“Late in 1999, my brain erupted,” begins influential modern art critic Rosalind E. Krauss’ newest book, Under Blue Cup. Struck by an aneurysm (an example artfully rendered above), Krauss fell into a coma for a month, only to resurface and find that pieces of her remarkable memory had washed away in the torrents of blood. During her recovery, Krauss used flash cards as tools to reestablish her memory, one of which had the legend, “Under blue cup.” Under Blue Cup becomes a book-length “flash card” in which Krauss strives to help contemporary art restore its own, pre-Duchampian memory of the specific medium being as important to art as the idea itself. When “the aneurysm thrust forgetting into my experience as a possibility I’d never imagined,” Krauss writes, she realized the legacy of modern art’s forgetting and its unimaginable trajectory towards irrelevance. Under Blue Cup is a deeply personal, deeply infuriating, deeply thought, and deeply felt prescription for what Krauss sees as the ills of today’s art world.
If there’s a villain in Under Blue Cup, it’s not Krauss’ failed blood vessel; it’s Marcel Duchamp. Krauss sees modern art’s turning point for the worse as the shift away from Picasso to Duchamp and his “ready-mades.” Art fell in the toilet with the dawn of Duchamp’s Fountain. Conceptual art, the bastard child of Duchamp’s ready mades, took the idea of art as pure idea and lost all touch with the specific, tangible medium. Painting and sculpture gave way to installation art full of ideas but empty of technique that has become easy target of mainstream ridicule.
“The success of conceptualism has brought with it its peculiar amnesia,” Krauss concludes, “as the mnemonic condition of the medium is washed away in its own aneurystic flood.” In other words, by abandoning the rules of painting, for example, conceptual art has forgotten the whole history of art and all the “rules” that artists and audiences rely on to complete the aesthetic transaction. To help today’s art remember those rules, just as Krauss had to remember the rules of existence after her aneurysm, Krauss structures Under Blue Cup “fugally” to mimic “the master narrative of the brain’s remembering and forgetting.” Like a Bach fugue, the results in Under Blue Cup are at times mesmerizing, confounding, enlightening, or, occasionally, all three at once.
If Duchamp is the villain, a select society of modern artists comprise the “knights” who defend the “specificity” of the medium against those who would despecify it into nonexistence (and art into irrelevance). Ed Ruscha, Sophie Calle, Harun Farocki, Christian Marclay, and James Coleman all come to the rescue of art in Krauss’ crusade, but it is South African artist William Kentridge, a long-time favorite of the critic, who stands as the Galahad purest in his pursuit of the anti-conceptualist grail. Kentridge’s short film Ubu Tells the Truth becomes “both an allegory of postmodernism’s attack on the specific medium and a way of resisting it,” in Krauss’ eyes. Later, Krauss praises Kentridge’s “pressure toward visibility [that] runs counter to conceptual art’s assumption that, now, language replaces vision, eclipsing the seen by the said.” Kentridge shows and tells, whereas conceptual art tells because showing doesn’t matter anymore. Kentridge and his fellow “knights” make showing matter once more.
Keeping up the knight metaphor, Krauss likens Kentridge and the other artists to knights on a chessboard, who are free to move within the rules of the game. “The rules understood by Ruscha, Coleman, Kentridge, and [Richard] Serra are not… conceptualist shards of language standing apart from their process and their materials,” Krauss explains, “but deeply embedded in the complex of their work’s support, obvious to the viewer of the work.” You can be constrained by your medium and still be a happy artist, Krauss offers. And, yet, these knights seem too often pawns in Krauss’ theoretical gaming—pieces for her to deploy while quoting Foucault, Barthes, Lacan, and all the other patron saints of the high church of high brow criticism. For someone who has dedicated her life to looking and thinking about art, Krauss, at least on paper, seems to never allow herself to feel the art, even for a moment.
What Krauss does feel, however, is clearly anger at the contemporary art scene. Even before her opening paragraph, tucked away in the graceful acknowledgments, Krauss claims that the book was “incited by over a decade of disgust at the spectacle of meretricious art called installation.” She proudly calls Under Blue Cup “a polemic, adamantly shouting ‘fake’ and ‘fraud’ at the kitsch of installation.” I’m reminded of a Picasso quote in which he complained that modern art critics were too uniformly nice and failed to separate what Krauss calls the “fakes” and “frauds” from the “real” artists. Picasso would have enjoyed Under Blue Cup. If lukewarm art criticism leaves you cold, too, then Under Blue Cup will warm your heart.
In 1993, Roger Kimball wrote a review of Krauss’ The Optical Unconscious that he titled, “Feeling Sorry for Rosalind Krauss.” “It is easy to be exasperated with Rosalind Krauss,” Kimball wrote. “She is pretentious, obscurantist, and mean-spirited. Enjoying a position of great academic respect, she has, through her writings, teaching, and editorship of October, exercised a large and baneful influence on contemporary writing and thinking about culture. In the end, however, one’s exasperation is likely to be mixed with pity.” Kimball pities Krauss for thinking about art so much that she’s never felt or enjoyed it. In Under Blue Cup, Krauss lays bare her traumatic experience not for pity, but to lay bare what she sees as the fundamental flaw of contemporary art. Krauss aims her final bomb at the 9/11 Ground Zero memorials, which she sees as steeped in “fake emotions and disingenuous consolation.” If you’ve ever felt dissatisfied with the ideas for those still-yet-to-be-fully-realized memorials, you should get the central idea of Under Blue Cup. Almost more than anything else it does, art helps us remember. If art forgets itself, Krauss argues, what hope do we have? The real pity would be to leave that question unanswered.