg tempera and panel for an artist who paints. The modern artist, she argues, must invent new mediums, taking on new supports for his or her work. According to Ms. Krauss, Mr. Ruscha’s support was the automobile, which he used to drive from one gasoline station (or one parking lot) to another, taking photographs for his books. It becomes the tool that facilitates his work, and to which the work refers. “The medium makes you who you are,” she said. “And thinking about this sense of who you are brought me back to my personal experience.”

Her approach to criticism has evolved over the years, selectively accommodating new practices.

“For a long period, I was incredibly turned off by and hostile to installation art, and certain art that I found to be at the same time aggressive and empty,” she said. “There was this big show at the Whitney of Bill Viola, which I found unbearable. It seemed to be a huge pastiche of past art, but it didn’t seem to have the power of the specific medium.”

Rosalind Krauss’s Brain: The Combative Academic Is Back With a New Book