The Optical Unconscious (October Books)
Rosalind E. Krauss
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The Optical Unconscious is a pointed protest against the official story of modernism and against the critical tradition that attempted to define modern art according to certain sacred commandments and self-fulfilling truths. The account of modernism presented here challenges the vaunted principle of "vision itself." And it is a very different story than we have ever read, not only because its insurgent plot and characters rise from below the calm surface of the known and law-like field of modernist painting, but because the voice is unlike anything we have heard before. Just as the artists of the optical unconscious assaulted the idea of autonomy and visual mastery, Rosalind Krauss abandons the historian's voice of objective detachment and forges a new style of writing in this book: art history that insinuates diary and art theory, and that has the gait and tone of fiction.
The Optical Unconscious will be deeply vexing to modernism's standard-bearers, and to readers who have accepted the foundational principles on which their aesthetic is based. Krauss also gives us the story that Alfred Barr, Meyer Shapiro, and Clement Greenberg repressed, the story of a small, disparate group of artists who defied modernism's most cherished self-descriptions, giving rise to an unruly, disruptive force that persistently haunted the field of modernism from the 1920s to the 1950s and continues to disrupt it today.
In order to understand why modernism had to repress the optical unconscious, Krauss eavesdrops on Roger Fry in the salons of Bloomsbury, and spies on the toddler John Ruskin as he amuses himself with the patterns of a rug; we find her in the living room of Clement Greenberg as he complains about "smart Jewish girls with their typewriters" in the 1960s, and in colloquy with Michael Fried about Frank Stella's love of baseball. Along the way, there are also narrative encounters with Freud, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-François Lyotard.
To embody this optical unconscious, Krauss turns to the pages of Max Ernst's collage novels, to Marcel Duchamp's hypnotic Rotoreliefs, to Eva Hesse's luminous sculptures, and to Cy Twombly's, Andy Warhol's, and Robert Morris's scandalous decoding of Jackson Pollock's drip pictures as "Anti-Form." These artists introduced a new set of values into the field of twentieth-century art, offering ready-made images of obsessional fantasy in place of modernism's intentionality and unexamined compulsions.
is clearly a bottom. His habit had been to show her picture ... to his intimates, but also to people he was meeting for the first time, people to whom he was beginning to take a liking. He would indicate this by extracting his wallet and lifting a photograph from its folds, which he would proffer between the index and middle finger of his frail, aristocratically boned hands. But then his whole appearance, from the high, wide forehead and ardently sculpted nose to the elegant slouch with which he
apparatus two scientists are manipulating from within the shadowy interior of their laboratory. These legs, truncated just above the thigh, end at the upper face of the box, a tiny observable ripple of cloth gesturing toward the joint between them. In their posture, in their function, in their affect, the legs reconvene an image we recognize. We’ve seen it before in La puberte proche; we’ve seen it in the “Gradiva” mural at Eaubonne; and, we might suspect, we will see it again: its final
falling, falling from the vertical into the hori zontal. How is it that with that simple implication of falling, ecstasy is produced as image? The scenario, as it were, for this collage had been published in 1930 by Georges Bataille in the “Dictionary” project ongoing in Documents. It came as the “definition” for “Mouth.” For animals, Bataille writes, the mouth is a “prow.” It is the foremost projection of that sleek horizontal that, like the ship’s silhouette on the sea, comprises the
nests of concentric squares or circles. And while each is its own version of the neutralizing of the original distinction, none is an erasure of the terms of that distinction. Quite to the contrary. The terms are both pre served and canceled. Preserved all the more surely in that they are canceled. Empirical vision must be canceled, in favor of something understood as the precondition for the very emergence of the perceptual object to vision. To a higher, more formal order of vision, something
So language can be imagined as a kind of card game, all of whose rules are fixed and unchanging, but for which places are prepared at the table for a succession of players. In stepping up to that table and becoming a player, the speaker becomes a subject: what structural linguistics calls a “subject of enunciation,” the one who gives “I” its (existential) meaning in the act of speaking it. Now, Lacan takes this “subject of enunciation” and understands it as a subject tout court. He sees that