ROSALIND KRAUSS with Yve-Alain Bois
On the occasion of her recent publication Under Blue Cup (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England) Yve-Alain Bois visited Rosalind Krauss’s SoHo loft/home to talk about the genesis that led to this particular volume and more.
Yve-Alain Bois (Rail): I’ll start with, actually, the first line of your book where you say, “Incited by over a decade of disgust at the spectacle of meretricious art called installation, this book was made possible by … ,” which is followed by the acknowledgments. I understand the dislike and boredom in regard to installations, but some of the artists that you call the “White Knights”—the knights who are coming to save the medium formerly made possible by the white cube—do installations. Harun Farocki, Sophie Calle, or Christian Marclay, they do work in this “thing”—if it’s a medium, I don’t know—called installation. In what way do you construct their work as being totally different from a great majority of installation production?
Rosalind Krauss: I’ll start with Farocki. I encountered Farocki’s work in this wonderful exhibition at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, and what really focused my attention was the work called Interface, where what was displayed—I talk about this in the book—was Farocki himself in his video-editing room talking about how he cannot write a video without having two screens, side-by-side. “Interface” is exactly that: two screens, two monitors, side-by-side, mounted on individual pedestals. What struck me was that the eye has to pass between them in order to follow the video. And as you pass between the monitors your eye slips between them, and in a sense hits the wall of the museum which we can call the wall of the white cube; so there is this sense in which anything that might be called installation is countered by the way that the surface of the white cube is figured forth, because you have to encounter it. I really think that to speak of Farocki’s work just as installation is a big mistake, and in the exhibition catalogue, of course they do. For me, he emerges as this extraordinary figure, who is forcing us to encounter the Cube, which at a point in the book I speak of as a swimming pool in order to remove it from the idea of museums as palaces, as mausoleums. I use this image thinking of the sides of the swimming pool. They not only limit the field but also form a solid surface, the rigid surface against which you as a swimmer kick off in order to return across the water, so this sense of the white cube as a sort of——
Rail: Bouncing surface.
Krauss: As this surface against which the eye has to rebound. For me, that’s very important, and that’s what was important in Farocki. Not a sense that the images are displayed in some kind of constellation that would make them into something like installation art. Then you asked about Sophie Calle, and my constant effort is to find what I call “technical support” as a substitute for traditional supports—“technical” as opposed to “artisanal,” and “support” a way of generalizing the specificity of the traditional mediums of oil on canvas or marble or wood—because I think that, of course, with postmodernism, conceptual art, and deconstruction, the idea of the medium has been completely dissolved. As far as Sophie Calle’s technical support, it seems to me to be photojournalism, searching in a sense for an individual or a speaker, the way that photojournalists try to recreate the subject of a mystery, as happened with Watergate. Her address book and many of her other works have to do with her interviewing, with a forensic model.
Rail: Actually, in regard to Sophie Calle, there is one thing that maybe we disagree on: I don’t think that her installations are that interesting per se. I think that they are expanded books. Basically, I see her as a writer. I told that to her, I said, “Why do you need to do those big blow-ups of those things?” Because as books, they are fantastic things. I think she is a great story-teller, among other things.
Krauss: Well, I disagree with you here, at least as far as the piece called Take Care of Yourself is concerned. It’s a very large piece that filled the French pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale and was later reconstructed in an even more expansive form at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The whole piece revolves around a letter from some guy that she had had an affair with, breaking off from her—and ends with this incredibly hypocritical line, “Take care of yourself.” When you entered you were given the letter, and what the piece was were these monitors going down the reading tables of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and these various actors and other professionals, all women, were reading the letter. You had actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Miranda Richardson, all these people reading this letter. What seemed to me to be the case was that you were in the Reading Room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and there was a way in which these readings touched base, like the side of the Cube, with the books on the shelves. So there’s this sense that the reader’s doing research the way Sophie Calle’s work is constantly, in terms of this photojournalism, doing research on a missing figure. The way the piece seems to refer back to her technical support is that as you are listening and watching these readings of the letter, you’re kind of wondering who the writer could possibly be, and of course you come to the conclusion that it’s Sophie Calle herself, and that there’s a sort of irony in that her work is always about finding a missing other, and in this case, the missing other is herself. But not in a sort of autobiographical way, it’s rather this forensic model.
Rail: Even though the letter is real. The letter was written by that man, whom I actually met! [Laughs.]
Krauss: Really? How fabulous.
Rail: But she always staged her autobiography, and it’s a kind of parodic reconstruction of the self constantly. Actually, with regard to this work, it’s probably the first installation of hers that worked. I saw it in both places. It also worked in Venice. I always thought that maybe it’s because in Venice the curator was Daniel Buren. And you know the way she appointed him?
Krauss: She advertised.
Rail: She advertised the position in several journals (including Le Monde). Daniel was the only one who had a good project to do with her, so that’s why she chose him. As you know he had a long practice in installation, and I think it helped. All the other installations of hers that I had seen before, I felt were a bit stodgy and not necessary. That’s particularly true of installations in which she simply enlarges the pages of a book (as in the case of Exquisite Pain, which was presented at the Pompidou Center in 2003). There was not this bounce-back from the wall you are talking about.
Now, to switch to another of your knights, what about Coleman? One could also say that he does installations. The way his projections are installed is important to him. It’s not simply a bunch of slides. The display, the mode of display, the fact that you can see the carousels, the projectors, the whole technical apparatus, that is part of his project.
Krauss: Yes indeed, and James will not allow any staging of his work that he doesn’t do himself, and he will not allow the work to be spread through reproduction, so no one else can set the piece up. Where I think there is this sense of the push off the—well, the technical support is at work—is that the pieces are slides that are on a carousel, in a projector. And you hear the slide clicking into the projection lens, the slot of that, and then the carousel turning, and the slide coming out and being replaced by another one, so there is this constant clicking of the apparatus. In the work he made called “I N I T I A L S,” part of that has to do with the initials that were cut onto a tree in Lady Gregory’s estate called Coole Park. So you have O’Casey, O. C., Oscar Wilde, O.W., Yeats, W.Y.—all these famous writers commemorating the Irish literary revival, which was organized and focused by Yeats and Lady Gregory. Of course, no sooner was this tree carved with the initials, than visitors to the park started carving their own initials as graffiti. The tree was fenced off, and of course people jumped over the fence so they could continue to make the graffiti, and that is what “I N I T I A L S” is about. In it, Coleman makes these slide tapes, so the tape is a voice or several actors reading the script, and in “I N I T I T A L S” the person who reads the script is a little boy with his high, piercing voice, and he spells words like, “C-O-N-D-U-I-T-S,” conduits. And it’s very hard for you to make out the word, to grasp the word he’s spelling out. And so you have this sort of click of the separate letters which balances off the click of the carousels as they’re changing, and this sense of the tapes’ relationship to—the sense of the apparatus itself, I think, is what secures Coleman’s work against being merely an installation.
You also mentioned Christian Marclay. His Video Quartet is assembled on a wall, with four DVD screens playing contiguously with one another. On all the DVDs are sound films: musicals, horror films (remember the scream in the shower of Psycho?). But the “technical support” is the synchronicity that undergirds sound film. Video Quartet has to “point to silence” for us to “see” its transformation into sound. Pointing to silence is almost impossible, if you think about how it could be done. But Marclay invents amazing tropes to do this. They often occur within a single frame—rendering the sense of “installation” in the work nugatory.
Rail: Throughout the book—although you don’t mention him that often, I think—every time he’s mentioned, Duchamp is a bad guy. But, with regard to installations, it seems to me that from very early on he thought about it as a kind of white cube to be bounced off of or against. In a way, his installations, it seems to me, would be closer to your model than to the model you discard as purely illustrative or whatever. I understand why Duchamp would not be one of your White Knights because of his decision to erase boundaries and stuff like that. But with regard to the installations he made—the coal sacks suspended from the ceiling at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme in Paris, the mesh of strings invading the space of the 1942 First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York—I think he did think about the space of the white cube as something to be not annihilated, but reflected upon.
Krauss: In Duchamp’s “Étant donnés,” his little peep show cancels the founding precept of the museum as a space shared by a collectivity of viewers so that in Kant’s view, the aesthetic statement “This is beautiful” can only be spoken as though by a “universal voice.” Further, Arthur Danto identified Duchamp as the founder of Institutional Aesthetics, which has to do with the fact that it’s only by being entered into a museum space or an art fair or a gallery that the work asserts itself as a work of art, because it asserts itself as belonging to this hallowed space of aesthetics. Thierry de Duve’s work about Duchamp is always about how Duchamp forces an ostensive statement from the viewer that amounts to, “This is art.”
Rail: His argument, if I remember correctly, is that Duchamp basically suppressed the question of specificity to shift everything to the question of generality.
Krauss: Exactly. And that’s also the position of Joseph Kosuth. Kosuth, as the progenitor and organizer of conceptual art, says that what Duchamp enforces is the statement, “This is art,” thereby posing the definition of art rather than the definition of painting or sculpture, because he says art is general, while painting and sculpture are specific, and what we want is this sense of the general definition of art. What you have with Duchamp is the substitution of the experience of the white cube, which is generally a visual and kinetic experience of this surface against which your eye is boomeranging and kicking off into this ostensive statement: “This is a work of art,” into language: “This is the definition of art.” That’s why it would seem to me that the readymade, the maker of the readymade, cannot be a Knight of the medium, and also as you point out, Duchamp is the maker of installation and, insofar as installation art is the enemy of the Modernist conception of art, it is the enemy, therefore, of my book.
Rail: But I do think that some of his earlier installations function differently, and that they dialogue with the white cube. You know the one with the strings——
Krauss: I don’t agree with you.
Rail: I guess we have to agree to disagree then.
Now onto something else. I want to ask you about deconstruction. In October, you have been very, very instrumental in import of, let’s say, the deconstructive strategies in the discourse about art in this country. In this book, deconstruction appears often as a kind of negative force. In several places, it is said to participate with other forces—conceptual art and postmodernism and all that—as having created what you present as this “monster” of installation art. I want to ask you about your current thoughts on deconstruction.
Krauss: Well, the conceit of Under Blue Cup is this question of “who you are,” as I tell the story of having had this ruptured aneurysm and having cognitive therapy in order to retrain my memory, and what they say in that sort of therapeutic context is that if you can remember who you are, which people who’ve been in comas often can’t, you can teach yourself to remember anything. The conceit I’m using is that the medium is a way, for an artist, painter, sculptor, whatever, to remember who he or she is, in terms of the history in that medium. The division of the arts that starts really with the Middle Ages in which you have these guilds—the sculptors, the painters, the stained-glass makers—they were apprentices in separate guilds and as a member or apprentice in a guild, you have a sense of who you are. That conceit of who you are obviously runs against the ground on which Derrida’s position, his incredible critique of the idea of self-presence, and therefore of a kind of “who you are” is based. I mean, self-presence is what deconstruction really wants to take apart, to expose as what Derrida calls a metaphysical fantasy or myth.
Rail: Because the book is about, in a way, the reconstitution of a recuperation of self, then construction rather than deconstruction becomes key?
Krauss: I felt that I had to acknowledge deconstruction’s dismantling of the notion of “who you are,” that I couldn’t pretend that it did not have a big effect on the state of modernism’s theorization of the ontology of the specific medium—thoughts about the ontological within philosophy and theory in the United States, and of course in Europe as well. It seemed to me there was no way to pretend that that hadn’t happened.
Rail: Especially because you had been responsible for bringing it here, itself, early on in your own writings and what was published in October. Well actually there is something that is really quite unique in this book: the “I,” (you know, “I, Rosalind Krauss”) comes back, but not directly. You don’t say “I.” It’s the book that speaks. You very often in the book say, “According to Under Blue Cup.” So the book itself becomes this machine. There’s quite often a return on the book, and the self-reflexivity of the book, which I think is pretty new in your writing. I suppose that it’s because the whole book has to do with the recovery of the self.
Krauss: That is absolutely true. I wrote that as I was recovering from this attack on my brain, and I realized that there were things that I had written before this happened, a long essay on Kentridge and also on Broodthaers that I simply could not have written afterward because those essays are about juggling, you know, holding all these different balls, theoretical balls up in the air. My brain was simply not up to that. And insofar as the book, in a sense, becomes a way of thinking, I present it almost as a character. As a character who I’m seeing in the third person.
Rail: It’s very striking actually. It’s a new mode.
Krauss: Well, one of the things I realized when I was writing after the aneurysm was that my writerly voice had really become very wooden, so that I couldn’t write anymore. It wasn’t fluid, it was just very, very dead. And because I wanted to write about this sequence of installations in Documenta 10, I realized that I would have to relearn how to write description, since that part of the book is a series of descriptions of these installations. So I felt I had to go back to school to learn how to write by asking, “Who is someone who writes description that you don’t skip?” Who writes books in which you actually read the description? And I thought: Dickens. I read Bleak House with this extraordinary concentration and analytic reading: How does he do it? I asked myself. One of the ways he does it, is that from behind every lamppost and every mailbox, another character jumps out. And so you have this constant multiplication of characters who move through London, and you willingly follow them, and that becomes a way that description takes on the character of people. So I kind of learned through books, which is why the book becomes almost a sort of character in the writing. Another author I learned from was—you know the book starts out in this sort of autobiographical way, which I think could be very embarrassing, so I thought, who writes autobiography in a way that doesn’t get embarrassing? And of course who that is is Gertrude Stein. Again I sort of analyzed, how does she do it? One of the ways is that her prose is paced so that it drops all punctuation. I dropped serial commas, and I like the staccato of that—you don’t have X comma Y comma Z comma and something else. It just flows between these various nouns. Of course my editor at MIT Press put them all back. The copyeditor. He restored them, and I begged him not to do it. I said, “I like the way this prose is like Gertrude Stein’s.”
Rail: And in the end, who won?
Krauss: Well of course he did. The copyeditor has the last word. I tried to take them out again.
Rail: Too bad, that would have been quite striking. Now, to shift to something completely different, I wanted to ask you about your use in the book of the word “postmodernism.” In an early essay on “postmodernism” Hal Foster wrote that there are two kinds of “postmodernisms”: the reactionary kind—Anselm Kiefer’s type—and then the avant-garde kind, and that would be Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, artists like that, who were defended in October. But you don’t speak about those. When you use the word “postmodernism,” you speak about, what seems to me, a return to almost pre-Modernist Romanticism (that’s the way I see Kiefer and company). What’s the reasoning behind the word “postmodernism” as far as those people are concerned? In any case I was wondering why “postmodernism” in this book never means the artists you championed (and used to label that way). I personally never want to use that word without quotation marks, because I never actually believe that there was anything “post” in there. But that’s my own judgment. But I was struck by the fact that when you use it, it’s automatically to describe the so-called reactionary type of return to grand gestures of painting or sculpture—bronze or whatever. Why is that?
Krauss: For me, Kiefer’s covering the canvas with hay is really about ignoring the sides of the pool, so that you really don’t have what you have with Cubism, a sort of contact with the canvas weave or with the support. Postmodernism, either in painting or sculpture or architecture, and it arises first in the critical literature from architecture, is an attempt to bury the medium, to dissemble the medium. One of the examples I’m thinking of is the way postmodernist architecture ends up in a focused representation of the architectural, those directly counter to the International Style or Modernist architecture, and I’m thinking of Michael Graves’s work like the Portland Building, in which what you have is this huge representation of a column, which becomes a representation of all of these civic buildings like banks and city halls, in which you have——
Rail: Return to the Orders.
Krauss: The colonnades, and a return to the Orders. This representation of a Doric column has to do with the way Michael Graves simply abandons the Modernist or International Style: Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies. There’s a sense that one has to think architecture through its grammar of load and support and sheathing. As for Lawler, Levine, Sherman, I see them as honoring the idea of photography as enabling the possibility of a copy “without an original.” If Sherman’s characters are all based on personae from the movies, we can’t say that they are, themselves, “originals.” Modernism, in figuring forth the basis of a given work, such as the canvas ground (as in Cubism), furnishes the argument that that ground is the original, the only source for the work in question.
Rail: Another question, I was thinking about our friend Benjamin Buchloh. I think that there are parts of the book that are going to be shocking to him or that at least he’ll be critical about, which are your continuous critiques of conceptual art. Especially because when you do that, you mainly discuss Joseph Kosuth, who for Benjamin is just a small figment of conceptual art, and not at all a real agent in that story (in fact, that led to a polemic between the two, which was published in October as far as I remember). Could we say that Kosuth represents a particular kind of conceptual art, with an extreme nominalist, tautological sense of autonomy, but that in other kinds of conceptual art some artists could eventually approach your definition of the White Knight? Do you condemn all of conceptual art because of its refusal of the visual as, necessarily, the enemy? Or are there possible fluctuations, basically? I am thinking of Mel Bochner, for example, as you defended him early on. True, he did attack conceptual art himself, but he was also part of it, in a way, in that early investigation of language and so forth. And he did installations that certainly thought about the white cube. I’m thinking of late ’60s works such as his Measurements pieces, for example, or 1972’s “Axiom of Indifference”—which certainly had a very, very active investment with the architectural boundaries.
Krauss: That’s right. “Axiom of Indifference” is a piece that is on two sides of a wall so that there’s no way to experience it without pushing off the sides of the pool. And I’ve always found Mel Bochner extremely intelligent, and attacking work that he really thinks is part of Modernism. No matter whether he evacuates the visuality of Modernism in order to enter this other more diagrammatic space, I find his work, in the end, visual because it pushes off the sides of the pool. It re-inscribes itself within the white cube. But is Bochner a conceptual artist? I don’t know.
Rail: Well, he doesn’t like the label himself.
Krauss: One of the conceptual artists who is himself of course an installation artist is Daniel Buren. This constant use of the readymade—the stripes are taken from the canvas material, the awning material, the striped cloth for all the awnings on every single civic building in Paris, France. So he simply bought that stuff by the yard, and I find Buren’s work as sort of thinking by the yard. It’s hard for me to respond to your question about conceptual art. I have always found it immensely boring. I mean there’s nothing that sparks, that gets my brain going. And this book is about what gets my brain going. And the sort of moments of experience, like the moment in the Christian Marclay exhibition where I experience this thrust backward from movies with soundtracks, backward to silence, to the invention of sound film or synchronous sound, out of silence. That was one of the great experiences. And the greatest experience I had was with Kentridge’s work, and I describe it as these prisoners falling off a very high building in Johannesburg—it’s a police station—where these black figures fall past the illuminated windows, and the illusion is that the windows form a film strip that is rising as the prisoners are falling; the film strip is rising as if to re-spool itself back through the gate of the projector, so you get the sense of figuring forth the basis of film, which is really the film strip and light and projection.
Rail: That leads me to another question, which has to do with the word “medium.” In the book, there are some fluctuations about the ontological specificity of medium, which is the base of Modernist thought in a way. Your interpretation of the term medium is that of a technical support. In the case of Ruscha, you see his medium as having become a car. It’s not painting or printing; it’s the car. You really find medium not in a specificity of material, but in a specificity of technical apparatus and rules. Now, there is in Derrida a passage where he speaks about the necessity, or the fact that we are forced, to use old words (he calls that paleonymy). It’s very difficult to really find, to create new concepts—we seem to be bound to the same old words, even though we mean something differently or they have a different set of attributes. I think that’s a little bit what happens in your book. You still use the word “medium” because what you oppose is the lack of rules or the lack of boundaries in what you see as this endless proliferation of meaningless installations, right? But is it necessary to use the word medium? But why not just simply say “technical support” as such?
Krauss: In a way, I am following or agreeing with the philosopher Stanley Cavell. In writing about aesthetics, Cavell says that he would like to replace the word medium with the word “automatism,” which is really just a set of rules. He gives an example as the rules that organize Western tonal music and the way that you have a tonal progression through the development section of a sonata or whatever. What he says is that those are the rules, this automatism, that allow for improvisation to occur—as when Bach was able to write five voices of fugues. Or in the final cadenza of a sonata, where the performer—the pianist—is really improvising, or in jazz you have improvisation. Cavell offers automatism as a way of getting away from the word medium, which he believes has been corrupted by, in a sense, Clement Greenberg’s notion of medium specificity that has itself been corrupted. But then he says that he has to return to the word medium so that people understand what he’s talking about. And I really agree with him, and I say that at a certain point. But I feel that what medium reduces to is a technical support. Take oil on plaster for fresco, or the rules of panel painting—these traditional media are technical supports. Therefore, the people I’m calling the Knights of the Medium, are doing what they have to do, which is reinventing the medium by inventing or borrowing a new technical support. So in Ruscha’s example, it’s the automobile with the parking lots, the gas stations, the books like Every Building on the Sunset Strip.
Rail: Although the parking lot shots were made from a helicopter.
But let’s switch to something else. You know I’ve been a reader of yours for many years, and I do not recall you ever quoting Susan Sontag, or at least quoting her approvingly. In this book there’s a short, very brief but nevertheless quite sensitive homage to Susan Sontag’s call for an erotics of art.
Krauss: Right, and that’s in relation to Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, and this sort of call for formal pleasure as against militancy. In Sontag’s case, she’s calling for an erotics of art as against a hermeneutics of art, and in a sense, The Pleasure of the Text does the same thing. It’s this kind of permission, a self-permission. This idea of giving permission to the experience of form, which is what I’m talking about in terms of the experience of the side of the cube and figuring forth the ground of the work, that is to say the support that is obviously formal. One of the things that Under Blue Cup does is to support the idea of the experience of form, which is the erotics of art according to Sontag.
Rail: And actually according to many people who were part of the so-called “poststructuralist” brand, which is once again a concept of which none of the participants approved.
Krauss: You mean like Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text?
Rail: Yes. I also remember that late in life, in one of the last interviews he gave, Foucault was asked about “poststructuralism,” and he said, “Listen, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was not even a structuralist and now you’re telling me I’m poststructuralist?” In the same interview (that was published in English in Telos, I remember), Foucault came in the defense of formalism, and he repeated that often during the last three to four years of his life, even more strongly than during the structuralist years. Barthes had done the same in the late ’70s, actually, saying something like “the enemies of formalism are our enemies.”
Krauss: Oh, really?
Rail: All these people who were branded as attacking formalism kept saying not to dismiss it so fast. Well, that’s where we came from.
Krauss: With Foucault, there’s the wonderful essay called “Fantasia of the Library,” which is the celebration of a kind of network of quotations and of course Walter Benjamin talks about wanting to make a book that is nothing but quotations. This network of quotation we could say has to do with this formalist sense of the structure of the book, and Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet comes to mind as the great book of quotation. Foucault, obviously in that, is willing to think through a formal idea.
Rail: I think that’s a long debate we always had, that the notion of formalism as it has been discussed in America was only encaptured by Greenberg, who in a way ossified formalism. As I often wrote, there are many different kinds of formalist options. For me it was Russian Formalism that was important, and the Russian Formalists would not recognize themselves in Greenberg whatsoever. They would not articulate the work of art that way—but that’s another story, that’s not part of the book.
Krauss: Well, part of my whole concept of derivation, my whole concept of technical support, relates to Shklovsky’s concept of “laying bare the device” And the last chapter of the book, which is called “The Knights Move,” starts with Shklovsky.
Rail: To wrap up, the whole book—and right from the start with the account of your aneurysm—concerns the issue of memory, and so you have this articulation including a so-called Klein diagram about memory and forgetting. As you know, I am completely incapable of understanding diagrams, so I struggled with it for a while and said forget it. But nevertheless, as you present your Knights of the Medium, it seems that the mission they are to take on is to deal with the memory of the medium. But on the other hand, their task is to invent a new medium. How does that combine?
Krauss: That’s the notion of both remembering and forgetting. Remembering the importance of the medium, remembering Modernism, but then forgetting these specific, traditional supports.
Rail: So, memory has to do with the principle of the medium, of rules, of automatism. Forgetting has to do with actual implementation of those specifics in the past?
Krauss: Well, let’s take again installation as an example, and what I say about installation art is that it itself is a sort of forgetting. Wanting to forget the traditional medium. But then in the case of Rebecca Horn and others like Viola, there is this sort of——
Rail: Picturization? You would say that?
Krauss: Yeah. In the Rebecca Horn example, you get this sort of intervention into the space of the framing edge of the canvas, so that’s the compulsive remembering, even within the situation of wanting to forget.
Rail: Another part of the book concerns the kitsch, which you say is about memory and not memory. The intervention of kitsch is, of course, a surprising return to Greenberg at this point of the book. It was like, wow! That train comes from very far! Because in your youth, you were very close to Greenberg.
Krauss: One of the writers whose work strikes me very much is Milan Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and what he means by this lightness is this inability, this compulsion of people to not be able to say things in terms of what they really are. This endless avoidance of the nature of things, and that’s the unbearable lightness, and what he refers to as the example, he speaks of as shit. The inability to mention excrement, to have to dissemble it in terms of something else. That’s the unbearable lightness of being and I’m calling that kitsch.
Rail: He calls it himself kitsch in the book, right?
Krauss: Yes, he calls it kitsch. It seems to me that the nature of kitsch is the inability to sustain—in the case of a silversmith, sustain this sort of handcraft of working silver and instead you get these stamped patterns of silver plate. That sense of the industrialization of the handcraft is what Greenberg and other people call kitsch. This way of forgetting how to work the medium, forgetting this artisanal basis of the work of the guild, and replacing it through this fake memory, this dissembling of the artisanal support—that’s how kitsch comes into the discussion of postmodernism and the inability of the medium to continue to operate through contemporary consciousness. That’s why I return to the notion of kitsch. I mean, it’s not in honor of Greenberg, but I think the book really is about remembering and forgetting in these various ways.
Rail: How does it relate to the concept of deskilling, which Benjamin Buchloh uses so often in his work?
Krauss: Deskilling is a way of forgetting, insisting that the artist forget.
Rail: In an active, self-conscious way.
Krauss: To let go of the skill, which are the rules of a given medium.
Rail: Would you say that the act of deskilling the way Benjamin describes it would be, at least, a self-conscious declarative way of forgetting, and because of that, it is not forgetting simply because it declares it is forgetting?
Krauss: We can go back to Duchamp and say that choosing a readymade is certainly a form of deskilling. Duchamp in fact talks about that when he says that he wanted to get away from the smell of turpentine. That sense of rejecting painting or oil painting as the smell of turpentine leads him then to the deskilling in the form of the readymade, and that would be in a sense the central example of deskilling.
Rail: But in wanting to forget or declaring that you’re forgetting, would not you immediately be producing the reverse? Wittgenstein said somewhere, that’s one of the few things I remember of his, that you can’t forget at will. Which of course anybody who has been very unhappy in love, for example, would like to do. But you can’t. So one thing you can’t do at will is forgetting. By saying, “I forget” or “I want to forget” the smell of turpentine, isn’t that in a way reaffirming the existence of this thing that you want to forget?
Krauss: That kind of dialectic is exactly what my book is about.
Yve-Alain Bois is professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is currently preparing the catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly's paintings and sculpture.