The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths was among the first to bring structuralist and post-structuralist theory into the “method” of study and “perpetual reassessment” of the visual arts.[1] Such a way of critical writing opposed – what Krauss recognized as the, “increasingly positivist” ethos of art history as an academic discipline.[2] Krauss’s structuralism methodology means to take the “object-matter” of a work of art for its “subject matter” in order for abstract art to be unbound by referent and categorical limitations. The thesis aims to epistemologically discern Krauss’s theoretical approach to art criticism, whilst drawing on work from a diversity of art academics, and critics in order to bring to light – the polysemy of Picasso’s mastery.

Unlike most of her colleagues,[3] Krauss’s methodologies in critical approach differentiated her from Greenberg’s “teleological view of modernism that was predicted upon pronouncements of aesthetic value.”[4] In the essay In the Name of Picasso, Krauss announces her rejection of Greenberg’s approach by questioning the “maneuver of finding an exact historical referent for every pictorial sign in order to fix and limit the play of meaning.”[5] For Picasso, Krauss highly objects to this formalist approach and considers it, “grotesque” when applied to collage.[6] This art history of a proper name is labelled by Krauss as the “aesthetics of autobiography,” she continues to state that the “aesthetics of the proper name involves [a serious] failure to come to terms with the structure of representation.” According to Krauss, Picasso’s La Vie (1904) depicts the problems of representation, because the setting is an artist’s studio and the figures can be related to an allegory of painting. (Angela Partington, p.65). MucCully and McVaugh suggest that as an unfinished work, Picasso did not desire it to represent a coherent image.[7] Picasso’s concern for death can be linked to Casagemas’ suicide, perhaps he was simply reflecting a personal reflection and interest in death and suffering. [8]

Krauss refers to Daix’s insistence on the objective status of Picasso’s “play of signs” and “art of language” with his use of “pre-existent, industrialized elements” creating a sense of impersonality.[9] The linguistic structures in the repertoire of parts in Picasso’s collages create a sense of systematic play of difference, whilst disregarding reference.[10] Krauss took Picasso’s collages to be explainable in terms of Saussure’s ideas of differential systems and non-referentiality of langue.[11] Saussure’s systematic matrix of language provides the notion of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,”[12] where languages, or elements in collage for example – have an arbitrary relation between their elements.[13] Krauss supported this concept of the arbitrary connection between the material aspect of a sign and its meaning and that each signifier yields a matched pair of formal signified. Enrique Mallén analyzed Picasso’s “pictorial language” as a retinal image; perspectives during Cézannian Cubist stages; structural qualities analytical to cubism; and categories of Synthetic Cubism.[14] This re-evaluation allowed Mallén to understand the “truly arbitrary” nature of pictorial language.[15]

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Siedell acknowledges Carrier’s observation that the more Krauss has attacked Greenbergian formalism, the more Greenbergian she seems is illuminating.[16] This is evident when Greenberg described Picasso as one of the most intentionally “literary” and “super-structural” of all painters. However Greenberg then concluded that it is incomparably sensitive to his age and “milieu,” that he was forced to produce cubism, the latest and most radical forms of positive art. (Diane R. Karp Review) Karp conjures Michael Parson’s research study of aesthetic understanding based on development; contrary to Greenberg, Parson concluded that aesthetic and “artistic understanding do not relate to chronological age, an informed response can be the same for twelve-as for thirty-year olds.”[17]

Krauss draws from the work of Alois Riegl and Erwin Panofsky, insisting that, “from its very beginning art history called upon a theory of representation that would not stop with mere extension (denotation) but would allow for intension (connotation).”[18] Lovatt points elsewhere in Krauss’s work where she corresponds her own structuralist approach to the use of opposing categories in Heinrich Wölfflin’s order to account for historical style development and transformation.[19] Holly describes Wölfflin’s comparative method to divorce the object of art from all feeling and from subjective notions of worth and meaning.[20] Specifically, collage is exemplified in the way “it enters our experience not as an object of perception, but as an object of discourse, of representation.”[21] Artistic meanings are generated through constant processes of reference, representation, and signification, through the play of the signifier which positivist art theory has always threatened to limit or close down.

Yve-Alain Bois argues that Krauss misinterprets her own advocacy for form as a structure in multiple layers, that is, not as a shape (371). To add, Bois points out that Krauss’s formal analysis of collage as being set up to dismiss biographical or iconological readings of Picasso that deny what “Freud called overdetermination in his analysis of the creation and function of meaning…” Krauss’s argument on the sense of play is reduced when Bois explains the common interpretation of when searching for biographical or iconological references one will overlook the exploration of visual signs as necessarily ambiguous, and the joyous and deliberate play on this essential ambiguity that is Picasso’s Cubism.[22]

Krauss aimed to dismiss the myth of originality in modernist art history, Picasso and criticism. Karp points out that these myths are replaced by new, postmodernist fictions of poststructuralist criticism constructed with semiological tools and structural methodology to convince and gain converts by emphatically and authoritatively stating her belief in the ‘new truth.’[23] So a contradiction is palpable where, despite Krauss’s endeavour to free interpretations of art from the chains and restrictions of proper name, Krauss herself does not provide the reader with awareness or knowledge to allow readers to decide on and have an informed decision and understanding.

The individual artist did not matter, in spite of Picasso, Greenberg believed his art spoke positivism or materialism: its essence lay in the immediate sensation[24], and it operated under the most drastic possible reduction of the visual act. It was his very genius – which involved this hypersensitivity to the fundamental moods of an age that expressed itself much more sincerely in its techniques and methods than in its conscious ideologies – that made it too difficult for him to devote himself ambitiously to anything but the physical.[25] Greenberg believed Picasso’s inherent logic, his period, coupled by a split personality of temperamental resistance to the abstract, is what drove him towards abstract. And it is reflected in the helpless and almost vulgar way in which he has painted the pitcher in the still life at Mattisse’s.[26]

Figure 1, Royal-Painting, (Still Life at Mattisse’s, n.d)

It is this technical genius and complexity that Richardson parallels Picasso and the Cubists with modern physics in the sense of an “inexorable force revolutionizing a field of intellectual endeavour.”[27] Hunter explains that it is, “the simultaneity of vision (or shifting points of view) Picasso and Braque applied to nature, and space-time physics. As Picasso “explored painting in terms of its purely artistic side”, Richardson’s scientific formalist approach “explores the discipline of mathematics.” Despite structural problems, lack of mathematic proof, the “Intuitionists” as Richardson contradicts, “accepts absurdity as a basic notion”[28] – despite science as the beacon against absurd conclusions. Einstein himself disclosed the correlation of Cubist art with his Theory of Relativity; fragmentations of Cubist art did not derive from presentations of shifting points of view either.[29]

Through the contrasting lens of science and formalist approach, the opposite side of the spectrum arises: a more inner transcendence of art elucidation. Raynal, sought to establish Picasso’s superiority of an idealist reality,[30] which is, associated more with spirit, instinct and other imponderables. Expressed through life of form and the works’ autonomy, which plays with the mind’s conceptions of reality.[31] Raynal’s classic approach argued for a disinterested and conceptual art. This Kantian approach “perceives art as a unique expression engendering a pure aesthetic and transcendent emotion, disengaged from practicalities,” labelling, and determination. Raynal likened himself to Picasso in the way they sought “feeling,” whilst formalist critics and naturalists looked for “truth.”[32] Despite having known Picasso from the early years, “Raynal could easily have dwelled upon biographical material which he knew first hand.”[33] Chipp, also affirms to Raynal as he described Picasso creating art “dealing primarily with forms, and when a form is realized it is there to live its own life. There is no transitory purpose, it is to remain what it is and will always have its own form.”[34]

Siedell, refers to another approach to cognition in the reading of Picasso’s works. It brings to light the constructivists approach by recognizing aesthetic qualities as an immediately perceived experience for mass culture.[35] The social ideology of mass consumption in art requires the constructive activity of the viewer.[36] The viewer must make connections between what one knows and what one sees, thus generating differing connections, judgments and tastes. It was Krauss’s poststructuralist method that Angela Partington argued to be a “complete lack of consideration of class, race, or gender differences in delineating the discursive spaces of aesthetic objects.” It is because of this very notion that generates such wide variations of meanings that are connoted from Picasso’s work. Picasso, through the lens of a structuralist framework influenced Krauss’s structuralism was popular in the art world discourse community because it possessed the aura of “pseudotechnicality.”[37]

Krauss rejected efforts by other scholars to correlate the pasted newspaper clippings to social history. Rosenblum on the contrary, proposed to read the names printed on the labels introduced in Cubist collage, have been construed as a devce primarily oriented towrd the solution of the successive formal problems raised by the rapid changes of Cubis struture during that time. The stenciled words by Picasso was a means of asserting the flatness of the picture plane.[38] He became less concerned with representing the placement of objects in space than in using shapes and motifs as signs to playfully allude to their presence. He developed the technique of collage, and from Braque he learned the related method of papiers colles, which used cut-out pieces of paper in addition to fragments of existing materials. This phase has since come to be known as the “Synthetic” phase of Cubism, due to its reliance on various allusions to an object in order to create the description of it. The paintings should be taken as responses to particular ideological situations the exact conditions of which we can only partially know.

Figure 2 Rex Butler, (Lecture Slides: Picasso Guitar, Sheet Music Glass, 1912)

Parson’s brought to light – Picasso’s doubts about the value of art criticism, perhaps it is due to him of all artists being most academically scrutinized.[39] Picasso warns:

“Those trying to explain pictures are as a rule completely mistaken,” he continues, “A painting, for me, speaks by itself; what good does it do, after all, to impart explanations?” My answer to that is the same one Socrates gave concerning the “wisdom” of poets: “It is not by wisdom that the poets create their works, but by a certain instinctive inspiration, like soothsayers or prophets, who say many fine things, but understand nothing of what they say.”‘[40]

Picasso expresses his personal struggle not with words but visual images.[41] Perhaps he believes his brushstroke, collage and sculpture is the only thing that is truly certain to him in this world of confusion, question and search for answer. It can be seen that despite my own efforts and, Krauss’s, Greenberg’s, Raynal’s along with the many different conceptual frameworks – structuralism, poststructuralist, constructivist, postmodernist, the art academic’s longing for artistic conclusion may never be explained for the reason that the unexplainable in art is the only pure outlet for the human condition that we have.


Bois, Yve-Alain, “Review: Rosalind Krauss, David Carrier, and Philosophical Art Criticism.” Art Journal (Winter 1985), 45(4): 369, 371, 373.

Carrier, David, “Rosalind Krauss American philosophical art criticism: from formalism to beyond postmodernism. (2002)

Chipp, Herschell B., “Theories of Modern Art: A Source book by artists and critics. University of California Press, (1968).

Diane R. Karp, 427.Review: “The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,” 46: 3 (Spring, 1988): 426-428.

Greenberg, Clement, “Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949,” ed. John O’Brian, University of Chicago Press (1995).

Holly, Michael A., Panosfky and the Foundations of Art History, Cornell University (1984)

Jakobson, R., Pomorska, K., and Rudy, S., “Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time.” University of Minnesota Press, (1985).

Krauss, Rosalind E., Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass., (1985).

Lipton, Eunice, ‘Picasso criticism, 1901-1939: The making of an antist-hero,” (1976).

Lovatt, Anna, Art History Reviewed XV: Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths,’ Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., no. 1302 (Sep 2011).

Mallén, Enruique, “Visual Grammar of Picasso,” Peter Lang, (2003).

Parsons, Michael, “Aesthetic Experience and the Construction of Meanings,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 36:2 (2002): 24-37.

Partington, Angela, “Review: Rosalind Krauss, David Carrier, and Philosophical Art Criticism.” Oxford Art Journal (1986), 9(2): 63-67.

Siedell, D. A., “Review: Rosalind Krauss, David Carrier, and Philosophical Art

Criticism.” Journal of Aesthetic Education. 38: 2 (Summer, 2004): 95-105.

Rosenblum, R. “Picasso and the Typography of Cubism:” 49-267, in Picasso, in Retrospect, by Roland Penrose and John Golding, Harper & Row(1980).

[1] Lovatt, Anna, Art History Reviewed XV, 602. The job of the critic “entails a perpetual reassessment” of the field.

[2] Lovatt, Art History Reviewed XV, 601; Krauss, Rosalind E., Originality of the Avant-Garde, 90.

[3] Lovatt, Originality of Avant Garde, 602. Krauss and Annette Michelson’s (whom Orginality of the Avant-Garde is dedicated to) Artforum colleagues were “Greenbergers.”

[4] Lovatt, Art History Reviewed XV, 601.

[5] Krauss, Originality of Avant-Garde, 39. It should be noted that Krauss first devoted herself to mastering Greenberg’s methodology until she began questioning the restrictions imposed by this approach (Lovatt, Anna, Art History Reviewed XV, 601).

[6] Ibid., 40.

[7] Rosenblum, Robert, Typography of Cubism, 68, in Picasso.

[8] Ibid., 70

[9] Krauss, Originality of Avant-Garde, 39.

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] Michael A. Holly, Panosfky and the Foundations of Art History, 47. “Langue refers to the immersed context or network of relationships that conventionally determine what becomes manifested in the domain of speech”

[12] Rex Butler, (Lecture note: Cubism)

[13] Jakobson, Pomorska, and Rudy, Verbal: Art, Sign, Time, 28.

[14] Mallén, Visual Grammar of Picasso, 312.

[15] Ibid., 312.

[16] SIedell, 103.

[17] Diane R. Karp, 427.

[18] Krauss, Originality of Avant-Garde, 27.

[19] Holly, Michael A., Panosfky and the Foundations of Art History, Cornell University Press, (1984): 47.

[20] Ibid., 48.

[21] Ibid., 28.

[22] Krauss says, “the aesthetics of the proper name is erected specifically on the grave of form (Krauss, Originality of Avant-Garde, 39).”

[23] Ibid., 427.

[24] To note, “Immediate sensation” evokes Impressionism’s temperamental style of naturalism.

[25] Greenberg, Arrogant Purpose, 88

[26] Ibid, 88

[27] Richardson, Modern Art and Scientific Thought, 104

[28] Ibid., 104.

[29] Ibid., 110.

[30] Lipton, Picasso Criticism, 136.

[31] Ibid., 137.

[32] Ibid., 159.

[33] Ibid., 162.

[34] Chipp, Theories of Modern Art,

[35] Siedell, Rosalind Krauss and David Carrier, 93

[36] Ibid., 93.

[37] Parsons, Aesthetic Experience and the Construction of Meanings, 65

[38] Rosenblum, Picasso and the Typography of Cubism, 49

[39] Parsons, Aesthetic Experience, 65

[40] Ibid., 65

[41] Parsons, Aesthetic Experience, 65


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