Precisely the point…

“The grid appears in symbolist art in the form of windows, the material presence of their panes expressed by the geometrical intervention of the window’s mullions.  The symbolist interest in windows clearly reaches back into the early nineteenth century and romanticism.  But in the hands of the symbolist painters and poets, this image is turned in an explicitly modernist direction.  For the window is experienced as simultaneously transparent and opaque.”

“As a transparent vehicle, the window is that which admits light – or spirit – into the initial darkness of the room.  But if glass transmits, it also reflects.  And so the window is experienced by the symbolist as a mirror as well – something that freezes and locks the self into the space of it’s own reduplicated being.  Flowing and freezing; glace in French means glass, mirror, and ice; transparency, opacity, and water.  In the associative system of symbolist thought this liquidity points in two directions.  First, towards the flow of birth – the amniotic fluid, the “source” – but then towards the freezing into stasis or death – the unfecund immobility of the mirror…”

“I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that behind every twentieth century grid there lies – like a trauma that must be repressed – a symbolist window parading in the guise of a treatise on optics.  Once we realize this, we can also understand that in twentieth century art there are ‘grids’ even where we do not expect to find them…”

“Because of its bivalent structure (and history) the grid is fully, even cheerfully, schizophrenic.  I have witnessed and participated in arguments about whether the grid portends the centrifugal or centripetal existence of the work of art.  Logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity.  Any boundaries imposed upon it by a given painting or sculpture can only be seen – according to this logic – as arbitrary.”

“By virtue of the grid, the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.  Thus the grid operates from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgement of the world beyond the frame.  This is the centrifugal reading.  The centripetal one works, naturally enough, from the outer limits of the aesthetic object inward.  The grid is, in relation to this reading, a re-representation of everything that separates the work of art from the world, from ambient space and from other objects.  The grid is an introjection of the boundaries of the world into the interior of the work; it is a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself.  It is a mode of repetition, the content of which is the conventional nature of art itself.”

“The work of Mondrian, taken together with its various and conflicting readings, is a perfect example of this dispute.  Is what we see in a particular painting merely a section of an implied continuity, or is the painting structured as an autonomous, organic whole?  Given the visual, or formal, consistency of Mondrian’s mature style and the passion of his theoretical pronouncements, we would think that work of this sort would have to hold to one position or the other; and because the chosen position contains a definition about the very nature and goals of art, one would think that an artist would certainly not want to confuse the issue by seeming to imply both.  Yet that is precisely what Mondrian does.”  

“There are certain paintings that are overwhelmingly centrifugal, particularly the vertical and horizontal grids seen within diamond-shaped canvases – the contrast between frame and grid enforcing the sense of fragmentation, as though we were looking at a landscape through a window, the frame of the window arbitrarily truncating our view but never shaking our certainty that the landscape continues beyond the limits of what we can, at that moment, see.  But other works, even from the same years, are just as explicitly centripetal.  In these, the black lines forming the grid are never allowed actually to reach the outer margins of the work, and this censura between the outer limits of the grid and the outer limits of the painting forces us to read the one as completely contained within the other.”

The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths – Grids

Rosalind E. Krauss

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