Our homework last week was to read an essay called ‘Sculpture in the Expanding Field’ which was published in 1979, written by an art theorist and critic called Rosalind Krauss. I had never heard of this essay, so didn’t realise that it was actually quite an iconic piece of writing. I didn’t give this essay the respect it deserved. I read it while being driven down the motorway because that was the only time in the week I could find to do my homework uninterrupted. I found the essay quite hard to read, but I had a feeling that what it was saying was quite important in some way and needed to be understood.
As I read I wondered what Krauss meant by the term used in the title ‘expanding field’. It made me think of an elastic band. Did she mean a stretching of the concept of sculpture? It turns out that that is exactly what she meant.
The essay is about sculpture (obviously) and what sculpture had become in the second half of the twentieth century. In the essay Krauss is questioning the three-dimensional art form of ‘sculpture’. She states ‘surprising things have come to be called sculpture’ (Krauss, R., ‘Sculpture in the Expanding Field’ in October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), p.30) . She explains that looking back over the previous century the definition of art and sculpture has become more elastic, it has jumped out of it’s traditional box and dipped its toe in new areas.
She starts by talking about the traditional logic of sculpture and the fading of that logic during the nineteenth century.
This change of course had been gradual, and Krauss cites two examples that mark the transition. Rodin’s Gates of Hell and his statute of Balzac. These works marked the start of an era of the sculptor feeling able to express his or her personality in their work. This change is illustrated more fully by the abandoning of the pedestal upon which traditional sculpture might have sat.
Next the notion of sculpture moved more fully from the monument to the art form. And so sculpture lost its ‘site’ or ‘place’. Monuments became abstract. Sculpture became ‘nomadic’ (ibid, p.34). This change occurred during the modernist period.
Sculpture, after the 1950s, she goes on to state, became something that could be defined rather than by what it was, but what it wasn’t. Krauss uses the term ‘combination of exclusions’ to describe what sculpture had become: it was a negativity rather than a positivity.
So at the time of writing the essay, in the postmodernist era, sculpture for the first time situated itself between ‘not-landscape’ and ‘not architecture’. This is where the ‘combination of exclusions’ notion comes into play. The sculpture needed the landscape to define itself, it used the landscape to be. The example she gives is of Robert Morris‘s ‘Green Gallery Installation’ from 1964.
Some sculpture explores the possibility of landscape and not landscape (the sites define the works) and some lies in the place of architecture and not architecture (sculpture as an ‘intervention in the real space of architecture’ (ibid, p.41)).
So what is sculpture now? Or what was it at the turn of the twentieth century? Krauss was saying that it could be anything. Sculpture could encompass a much broader range of medium such as ‘photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself’ (ibid, p.42). And this is true of art as well as sculpture. The definition became more ambiguous.
This essay was important in the art world as it gave artists permission to be free with their art, to blur the boundaries between art forms and to live by the notion that anything goes.
Krauss, R., ‘Sculpture in the Expanding Field’ in October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979)