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Abstract Expressionist Critic: Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss was a critic and contributing editor for Artforum and one of the founders of the quarterly art theory journal October. She has been a highly influential critic and theorist in the post-Abstract Expressionist era. Originally a disciple of the formalist Clement Greenberg, Krauss later became enthralled with newer artistic movements that she believed required a different theoretical approach, which focused less on the aesthetic purity of an art form (prevalent in Greenberg's criticism), and more on aesthetics that captured a theme or historical and/or cultural issue. Krauss still teaches Art History at Columbia University in New York.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Krauss viewed Abstract Expressionism as a singular movement whose practitioners adhered to strict standards of medium purity and anti-commercialism.
  • With the arrival of new artistic styles in the 1960 and 70s, Krauss observed a variety of young artists experimenting with radically new perceptions of art and space. In her writing, Krauss placed a particular emphasis on artists who worked in sculpture and artwork that occupied the three dimensional plane.
  • As a critic and art historian, Krauss celebrated innovative post-AbEx styles as part of a new enlightenment in the history of Modernism; she deemphasized the importance of medium purity in art, and directed her attention toward matters of feminism, post-structuralism and post-minimalism.
Childhood and Education
Rosalind Epstein Krauss was born to Matthew M. Epstein, an attorney, and Bertha Luber. Her father instilled in Rosalind a love for the arts, and would frequently take her to museums in the Washington, D.C. area.

Rosalind earned her Bachelor’s degree in Art History from Wellesley College in 1962, the same year she became married to the architect, Richard I. Krauss. Immediately after graduating from Wellesley, Krauss was accepted into Harvard University’s Department of Fine Arts (now the Department of History of Art and Architecture), where she received her Ph.D. in Art History. Her dissertation was on the work of American sculptor David Smith, who had passed away in 1965. If it had not been for Smith’s passing, and as a direct consequence, posthumous fame, it is doubtful Harvard would have allowed Krauss to write about a contemporary artist like Smith.

One of Krauss’ classmates at Harvard was the art critic and historian Michael Fried, with whom she shared an early affinity for the theories and writings of Clement Greenberg. Krauss and Fried soon developed opposing views on the direction taken by Modern art in the post-Abstract Expressionist era. While Fried celebrated the Post-Painterly Abstractions of artists like Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, Krauss was a fan of the Minimalists, such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.

Krauss earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1969, but she had been writing art criticism for the journal Artforum since 1966. In her first year of writing for the magazine, Krauss published a well-received article entitled “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd.”

Work as Critic and Professor
After graduating from Harvard, Krauss became an associate professor of Art History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and quickly rose to the position of full professor within two years.

In 1971 Krauss was promoted to contributing editor for Artforum. That same year, she divorced her husband and published her first book, an expanded version of her Harvard dissertation, entitled Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith.

The following year, Krauss published in the pages of Artforum what is arguably her seminal essay, “A View of Modernism,” in which she began to criticize Greenbergian art criticism for largely ignoring content and feeling. She also condemned a form of Rosenbergian criticism in writing: “In the 50s we had been alternately tyrannized and depressed by the psychologizing whine of `Existentialist’ criticism.” Krauss’ view of Modernism was evidently still developing in these pages, as she devoted more time to pinpointing faults with art criticism rather than elaborating a new strategy for examining art.

In 1972 Krauss left M.I.T. to take a position at Princeton University, where she lectured regularly and directed their visual arts program.

In 1975 Krauss left Princeton and became an associate professor of Hunter College in New York City. The following year, Krauss left Artforum (considered a rash decision at the time, given the magazine’s high profile and favorable reputation) and together with her former Harvard classmate, Annette Michelson, started the arts and culture quarterly journal October. The journal’s namesake came from the 1927 Sergei Eisenstein film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World, based on the Bolshevik October revolution.

The “Octoberists”
The “Octoberists,” as the journal’s founders were called (including Krauss, Michelson and the artist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe), founded the publication in New York City, and appointed Krauss as its founding editor. October was formed as a politically-charged journal that introduced American readers to the ideas of French post-structural theory, made popular by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes. October also became a popular forum for postmodern art theory.

Krauss used October as a way to publish essays on her emergent ideas on post-structuralist art theory, Deconstructionist theory, psychoanalysis, postmodernism and feminism. More importantly, October was significant for revisiting and stressing the historical importance of early modes of 20th-century avant-garde art, such as Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism. She currently continues to edit and write for October.

Krauss is one of the 20th-century’s foremost art critics and theorists on Modern and postmodern art, having written in-depth analyses of individual artists like Picasso, Giacometti and Pollock, and broader conceptual studies of artistic movements like Minimalism and Conceptualism. Her greatest contribution to art criticism came when she broke from formalist Greenbergian theory (which prioritized medium as an artwork’s most expressive feature) and offered a new idea that, by the 1970s, the art world had entered the “post-medium” age, wherein artistic media had ceased to be important. According to Krauss, “post-medium” forms of art (or what many think of as postmodern or post-structuralist) did not try to engage people via a pure and discrete artistic medium, nor did they represent a means of protest to commercialism and commodification. Artists in the post-medium age could still strive for purity in their art, Krauss argued, but this effort had less to do with any form of media and everything to do with the work’s expressive power and historical contextualization.


Early Ideas on Modernism
Rosalind Krauss’ early writings from the mid-1960s were informed by the perspectives of critics like Greenberg and the young Michael Fried, who believed that technically-proficient modes of painterly abstraction were the greatest artistic achievements of the Modern era. “With `modernism,’” Krauss wrote in “A View of Modernism” in 1972, “…it was precisely its methodology that was important to a lot of us who began to write about art in the early 1960s. That method demanded lucidity. It demanded that one not talk about anything in a work of art that one could not point to. It involved tying back one’s perceptions about art in the present to what one knew about the art of the past.” Krauss admittedly adhered to these standards of art writing, adopting the Greenbergian formalist approach of considering solely what one can see with one’s own eyes.

Breaks from Greenbergian Formalism
Krauss’ perspective, however, eventually diverged from Greenberg. Whereas Greenberg had concluded that abstract painting of the 1950s and 60s represented the pinnacle of Modern artistic achievement, Krauss came to believe that Greenberg’s approach was too limited in scope. She began to consider the more elusive qualities of an artwork; the things one could not point to in a painting or sculpture. This eventually led her to conclude that purity, while still an important quality in art, had little to do with style or medium and more to do with the artist’s intentions.

According to Krauss, the responsibility of the Modern avant-garde artist was to continually challenge the artistic standards established by history. Consequently, the critic’s job was to recognize these challenges, whether or not they constituted something notable. Krauss wrote in 1972, “We can no longer fail to notice that if we make up schemas of meaning based on history, we are playing into systems of control and censure. We are no longer innocent. `For if the norms of the past serve to measure the present, they also serve to construct it.’” Krauss’ goal in writing this was to free both artist and critic from succumbing to certain expectations.

Influence of Contemporary French Philosophy
When Krauss left Artforum to establish the quarterly October, she set out to create an open forum for art and cultural criticism to exist virtually free from the confines of traditional art theory. This was heavily informed by the writings of French philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Commonly referred to as post-structuralists or Deconstructionists, they proposed that there existed no universal meaning or symbolism, no common archetypal symbols; therefore, it was irresponsible to critique any form of art based on this understanding.

This new post-structuralist theory was a significant break from early Abstract Expressionist theory, which took as its influence the ideas of Existentialism, psychoanalysis and Eastern philosophy, all of which stressed the existence and importance of mutually shared experience, universal symbols and shapes. In adopting post-structuralist theory, Krauss revisited the work of early-20th-century artists like Duchamp and Ray, and early uses of photography, in order to stress that these artworks were not bound by a supposed universal symbolism.


Below are Rosalind Krauss' major influences, and the people and ideas that she influenced in turn.

Marcel Duchamp
Alberto Giacometti
David Smith
Donald Judd
Dan Flavin
Clement Greenberg
Michael Fried
Leo Steinberg
Georges Bataille
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Abstract Expressionism
Rosalind Krauss
Years Worked: 1966 - present
Allan Kaprow
Richard Serra
Robert Morris
Sol LeWitt
William Kentridge
Michael Fried
Annette Michelson
Barbara Rose
Peter Schjeldahl
Hal Foster
Conceptual Art
Installation Art

“Obviously modernism is a sensibility – one that reaches out past that small band of art critics of which I was a part, to include a great deal more than, and ultimately to criticize, what I stood for.”

“Almost everyone is agreed about `70s art. It is diversified, split, factionalized. Unlike the art of the last several decades, its energy does not seem to flow through a single channel for which a synthetic term, like Abstract Expressionism, or Minimalism, might be found.”

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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