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The White Cube, the Black Cube, or the Knight’s Move? : Frankie Partridge
Under Blue Cup’ by Rosalind E. Krauss, The MIT Press 2011 - Reviewed this extraordinary little book enigmatically entitled ‘Under Blue Cup’, In the American art critic Rosalind Krauss sets out her unifying solution to the complex issue of the role of the artist’s medium in the 21st Century.

Since Postmodernism arrived with its uncertainties and relativities alongside the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’ described in
Lucy Lippard’s seminal book of 1973, the ‘medium’ itself is no longer at the centre of the discourse that the American artists of the late 60‘s were establishing their identities against, jockeying to lead the field. At the same time, the logical positivist approach of the critics Greenberg and Krauss confirmed the painters dialogue with the plane of the canvas and sought to discount illusionist representation, putting the traditional and historical notion of the artist’s ‘medium’ in crisis. Pollock, Stella, Serra and others stood at the crossroads and since that time, ‘Art’ has burgeoned out in a variety of forms. Krauss has written about this ‘crisis’ of the artist’s medium in her many critical works since that time, gradually distancing herself from Clement Greenberg’s ‘dead end’ approach and working towards a unifying and more overarching concept of the artist’s medium, as the boundaries of the original picture frame or the edge of the canvas have moved out to the walls of the Gallery and beyond, even to the very edge of the boundary between life and Art.

This little book not only embraces a new ‘discursive unity’ across the ‘muses’ of the arts in this Postmodern age, but also comes up with a new definition for the role of the artist’s medium that Krauss calls
‘the Knight’s move’. I found this book fascinating in that unlike her previous works it is structured according to the form of the ‘fugue’; and for Krauss this is her first experimental foray using the Artist’s Book form: Here she both makes the argument for her new unifying concept for the term ‘medium’ (where each artist has to invent their very own rules for their personal ‘technical support’ against the backdrop of the medium’s ‘discursive unity’) and at the same time Krauss creates her very own rule based technical support that is the structural matrix for ‘Under Blue Cup’.
‘Under Blue Cup’ by Rosalind E. Krauss
The MIT Press 2011

Here, Krauss uses her Structuralist logic to take up and reinvent the original concept of the artist’s ‘medium’ that harks back to a governing set of rules of perspective set against grid lines on the canvas or plaster medium that was used by the Guild system of the Renaissance, redefining it as a ‘virtual’ support or matrix, also governed by a set of rules, just like the rules of perspective. In a single blow she set up her new concept of ‘medium’ back in an open and discursive relationship with its own history.

The logic supporting Krauss’s new concept of the medium develops from something that happened to her in late 1999: She had a massive brain aneurism; which meant that she totally lost her memory, and had to rebuild it gradually from a series of flash cards bearing a few words she had to link together. She did this, and in the process she discovered that the most important thing for rebuilding her memory was her sense of self which she never lost. In her own words;
‘Under Blue Cup’, the legend on my initial flash card, triumphantly proved the first rule of mnemonic therapy; if you can remember “who” you are....you have the necessary associative scaffold to teach yourself to remember anything.’ This then became for Krauss her seminal concept for the redefined term medium: It is the ‘scaffolding’ that supports our very own notion of the ‘who you are’ of each individual artist. Nevertheless, it relates not only to a reflection of ourself but to our group memory of the history of the term ‘medium’; we all participate in the development of that notion as we participate in the ‘discursive unity’ that has evolved its meaning through time.

This is the underpinning concept for the whole book, and it is from this she develops her new term for the medium in what she calls ‘the post-medium age’; it is a ‘technical support’ a ‘virtual scaffolding’ crucially governed by a ‘set of rules’; and here, Krauss associates herself with the search of the ‘avant-garde’ for fresh ‘technical supports’ to distance themselves from those of the ‘exhausted tradition.’ The stage was set for artists to seek alternative sidestepping approaches to ‘allow a newly wrought means of pointing to who you are’; and it is here that Krauss offers ‘the Knight’s move’ to be the replacement for the ‘space specificity’ or ‘the white cube’, as a ‘new pool’s edge to kick off against and propel the artist in a new direction.’

‘the Knight’s move’ on the grid of the chessboard becomes her central analogy for a set of rules applied consistently and recursively through time, in much the way that a fugue is created she suggests; with recurring structural translations and yet allowing for free improvisation and composition within the framework: She chooses this movement, governed by a rule structured through time and space and performing a complex dance around the matrix, as a metaphor for the artist’s own ‘personal scaffolding’ that they must create or invent.

For myself, the Knight’s move is the most difficult concept so far. It is based on the notion that each artist must ‘discover the conventions of a new technical support’ thus inventing their own personal medium. Reference is taken from the history of the medium and by placing it into a new context and through a kind of ‘Knight’s move’ side-stepping movement it becomes new and fresh: It is ‘the kicking off from the side of the pool’; it is the ‘frame of reference’ as something that is recursively returned to or ‘figured forth’ in a coherent way. She relates this concept to the neutrality of the space-framing
‘white cube’ of the Gallery: This is her reason for opposing those that say the ‘white cube’ is too much associated with consumerist culture and should now be consigned to history along with everything else.

The extraordinary thing about
‘Under Blue Cup’ is that not only does it use discursive techniques to unfurl the logic behind the Knight’s move, but it uses its own invented ‘Knight’s move’ and internal matrix in its own creation: Krauss has created her own epiphanic artwork here. The very way ‘Under Blue Cup’ is structured, she confirms, is based not only on the discursive style of traditional art criticism, but also structured on the scaffolding normally appropriate for music; apparently giving Krauss the very freedom that she speaks of when she describes her new medium as being like ‘virtual scaffolding’ that works in a way comparable to the structure of the fugue with its rule based repetitions, unifying melodic threads and ability to mutate.

So this all seems very fine and workable, especially suited, it transpires, to the work of Krauss’s favourite
‘Knights of the medium’, who are all working or have worked in a time-based medium such as the artist’s book, or with slide show and animatory techniques. The work of her eight artists are described in the central part of the book: These are headed up by her favourite Knight, William Kentridge; but also include Sophie Calle, James Coleman, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Broodthaers, Harun Farocki and Christian Marclay.

However, the logic behind her central tenet that when we work with a medium we are necessarily taking part in the historic and recursive discussion on the role of the medium, I believe is suspect. Krauss’s insistence on ‘the medium being the memory’ is based on the structuralist concept of ‘paradigm’: In this case, Krauss posits the paradigm of ‘memory’ versus ‘forgetting’: these so called ‘binaries’ she says, link through the ‘discursive unity of the field’ to the historical development of the notion of the medium. Yet the terms are clearly personal to her own journey and her own recovery of her essential self. True binaries are polar opposites, so should not these rather be
‘memory’ versus ‘absence of memory’, or ‘remembering’ versus ‘forgetting’?

Krauss appears to be saying that if we do not make deliberate reference back to a former medium in our acts of creation, then we are guilty of lack of respect ...and yet is it not possible to be so inventive as to create something outside of the boundaries of a historical notion of the medium? And if not, then perhaps the whole notion of the medium of Art being a set of rules governing a virtual matrix is a tautology...it cannot help but be a true medium with historical a priori.

I can pretty well make this idea ‘work’ with a number of leading artists today, especially those working in video, and I can see how this idea has grown out of those New York based artists working within a minimalist and conceptualist framework where the ‘medium was the ‘message’...or the ‘Fact was the Form’. However, perhaps this ‘Knight’s move’ is just another
‘straight jacket’ to break out from, rather than a lovely piece of imagery to describe a path that both takes a laterally sidestepping trajectory...and yet is ultimately circular; always pointing back.

Martin Herbert of Art Monthly wrote a review of ‘Under Blue Cup’ in April 2012 where he argued that Krauss cannot see the polyvalency of many works of art today, and that indeed she is dismissive of certain types of art she does not like....those working with text for example. However, Maria Walsh of Art Review reckoned that her model does provide a historically supported and open ended way forward for artists that find themselves lacking in a tradition that they can develop on from. Post Modernist ideas suggest that the picture frame or ‘support’ has now been replaced because of the extension of the boundaries of ‘What is Art’, out to the Gallery and its grounds and even beyond that; to the boundary of Life and Art. At this point it has become essential for artists to feel some security in being able to have a historically supported frame of reference; and here Krauss’s notion of the choice of an artist’s medium being like something to ‘kick off from, like the side of the pool’ is certainly rather neat. In support of this, Walsh went to several galleries and tried out looking at the work in terms of Krauss’s ‘Knight’s Move’ and claimed it worked well for her in her own interpretation and assessment of work.

So perhaps Krauss has reinvented the wheel, in a kind of revalidation of the old concept of the artist’s medium. However, it seems clear to me that many artists today are kind of lost in the sheer openness of what constitutes Art today, and a great deal of work produced today will be forgotten or remain unremarked. New boundaries need to be reestablished and values returned to. Like Krauss I feel the significance of the late 60‘s artists working with the central importance of the medium to the message, the ‘fact of the form’: This is why ultimately, I think this is an important little book.

Frankie Partridge 1/10/12



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