Tag Archives: Mondrian

Krauss’s Trouble with Grids, My Trouble with Krauss

Speaking of grids:

I’d to try to set some of the ideas from my last post into a larger and more canonical context: Krauss’ 1979 article “Grids.” This article, in fact, is the one that the author of “Fear of Grids” chose for his or her article’s epigraph. It seems to me that there’s a certain sympathy between Krauss’s interpretation of Mondrian’s paintings and the architectural evolution of the grid proposed in the aforementioned patron article.

Krauss gives us two categories of grid paintings in modern art: centripetal and centrifugal. In the former, the lines of the grid stop short of the edge of the canvas. In the latter, they touch the edge of the canvas. She claims that the centrifugal work “posits the theoretical continuity of the work of art with the world,” whereas “for the centripetal practice, the opposite is true.”

A centripetal and a centrifugal Mondrian painting

 

I have to believe Krauss got caught up in the rhetorical clarity of this transition – it seems to be the only way to explain the fact that the paragraph that follows this claim explicitly rejects this oppositional logic.  Having claimed that the centrifugal work is, in a sense, of the world (her term is “coextensive”), she qualifies the centripetal work as tending “not to dematerialize [its] surface,” and “far more materialist in character.” She judges this as a “curious” paradox, but I struggle to imagine what reader would be surprised by her conclusion.

This might seem like a weird point of entry to a critique: why should we be bothered by the fact that Krauss finds something paradoxical that seems fairly intuitive? Basically, I’m proceeding this way because I think that it draws out some interesting parallels to the analysis in the previous post.

Krauss’s account of the grid begins by defining its contemporary status in opposition to its role in the scientific treatises on optics and perception in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. “Unlike perspective,” she writes, “the grid [in modern art] does not map the surface of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting… if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself.” The grid and canvas are “coextensive,” she argues, and therefore (here we find ourselves quoting the epigraph from “The Fear of Grids,”) “the bottom line of the grid is a naked and determined materialism” (52).

However, she notes, this wasn’t how modern art understood the grid:

Mondrian and Malevich are not discussing canvas or pigment or graphite or any other form of matter. They are talking about Being or Mind or Spirit. From their point of view, the grid is a staircase to the Universal, and they are not interested in what happens below in the Concrete.

For Krauss, the grid plays the role of a myth for modernity: it paves over the irreconcilable break between the spiritual and secular (implicit in this is modern art’s imagined capacity to paper over the existential dread so clearly articulated by Nietzsche.)

Yet when Krauss makes her distinction between centripetal and centrifugal grids, she drops this material versus universal paradigm. To understand this, we have to be a bit more precise in how we talk about the relationship between the paint on the canvas and the canvas itself. As paint can’t literally exceed the surface it’s applied to, and the surface itself is not infinite, the centripetal grid’s implication of infinity requires that it refer to a conceptual grid. The critical question is this: does a grid delimited by the canvas remain paint on a canvas, or does it, too, refer to a potentially infinite conceptual grid in order to reveal itself as a not-infinite grid?

Krauss’s argument suggests she believes the latter to be the case – which further suggests that when she claims for the grid “a naked and determined materialism,” she’s emphasizing the -ism. For Krauss, the grid points to the separation between abstraction and representation, but it doesn’t necessarily follow through on this promise. Moreover, for Krauss this is still a matter of reading the grid and interpreting its meaning. Her gripe about Malevich and Mondrian is not that the grid operates conceptually rather than materially, but that it was understood as universal – that is, without referent or need for interpretation.

I think that Krauss’s expectation that her readers will find the centripetal artwork’s relative emphasis on materiality surprising stems from giving insufficient credit to the importance of technique and going too far in her desire for synthesis. Contrary to Krauss, we need to stop short of attempting to synthesize the entire spectrum of material conditions (mythemes, as she refers to them) into a singular socio-cultural narrative that seeks to explain the grid in modern art. Instead of answer the question above (“does a grid delimited by the canvas remain paint on a canvas, or does it, too, refer to a potentially infinite conceptual grid in order to reveal itself as a not-infinite grid?”) with “the latter,” we should answer that not only can it be read both ways, but that – if we’re interested in understanding technique – this is the more valuable endeavor.

“Logically speaking,” Krauss argues, “the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity… By virtue of the grid, the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric. Thus the grid operates from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgment of a world beyond the frame” (60). In the case of the centrifugal grid, I think this is a misreading.

Krauss believes that because the centrifugal grid exceeds the canvas we understand it as “coextensive” with the world. This fails to acknowledge that in order to exceed the canvas it must be read as detached from the canvas – which is finite.  Its capacity to make people (even if mistakenly, in her view) read it as universal is directly related to this referential, conceptual orientation. The grid exceeds the canvas not by being coextensive with the world, but because we accept the material organization of paint on the canvas as representing something unworldly.

Conversely, the delimited grid does not necessarily reference anything beyond/behind the surface of the canvas. In fact, a grid which stops short of the canvas has already made a conceptual “deferral” to its materiality. In response to this, rather than pointing to this specific reciprocity between materiality and concept, Krauss reads it as necessarily reflexive of the art object’s autonomy. It seems to me that the only way one could come to this conclusion is by reading the delimited grid in opposition to the infinite grid – it one considers these techniques on their own terms rather than as part of a structuralist system, it isn’t so clear why the choice to paint lines which stop before the edge of the canvas constitutes an assertion of art’s non-worldliness rather than an acknowledgment of its worldly limits.