Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture

Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture

Reviews: Books

Spyros Papapetros and Julian Rose:

Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture

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Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture offers a thorough and diverse reassessment of the impact of art theorist Rosalind Krauss’s seminal essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.”  Originally published in the influential art theory journal October in 1979, Krauss’s essay applied a structuralist-informed system of categorization to the diverse manifestations of spatial and object-based art practice of the 1960s and 1970s, designating sculpture itself as a distinct value among numerous “positions” within the field. Central to the innovations of this succinct, critical exercise was the way in which Krauss reassessed the boundaries between art and architectural practice within postmodern cultural production, providing a diagrammatic mapping of such hybrid forms as land art and installation art in relation to the disciplinary “purity” of older modernism, based on a structuralist system of binary oppositions and their syntheses, or intermediary positions. In this focused act of return, editors Spyros Papapetros and Julian Rose have assembled a book that usefully departs from the format of the edited academic volume. Here, the single-authored, theorized essay plays a significantly lesser role, in favor of a distinctly dialogical approach. The book works across diverse modes of textual production/presentation: transcribed roundtable discussions with audience comments and short single-authored papers from a two-day symposium held at the Princeton School of Architecture in 2007. It also incorporates republished material, comprising both an archive of artworks and of the art journal page, including a reproduction of the original publication of Krauss’s essay. The effect is a quite revitalizing repositioning of voices and practices: art and architectural theorists, art and spatial practitioners gathered in a collective critique of the work of criticism. In this way, the book also echoes October’s own diversification of the formats of academic presentation, in the ground breaking interdisciplinarity of its early years and its famous roundtable discussions.

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Figure 1. Plate 4.36 (p. 176). Mary Miss, Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys (1977–78). Construction in progress.
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Admirably, the editors permit the autobiographical mode to retain a pertinent trace within the transcripts of the discussions, with memories and reflections on first readings of “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” surfacing in an attempt to apprehend the essay within its historical moment. Krauss herself mentions in the opening roundtable discussion the “fit of pique, a kind of tirade against pluralism,” that initiated her adoption of the structuralist-informed positioning of categories of practice within the essay. At the other end of the book, Mary Miss, whose work features in Krauss’s original essay, recalls querying its incorporation within a structuralist-informed system of differences. Miss invokes something of a primal scene of her own practice, revealing how viewing the transitions and negotiations between “natural and built environments” from the backseat of the old family Chevy provoked an interest in the conjunction of objects, not their distinctions.

Figure 2. Plate 1.1. Roundtable 1: Hal Foster, Yves Alain Blois, and others.
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Perhaps Miss’s concern or sense of irony here would have been assuaged on receipt of the completed book. The discussions frequently return, and with considerable acuity, to the functioning of Krauss’s structuralist method and the essay’s use of Greimas’s “semiotic square” and/or the Klein group diagram in establishing its famous sequence of diagrams. In their contributions to the symposium’s roundtable discussions, Hal Foster and Papapetros, in particular, address the implications of this method, revisiting the designation of positions/values within Krauss’s diagrams to reveal resonance and relation within the array of distinctions, or “oppositions,” to further speculate on the “interaction of constraints” (available options within a “field”), to recall the title of Greimas and Rastier’s essay. Indeed, in “The Pit and the Pedestal: Expanding the Historiographic Field,” Papapetros highlights the role of Miss’s Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys (1977–78) within Krauss’s category of “site constructions” in its potential to associatively resonate beyond itself and to function as something like a performative “retrospective in and of itself.” Papapetros proposes here that the central pit of Miss’s excavation/construction connects with the theme of burial in Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) and also the pit in Gustave Courbet’s painting A Burial at Ornans (1849–50), which Papapetros suggests occupies some distant position at the outer limits of Krauss’s conceptual formation of this category, citing as justification Krauss’s review of a study of Courbet by T. J. Clark (Figure 1).
     Hal Foster, in his comments recorded on the second day of the symposium, responds to Krauss’s own reflections on the importance of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981) to Krauss’s original conception of the essay.1 Curiously, the chronology does not seem to fit here, as the first publication of “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” predates The Political Unconscious by two years. Nevertheless, this connection opens some of the most pertinent and unresolved questions regarding the essay’s effectiveness, contemporary relevance, and its capacity for “reanimation,” as Foster puts it. Foster asks, what is the political unconscious of the expanded field identified by Krauss? What, in other words, are the conceptual points, as Foster quotes Jameson, “beyond which consciousness cannot go,” within the array of designated positions of Krauss’s relational diagram, and how might the expanded field contain within it the intimations, or dawning consciousness, of the as yet unknown within the field—that which is yet to come (Figure 2)?

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Jameson, like Krauss, was trying to make sense of and recalibrate the “plurality” of the emergent forms of postmodernism in this period and, as with Jameson’s wider project to update the Marxist critique of cultural production, Krauss performs a work of “cognitive mapping,” an attempt at grasping something of the totality of the field, and to forward an “operation model” of it, to borrow Miwon Kwon’s words. But while Krauss’s mapping and its justification are very economical, a sketch even, Jameson’s texts fill in with abundant detail and complexity. This economy on Krauss’s part—a desire to forward a theorized overview, but as an operative criticism, as a brief and potent response to the “pluralists” in that “fit of pique”—is both its power and its shortcoming. And although Foster ponders the latent political unconscious of the expanded field that Krauss described in 1979, other discussions also lead us to consider what was missing from the field in the first place—the role of the ready-made, the performative body, and the question of temporality are among the absences noted.
     Foster’s question ultimately addresses the broader context of Krauss’s critical project, and glimpses of a response occur only in the more expansive cross-readings, such as in the presentation by Papapetros cited above, or in the contributions of architect and academic Sandro Marpillero. Marpillero intriguingly sets about fusing two sets of diagrams from “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” and Krauss’s later work The Optical Unconscious (1993; Figure 3). Like Foster, Marpillero is concerned with reanimating the diagrams, and he seeks, in particular, a way beyond what he calls architecture’s “bracketing” within Krauss’s essay as primarily a “value” defined through its association to the monument, “under the guise of signature super-objects,” as he puts it. The hybrid diagram that Marpillero produces would seem to have lost systematic reference to the structuralist model to which Krauss referred but instead maps a more selective set of associations across Marpillero’s reading of the two works, relating, no doubt, to his own sense of an appropriate positioning for a critical design practice. Marpillero emphasizes how his overlay “challenges architecture to come to terms with both its fragmentary conditions as ‘part objects’ (from OU) and the urbanized territory of ‘not-landscape’ (from EF), thus simultaneously weaving together constructed and natural elements from the point of view of their spatial and temporal performance.” Here Marpillero looks to situate architecture from Krauss’s model as both, “in the historical process of formation and disruption of the built environment” (p. 225; emphasis added).

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The implications of Krauss’s “field” for architecture are frequently returned to throughout the book, an imperative no doubt in part due to the location of the symposia within Princeton’s School of Architecture. Anthony Vidler’s single-authored contribution sticks to the contours of Krauss’s original diagram more closely than Marpillero’s but formulates a very similar response and quest to activate an “expanded field for architecture,” combining the value “not landscape” (as a “continuum of the built and the natural”) with what he terms “a monumentality of the informe” (Vidler refers here to the “formlessness” of, e.g., the types of form mutations within parametric design). This notion of a potentially critical, or more subversive, monumental role for architecture would seem to resonate closely with Marpillero’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic category of the “part object” and, indeed, may have informed it, as Vidler’s contribution is an abbreviated version of an essay first published in 2004.  

Figure 3. Plate 5.14 (p. 224). Sandro Marpillero, overlay of Rosalind Krauss’s diagrams. 
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Within Stan Allen’s contributions to the second of the roundtable discussions, the point is made that architectural practice had already been expanded by the implications of Krauss’s mapping of the expanded field, through the very permission it gave to think of architecture in terms of the “construction of site,” rather than “simply as buildings”—that is, to think of architecture as a relational entity, or “environmental apparatus,” in Marpillero’s words. In contrast, editor Julian Rose thinks through the expansion of architectural practice afforded by Krauss’s theorization of the expanded field in the other direction, in its cue to “artists to open up their work to a wide range of architectural ideas and associations without engaging mainstream architectural discourse.” Rose addresses Krauss’s positioning of Robert Smithson’s work within the “expanded field” here as productively undermining the distinctions between architecture and landscape.
     A work of dialogue, a work of the archive, of homage and speculative reassessment: Papapetros and Rose’s book provides not only a valuable reassessment of Krauss’s 1979 essay but also a potent distillation of the wider scenes of cultural and critical production by which it was informed, and which it now informs.

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen, 1981).
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