The Optical Unconscious

Front Cover
MIT Press, 1994 - Art - 353 pages

The Optical Unconscious is a pointed protest against the official story of modernismand against the critical tradition that attempted to define modern art according to certain sacredcommandments and self-fulfilling truths. The account of modernism presented here challenges thevaunted principle of "vision itself." And it is a very different story than we have ever read, notonly because its insurgent plot and characters rise from below the calm surface of the known andlaw-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 ofwriting in this book: art history that insinuates diary and art theory, and that has the gait andtone of fiction.The Optical Unconscious will be deeply vexing to modernism's standard-bearers, andto readers who have accepted the foundational principles on which their aesthetic is based. Kraussalso gives us the story that Alfred Barr, Meyer Shapiro, and Clement Greenberg repressed, the storyof 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 the1920s to the 1950s and continues to disrupt it today.In order to understand why modernism had torepress the optical unconscious, Krauss eavesdrops on Roger Fry in the salons of Bloomsbury, andspies on the toddler John Ruskin as he amuses himself with the patterns of a rug; we find her in theliving 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 theway, there are also narrative encounters with Freud, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, RogerCaillois, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-François Lyotard.To embody this optical unconscious, Krauss turnsto the pages of Max Ernst's collage novels, to Marcel Duchamp's hypnotic Rotoreliefs, to Eva Hesse'sluminous sculptures, and to Cy Twombly's, Andy Warhol's, and Robert Morris's scandalous decoding ofJackson Pollock's drip pictures as "Anti-Form." These artists introduced a new set of values intothe field of twentieth-century art, offering ready-made images of obsessional fantasy in place ofmodernism's intentionality and unexamined compulsions.Rosalind Krauss is Professor of Art History atColumbia University and an editor of the journal October.


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About the author (1994)

Rosalind E. Krauss is University Professor in the Department of Art History at Columbia University, where, from 1995 to 2006, she held the Meyer Schapiro Chair in Modern Art and Theory. She is a founding editor of October and the author of Passages in Modern Sculpture, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths, The Optical Unconscious, Bachelors, Perpetual Inventory, Under Blue Cup (all published by the MIT Press), and other books.

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