:: Article

Retracing the Expanded Field

By Richard Marshall.


Spyros Papapetros and Julian Rose (eds), Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture, MIT 2014.

Something disappears. So once in architecture there was a dynamic interplay and dispute between Corbusian and Palladian sources. Then this interplay becomes a Leibnizian absence. Why Leibnizean? Leibnitz thought that non-existent objects had causal powers. Construed as a Leibnitzean absence the Corbusian/Palladian dynamic might be supposed to cause what happened next – and keep on causing it. Of course, we might question the coherence of non-existent objects having powers. We might also question whether a ‘dynamic’can be thought of as an object. Whatever! But after it went there came ‘… blobs, swarms, crystals, and webs…’ with now Bergson and Deleuze replacing the old guard in the captain’s tower, recoding software to represent unresolved boundary lines. In this new wave the notion of the site as indexical and the digital as a logical condition undermining that index swirls to the vortex. It’s a moment of tense excitement and strange seriousness.

In this space technologies of expansion, adjacency, convergence, interaction, projection, rapport and fold redraw the boundaries between visual arts – particularly sculpture – and contemporary architecture. For some ‘Art’ at this juncture became interdisciplinary, requiring both chart and program. For others, it became unmoored, unsituated, unindexable, superseded by an empty centre that was little more than debauched.

At this point Rosalind Krauss’s essay ‘ Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ in October 1979 jumped in to reconstrue the foundations of what art practices were and were not and what they could become. It was hugely influential. Anthony Vidler remarks that out of this emerged for architecture ‘… three new unifying themes …, ideas of landscape, biological analogies, and new concepts of “program’ and for sculpture we had spooky tv sets, corridores, mounds, nomadic sites and mirrors replacing plinthed monuments and solidified location.

Papapetros and Rose’s book examines this aftermath thirty years later and asks:

‘… The Expanded Field thirty years after… But what does one mean by ‘after’, no matter how many years have passed? Did not ‘field’ designate an area that would continue to expand – expand that is, while staying fixed within the limits of a geometric structure? And yet is the ‘Expanded Field’ not a set of operations that by its very definition only happens – its structures already crystallized before the field was mapped, and thus the diagram retroactively delineating what had already happened? What too of the term ‘postmodernism’ that appears in Krauss’s text, which would eventually reappear in the section title ‘Toward Postmodernism’ in Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths’ , the volume in which the ‘Expanded Field’ essay would be republished? What happens when ‘toward’ too becomes ‘after’ (or yet another ‘post’), and when the term that ‘toward’ once preceded is now part of the modernist mythology it once vehemently countered?’

Here, retracing ‘means to redraw something that was partially erased and to restore, mnemonically, fragments from the original structure.’ The purpose of the book is twofold – to revisit ‘the sources, impulses, movements , and events that frame the origin of Krauss’s essay’ and then to ‘probe its arguments against developments in the “expanded practices” of the art and architecture in subsequent decades.’

Krauss was disputing what she saw as a too easily acquired pluralism, arguing that artists and architects don’t move in opposite directions but in parallel. She claimed that both move towards the conceptual rather than the physical. Her thinking originated out of a close reading of Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’ by Fred Jameson in his influential ‘Political Unconscious.’ There he argued that the fabrication of the novel was produced by the development of fundamental terms, terms that describe the limits of the field – in this case ‘the sea.’ Krauss seized upon this apparatus and wanted to find the same limits to counter the idea of ‘pluralism’ that was all the rage then. In recollecting her motivation for writing the theory she says it was written in ‘a fit of pique, a kind of tirade against pluralism.’ She saw herself as combating the notion that anything goes, everything is possible, of there being no longer any real difference between things.

This volume ‘… revisits a moment in which architecture functioned as a model for the visual arts not because of its monumental or institutional character but as a resource for a series of epistemological and compositional strategies tested in spatial and urban domains – and when the visual arts, in turn, proposed an alternative pattern for architecture that undermined the conventional iconicity and monumentality of buildings…’ It’s interesting to see which artists counted and what happened to sculpture as conceptual art developed and there’s no doubt that this is a staging arena for thinking about contemporary art practices and what might happen next. Lawrence Weiner is a key emerging figure in this story, taking up the concept of ‘the monument’ as a central category for conceptualizing sculpture – ironically represented by Rodin and Brancusi – where symbolic meaning and public importance were projected onto their works. This sense of the monument is what disappears, or is at least evacuated. Rodin’s ‘Gates of Hell’ marked for Krauss the moment when sculptural modernism lost the monumental memorial characteristic of specificity and became nomadic, siteless, not-landscape yet not-architecture either.

What replaces this are what were then strange new presences but have by now become almost ersatz through familiarity and repetition. It’s hard to recover the fresh oddness of things like, for instance, Mary Miss’s ‘Perimeters/Pavilions/ Decoys’ , an earthwork sculpture of narrow corridors, mirrors, tvs, photographs and temporary lines, the opposite of what Barnett Newman said was sculpture in the fifties , the kind of thing ‘… you bump into when you back up to see a painting.’ Having said that, Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ and Robert Morris’s ‘ Observatory’ are examples that still detonate. These and such like were what Krauss was theorizing out of or into.

Her essay excludes things because structuralism inevitably does this, or so it seems. Perhaps evacuated is better because it suggests that the process was one of rearranging and reorganising rather than totally removing things. It was the logic of the monument that was evacuated. The readymade and the commodity followed as alternatives and the specific object of Donald Judd. Krauss’s structuralist grid included site construction facing sculpture and marked sites facing axiomatic structures with landscape facing architecture on one plane and non-landscape facing non-architecture on another parallel. As Krauss remarks, ‘… the expanded field is thus generated by problematizing the set of oppositions between which the modernist category sculpture is suspended.’


It’s always a stretch to understand just what contemporary artists are up to and the book gives us a context from which you can begin to piece together what’s happening. So from following the book we get to see that Robert Morris and Serra are insisting on sculpture remaining, working that contested Leibnizean absence we noted earlier to good effect. Entropic dreams get a presence with ‘Spiral Jetty’. Homelessness draws on a Greenburgian concept. So perhaps the May Miss work becomes a way of articulating an inability of sculpture to address conditions of its location in public space in a time where social space has disappeared. By obliquely remarking on the displacement of public social space Miss shows us the absence. Its strong dynamo, its mysteries and occult electricity presents us with absent social space’s unsettling subterranean uncanny. And it helps pin-point the hubris of the plinthed monuments that clutter corporate, private space.

There are monuments to the failure of dialogue, and attempts to keep alive the notion of monument by other means, so to speak. Serra’s later work creates ‘a sculptural space that is clearly a mnemonic, monumental space of a different order.’ His ‘Torqued Eclipse’ is where a monument shares space with sculpture in architecture. The grave, the tomb, space architecture and sculpture share a buzz that holes the sensitivities and shreds a bunch of nerves. Serra is an interesting presence in all of this. Anyone who has walked round and through his sculpture at Liverpool Street Station may have sensed that here is a Modernism reacting to the tectonic models found in, for example, Russian Constructivists. It’s here we find Corbusier’s idea of the ‘free plan’ gaining independence from the load bearing wall. ‘Getting free from the load bearing wall’ could be the slogan for it all. Peter Eisenman theorized space away from the tectonic. There is no inner meaning. No fixity. This became the disputed area. Serra attacked this and wanted to privilege the tectonic as a way of recovering the bodily experience, the phenomenological experience that can’t be fitted into a diagram. Serra’s responsiveness was not about commodity but body, and again, the Leibnizean absence finds causal efficacy.

So here is the battle ground: phenomenology vs structure/semiology. The latter rendered sculpture as image. What it required was a new kind of engagement, one of reading rather than watching. From Warhol’s and Oldenburg’s pop art sculpture through to Ed Rusha, Mel Bochner, Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner we are presented with semiological, structural, read sculpture.

This might make sculpture sound too monolithic. Space vs landscape does sound kind of grand. Resisting the lingo of Parnassian pomposity Dan Graham and others began writing and working to keep its modernity slim and mean, sharp and oiled up like a machine. Krauss’s Expanded Field might be understood as a political cultural field expanding out of these modernist strictures. She writes: ‘For within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium – sculpture – but rather in relation to the logical operations and set of cultural terms for which any medium – photography, books, lines, and walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself – might be used.’

Krauss rejected cultural studies understood as class war as found in the likes of Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ and rejected his idea of cultural capital. Rather, she worked through buckling formidable couplings – Brancusi and Duchamp, Boccioni and Hildebrand, Arp and Giocometti and the formal characteristics of her formalism bypassed style. She worked therefore in the grand style of Propp and structuralism and Barthes’s trio Sade, Fourier and Loyola. She calls on the metaphor of the chessboard to suggest that the end of a game doesn’t mean the end of the match. Her structuralist approach relied on difference as its basic organizational principle. Yet though she attacked historicism and pluralism both have returned in the thirty odd years since. As Julian Rose notes, ‘Ironically, today’s field is so expanded that it again approaches the undifferentiated condition Krauss hoped to escape.’

Sculpture had been taken outside but this alone didn’t sever all ties with architecture. The Biomorphism of someone like Henry Moore suggested expression via sculptural form but his monumentalism was disavowed by minimalists. Morris sought sculpture without architectural backdrop. Graham photographed houses as if sculptures and found deeper affinities between suburban architecture and sculpture. LeWitt, talking about ziggurat’s in New York, admired the idea that, as Krauss put it, ‘… the plan would design the work… The artists would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution to the problem. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible.’ Edward Eigen charted the underground and resisted the visual ‘retinal art’ started by Duchamp.

Spyros Papepetros broods on a slight mound reminiscent of Courbet’s ‘Funeral at Ornans’. No one looks at the burial in that painting; rather it is ‘… worship without worshippers… religious and secular, comic and tragic, sentimental and grotesque’ at the same time writes T.J. Clark. Courbet’s deceased is shrouded in an impenetrable darkness. From this Mary Miss ‘Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys’ moves from a phenomenological to a structural, diagrammatical understanding of sculpture. Miss’s installation is emptied out like Courbet’s. Structural and tectonic analogies flush things out. A paradigm shift is marked by this; from the Renaissance to Modernism sculpture’s loss of universality is registered as the loss of the pedestal. It is a small thing that marks the gigantic shift.
‘Because they thus function in relation to the logic of representation and making, sculptures are normally figurative and vertical, their pedestals an important part of the structure since they mediate between actual site and representational sign.’ The loss of the pedestal marks sculptures expansion from site to nomadism. Modernist art practice generally – literature, painting, music, dance etc – become nomadic in this sense – whilst being similarly haunted by the uncanny presences of their own Leibnizean absences.


‘The pit and the pedestal (in both their erasure and phantasmatic recovery in the contemporary art gallery) are parts of the uncanny recurrence of sculpture within modern space – sculpture’s haunting presence and resilient persistence in the field…’ Lacan in ‘ Some Reflections on the Ego’ writes: ‘It is the stability of the standing posture, the prestige of stature, the impressiveness of statues, which set the style for identification in which the ego finds its starting point and leave their imprint in it forever…This illusion of unity, in which a person is always looking forward to self mastery entails a constant danger of sliding back again into chaos; it hangs over the abyss of a dizzy assent…in which one can see the very essence of anxiety.’ Lacan’s ontological abyss sources an anxiety provoking sitelessness begun with diagrammatical diagonal opposites used by Klein where:

‘… what we essentially witness in the art historian’s attempt to delineate the ‘postmodern’ parameters of sculptural practice is an emerging identity formation – a form of Gestaltung facilitated by the loss of sculpture’s original pedestal and its precipitous downfall into an ontological abyss. Methodological construction equals psychological reconstruction…’

Hegel in his ‘Aesthetics’ said that architecture was originally symbolic. The first room was to reveal the shape of empty space rather than to provide a dwelling. Then sculpture was removed from architecture’s interior spaces and became an architecture describing human life. So architecture used to be sculpture marked ‘by the logic of the monument.’ ‘Sculpture, in a way, regains its foundation or pedestal by camouflaging itself as “(not)/architecture” and “(not)/landscape” – its imaginary or symbolic others.’ There’s a sense in which we’re working with objects that don’t exist such as the non-existent pedestal.’ This might be nonsense. But nonsense may be required to test out difficult questions. Perhaps this all points to the trap of explanation – we explain something by appealing to something (else).

Hal Foster quotes Jameson on the semiotic square: ‘ It constitutes a virtual map of conceptual closure, or better still of the closure of ideology itself, that is, a mechanism which, while seeming to generate a rich variety of possible concepts and positions, remains in fact locked into some initial aporia or double bind that it cannot transform from the inside by its own means.’ This is to misunderstand the structuralist move. Structuralism aims to show how each part is sustainable. It is an explanation that requires no reference to anything outside the structural architecture. Structuralism was an alternative approach to that of the genealogist and evolutionist who explain via origin and historical process. In anthropology, structuralism it was a reaction against speculative history. It rather asked that explanations were given in terms of the institutions that sustained a given society. So it’s true that at the beginning of the structuralist turn there was great emphasis on the stability of societies being studied. But this was a reaction to the nature of causal explanation common at the time and not something inherent to the nature of a structuralist explanation per se. Structuralism can explain dynamic change and below I sketch how. Foster’s idea that something from outside is needed to explain change is the same kind of mistake we find in Sartre who, according to Gellner’s Levi-Strauss ‘imported an extra cheap version of dialectic for export’ to explain change and history. When Ricoeur talks of Levi Strauss’s structuralism being ‘a Kantianism without a transcendental subject… It just seems to appear, godlike…’ a similar mistake is being made.

Activities get repeated. Each turn of the wheel has a similar but not identical cause. The past throws some light on the present, but so will distant practices and there’s no need to privilege either the present or the deep genetic past, nor its process. What we’re talking about are prototypical ‘essentially contested concepts’ and yet throughout the book contributors talk as if there’s a Platonic zone where clear exemplars exist, uncontested and original. The book is caught in what Gellner years ago called the Pirandello Effect, of ‘talking all at once both inside and outside the play.’ From the inside, everyone involved agreed that there wasn’t and still isn’t a single knock-down termination point. But explanation draws them into speaking as if there was a criterion for terminating the contestation. It’s a defect of the parable of dialect as it plays out. The dialectic element is stressed and exaggerates the finality of historical developments. The nature of parable is to refuse disclosure.

But is there a deeper problem? Krauss and the contributors of the book may be charged with being involved in what might be called meta-art, drawing a distinction between what they’re doing – clarifying and defining concepts of art – and art itself. Krauss is trying to tell us what architecture and sculpture mean. This assumes that the concepts must have a meaning independent of the range of objects to which it is subsequently found to apply. But does it really make a lot of sense to make a distinction between what the art terms mean, on the one hand, and what the actual, substantive art practices are, on the other? The problem seems to be that any account of the concepts seems thoroughly infected by specific art practices themselves. And this is born out by what happened after Krauss’s analysis. Disagreement remained rampant after her clarification.

The book helps answer this charge that being so loaded with practice the analysis isn’t useful as a clarifying definition of practices. The concepts involved are not simple but complex. Rather than foreground this or that aspect Krauss re-orders and schematizes a complex notion. This process takes on rival complex accounts whilst recognizing that there is overlap and shared understandings at some points. Rather than a process of persuasive definition she offers shared ground with her rivals and then shifts things around in an attempt to convert them. It doesn’t aim to dissolve anything, but recognizes that the disperate criteria and elements of the concepts form an organic yet conflicting and interacting unity. In so doing she makes clear that conflict is the essence of the concept. The life and history of architecture and sculpture, of art practices everywhere, are best seen like that. This is not the same as the fashionable but static notion of ‘family resemblance’. That idea gives a too static picture to the notion that no single criterion exists to define a concept. It suggests that just realizing that there isn’t one is enough to dissolve the philosophical problem. I don’t know many examples of a serious dispute that gets dissolved by such a clarification. Krauss’s approach is far more more realistic. Her approach recognizes that rival propagandists will steal positive loads from her own accounts for their own and push negative ones onto hers. This is indeed what has happened over the subsequent thirty years: just look at what has happened around the term ‘post-modern’ that she uses and how devious it’s uses have become.

There’s a relation between her Expanded Field and Macunias’s Expanded Arts – both jettison and repress practices. Yet it’s not a dialectical process whereby we move towards some sort of reliable cumulativeness, nor one of Wittgensteinian dissolve. Her essay is a kind of heroic marking of possible aberrations, the kind some say metaphysics does best. What this process is is one of repeating again and again the pieces making up the concepts. The essentially contested concepts remain contested in a dynamic expansion of interplay and growth with each turn of the wheel.

A final comment: the question arises as to whether the explanatory concepts involved must remain close to those employed by the participants or whether such concepts are illusory. The volume seems to prejudge that the ‘inner story’ is the right way to go. But if we are anxious about the commodity marketisation and the whiteness and maleness of modern art practices, for example, then it’s not clear that the ‘inner story’ is going to help explain this. These art practices sure have a history but not necessary a story it can tell wholly from the inside. What histories have are structures underlying sequences and these are not always discoverable or experienced as stories, and certainly not always by vertical and temporal depth charges as are found here. Perhaps comparisons outside the field would be illuminating of these structures.

But what is of value in this volume is a passionate sense of the contingency, not necessity, of change and stability and a sense of what it has felt like from the inside these last thirty odd years since Krauss’s detonating essay.

I found many of the comments by many of the contributors illuminating or suggestive, like the thought expressed by Thierry de Duve that site specificity is a melancholic practice. Sometimes there’s a lament running through us, but without knowing quite what is being missed.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2015.