Los Angeles

Idea People

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Clement Greenberg speaking in 1961.

In 1983, art historian T.J. Clark delivered his paper, “More on the Differences Between Comrade Greenberg and Ourselves” at the Vancouver conference, Modernism and Modernity. Clement Greenberg, the critic who named kitsch “the epitome of all that is spurious” and had a Pollock hanging in his bathroom, was in the audience. I do not know if Greenberg participated in the Q&A, or spoke up for himself at all when Clark finished speaking. Certainly, he was not sitting center stage as Rosalind Krauss was yesterday in the L.A. Convention Center, when Benjamin Buchloh delivered his paper, “More on the Differences between Comrade Krauss and Ourselves.”

Annually, the College Art Association Conference, underway in L.A. right now, honors a distinguished scholar by assembling a group of other distinguished scholars to pay well-researched homage (or “femmage,” critic Hal Foster joked badly yesterday). Those assembled in Rosalind Krauss’s honor included, in addition to Foster and Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Harry Cooper, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, and Briony Fer, all famous within the “art ideas” bubble for some contribution made to art history during the time Krauss has been making hers. All have published in October, the now-renown art theory quarterly Krauss, along with Annette Michelson, co-founded in 1976.

Rosalind Krauss speaking on Bruce Nauman at the Dia Art Foundation, New York, May 23, 2002.

As makes sense for homage, most of what went was said glowed with respect and generous affection, well-deserved for the woman who more or less made art theory a field. Buchloh alone pointedly took Krauss to task. And this, according to him, is something he’s done quite regularly since they met in the 1970s.

Buchloh encountered Krauss first when still an adjunct in Germany. He read her writing — I forgot which essay, but, given the timeline, it likely had to do with Modern sculpture and, quite possibly, with the work of David Smith — and had been bowled over by its critical clarity. This is after all, the woman who wrote, “Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences” and who has appeared in every art theory textbook I have ever owned, sometimes talking about Mondrian, sometimes about Mike Kelley. She is and has always been agile, and Buchloh knew immediately he wanted to traffic in a world where someone like her could air such precisely articulated ideas.

Buchloh met Krauss in person some time later, probably still in the 1970s, at a conference in Canada where, to his surprise, he realized Greenberg, at least in the eyes of North American scholars, was not a provincial figure as he had previously imagined. He amended his critical canon accordingly, and went about becoming friends with the women helming art theory’s new, more academic wave, though they’ve been friends constantly at odds with each others’ ideas.

The main thing that still irks Buchloh about Krauss has to do with her continuous side-stepping of conceptualism. He noted the absence of conceptual art from Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss’ first book, and its absence when she embraced post-structural linguistics at the end of the 1980s. Why, in particular, had Krauss never written about Lawrence Weiner (a favorite of Buchloh’s)? “I can only repeat what my colleagues have pointed to,” said Krauss (I’m paraphrasing), when she had a chance to respond, “and point to my interest in the visual.” Conceptualism has just never been her thing.

Benjamin Buchloh teaching at Harvard.

The second criticism Buchloh leveled felt more powerful. He, like all his colleagues, loved Krauss for her stylistics, her mastery of language and her ability to sound official, assertive, incontrovertible when talking about practically anything: modern sculpture, assemblage, 19th century painting. “The precision of her thinking,” Buchloh said, anticipated Krauss’ wrath, borders “on the tautological.” Her writing, like that of many of their other peers, “Does not even attempt to get its hands dirty.”

Why wouldn’t Krauss let her criticality choke her up sometimes, to think thoroughly through an issue but do it less than cogently, so as to risk unanticipated discoveries and/or blunders? Bruce Hainley, a SoCal art writer who has not written for October but knows its content well, recently published an essay in the form of a letter, “To Whom it May Concern,” in Bard’s Journal of Curatorial Studies. His advice for critics pushes even further than I imagine Buchloh’s would:

 I was actually going to quote Gertrude Stein (“Act so there is no use in a center.”) and then suggest that you doubt, if not exactly everything, then at least all the things in the grammar toolbox, all the blossoms in the writerly garden: mess with syntax; fuck with form (recognizing the genre you’re engaged in); piss off your (metaphorical) parents (few now helming October or the Whitney ISP ever have); ride the proverbial jocks of writers worth the bother (so as to organize some fresh rendezvous of questions and question marks).

The problem, of course, remains how to be centerless and self-conscious and subversive and do it well. Not to undermine Krauss’ achievements in the least, but it’s easier to be successfully tautological than successfully fucked up.