INTERVIEW WITH ROSALIND KRAUSS
OCTOBER 16, 1997
CONDUCTED BY TRACY ADLER
AND FREDERICK GROSS
New York, NY
This interview is being conducted by Tracy Adler and Frederick Gross with Professor Rosalind Krauss on October 16th, 1997.
TA: We’re interested in your decision to join the Hunter staff. Was there any particular reason why you wanted to come to Hunter, or how did the opportunity present itself?
RK: I left Cambridge – by the way I was teaching at MIT – and wanted to move to New York… I think that by that time I had already started doing the Mir.. and … for the Guggenheim Museum, so I was sort of very oriented toward New York and the art world. I had by that time several close friends among New York artists, and so for me, getting a job in New York City was crucial to making this move. I had a job at Princeton… but I really didn’t want to be at Princeton… and I didn’t want to move to commute. But what I did at Princeton was to set up…well, for two years I ran something called…the (inaudiable).. program in the Visual Arts… I think it was called… and it allowed Princeton undergraduates to major in something like studio art…they couldn’t really major….(inaudible) …combined art history and studio concentration. And that was a good experience.
I didn’t want to…commute…I was starting to write things, and…I just…the commuting was very time-consuming. So Hunter made me this offer. I was very happy to leave- Hunter had been- had a reputation as a very distinguished place where –in terms of art history- where [Leo] Steinberg had left there, and then in terms of the studio art, you know, there was this extraordinary roster, a distinguished group of- Motherwell, Robert Morris… and so on , so it seemed like a- you know- great.
FG: Who was instrumental, or helpful at least, in bringing you to Hunter? Was it anyone in particular?
RK: Gene Goossen. But I think also Vinnie Longo was there and anxious for this to happen. All the artists were very…helpful. So… I also already knew Janet Rearick… so it just seemed very natural… and, I remember, you know, when I was going through the kind of thing that, a sort of slight little show of snobbery, saying why should I leave Princeton and go to the City University… so, I mean, as I said, it was like a little paroxysm… very short, but this nervous reaction, because basically I thought it was a great idea. And, I just realized that what Hunter would do for me was not only would there be these very distinguished colleagues but I really would have a lot of time to do my own writing and thinking…much more important than being associated with one of the top …
TA: Was there anything about public education that was particularly …
RK: I am a product of public education, so I believe in public education, and the idea that the city had this absolutely extraordinary resource and that, you know, I mean the notion of City University was very attractive…….
FG: Was the proximity to museums, to galleries, to sort of visual resources within walking distance, or a short cab ride, was that…
RK: No. I think once you’re in New York, I mean that’s sort of… the transportation system is such that you can get on the subway and go wherever you want to go, so that wasn’t the issue. I mean it was nice to have… I really… the two years of commuting to Princeton made it clear to me that this was just simply not, I couldn’t do that any more…..
TA: What was the ideological climate of Hunter in the seventies, or in general, what was the climate there? I knew there were a lot of sit-ins and stuff in the sixties at Hunter, and it was a fairly radical …
RK: Yeah, but all that had sort of finished when I got there. So there wasn’t anything like that. So basically it was the results of that that had occurred… results which I found extremely odious, and so did everybody that had to deal with the 16th floor. So that in the sort of democratization or whatever, popularization, whatever it would have been called at Hunter… there used to be one elevator that was reserved for faculty.
RK: Really, one small elevator…
FG: They’re all the same size now.
RK: But anyway, there was one elevator that was for faculty. And that was done away with. And so the faculty elevator could get up to the 16th floor fairly quickly, but that was… you know… finished, so we were into this other elevator system.. in that if you’re going to the 6th floor or whatever, it’s not a problem, but if you’re going to the 16th floor …
TA: You know they just automated the elevators recently, and it was the same thing … twenty minutes…
FG: Until very recently they still had the operators who would sitting in the elevator all day and …
RK: Right, right. So, no, the other result was open enrollment. And so… it was a changed system.
TA: Did you find the school to be traditional, or sort of radical, or, I mean the department in general… what the artists were trying to do… what the students were trying to do … did you find a conservative education, or more sort of…
RK: No, I was very happy to see that… I mean, I didn’t… I taught undergraduates … maybe four years… (inaudible)…I could… I don’t remember really when the MFA came in…the MFA was instituted. I was really eager to teach MFA-related courses, so my connection to the undergraduates dropped off, but the only graduates in the art history department were sort of self-selected. The whole art and art history thing is kind of an island inside of whatever else was happening… sociologically, I would say, at Hunter. So that, you know, the literacy level was high… the… all that is different. I don’t know… I had some very brilliant undergraduates. Maurice Berger was an undergraduate. So I think that some of the complaints that, say, other faculty might have about the results of open enrollment and the problem of students coming to college and having problems reading and things like that… didn’t happen in art history.
FG: What courses were you teaching?
RK: I taught 20th century to the undergraduates. And, various kinds of undergraduate seminars… I think… I don’t really remember… now I’m getting into a memory problem. I don’t remember exactly what I taught… I think mainly 20th century surveys to the undergraduates. But I taught…maybe it was a mixed graduate and undergraduate kind of system for seminars. I remember teaching a seminar on Pop Art in 1974… I think it was… and in preparing for that seminar I started thinking about semiological issues and then started reading Barthes and other… you know, Barthes and Bergson; I mean I suddenly had this kind of “eureka” sensation, when I thought about this whole issue of the index…as a sort of sign-type… and how this seemed to make a certain kind of coherence and (inaudible)… because I was very interested in sort of relating Pop Art to visual…anyway, in the course of preparing this seminar, I kind of developed what were very, for me, very crucial theories about Duchamp and about the (inaudible)… specifically post-war American art, so the seminar was very exciting for me to teach. But I mean, I found it very stimulating to teach.
TA: Did that influence your Passages in Modern Sculpture?
RK: Passages in Modern Sculpture was really something that I had kind of developed when I was teaching at MIT… I had written my dissertation on David Smith, so the sculpture stuff was not something…although my experience in New York… I mean, knowing Richard Serra, Smithson, Robert Morris, and other sculptors of… obviously had a big influence. But the Hunter teaching, really in a sense, started with that work that I did… from about 1974 on.
TA: The Originality of the Avant-Garde …
RK: A lot of the pieces in that, yeah.
FK: Over the eighteen years you taught at Hunter, what relationships were seminal to your …
RK: Can we be frank with this one?
FK & TA: Absolutely!
TA: Everyone has been very frank.
FK: Be as frank as possible.
RK: All right. I started out at Hunter, and as I said, you know, I had good relations with some of the artists…although there were many, many artists I didn’t know-and I knew the relationships…. with Leo Steinberg …(inaudible) …
And, what happened… well, Hunter, you know, that system of having the whole thing run by the Chairman and the P & B [Personnel and Budget] committee means that if you’re on the P & B committee you’re involved, and if you’re not, you’re not. And… I allowed myself to be put up for the elections that P & B runs … and it was very clear to me that, you know, there was a kind of self… I mean the same people tend to just get elected over and over and over again to the P & B, and so I had said the newcomer would certainly not be elected to the P & B, and I realized that that was fine with me, you know, that I didn’t want to be engaged in that way. But I also began increasingly to feel that the decisions that the P & B was making about hiring, about…well, mainly hiring…were ones I didn’t agree with.
TA: In what way?
RK: Well, at a certain point… I’ll speak more positively than negatively, but at a certain point, we did have an opening for another person in my area, and I tried first to bring Benjamin Buchloh… get Benjamin Buchloh hired, and then, I forget which, maybe Hal Foster, and sort of bring these people who were really distinguished. By this time… this is really late in the game… but by this time … it was clear to me that… (inaudible)… the climate that brought me to Hunter was this sort of enthusiastic backing of people like Vinnie Longo, and (inaudible)… anyway… some of the painters, was the climate of… the climate of, we could say, late modernist painters, which, you know, was still going strong in the late fifties and early seventies. What happened when I got to… what happened in the early seventies… which comes out of my being at Hunter… was that I began to feel that that whole way of thinking about painting was extraordinarily academic and increasingly bankrupt. And so the person they hired who they thought was going to be their critic… because, in a sense, Gene Goossen had functioned as the critic for the artists… so it was this very cozy relationship between the two halves of the department. Gene Goossen was busy writing his catalogues and magazines, in various places … in support of, if not the artists themselves…. the creative things they made. So that was all very nice, everybody scratching everybody else’s back, but…and they thought I was going to be another version of this, a younger version of Gene Goossen….and that didn’t work out because I began to feel that this was not work that I really supported, in that it just seemed to me emptier and emptier and had less and less to give to students. And I certainly wasn’t interested in writing about them. I was interested, in fact, in writing about the people they considered their enemies, ideologically, in terms of art politics. So as the seventies progressed, divisions between… about artists they might be hiring or about people involved in teaching nineteenth and twentieth century, they were less and less interested in my opinion, and got more and more hostile. And I think they, you know, let terrific opportunities go by, just out of simply feeling that… I mean feeling that they…you know, their life’s work was at stake in trying to find people who would be their supporters. I mean that’s the sort of ugly politics of professional department.
TA: So did they bring in Bill Agee?
RK: Oh, I had a huge fight about them bringing in Bill Agee, I think it’s a scandal. He doesn’t have a Ph.D. The other thing is… by that time, by 1977, I had started teaching at the Graduate Center, and in a sense because of my disaffection… growing disaffection with Hunter, the Graduate Center seemed to be a place… you know, more amenable to what I had to say… I began to invest more and more and more energy in the Graduate Center, and so a Hunter appointment was important in terms of who would be out there to teach at the Graduate Center. So it was really the reason… not only for the health of the Hunter faculty and students in the Hunter program, which I now was so involved with and still cared about, but also the Graduate Center…it was important to have somebody there…
since Bill Agee had no Ph.D., he couldn’t teach at the Graduate Center.
RK: Plus, it just seemed to me that, you know, there were a lot of people out there that were better…. which was not something that anybody at Hunter… well certainly not something that Sandy Wurmfeld would agree with.
FG: Would you characterize this as something that had a lot to do with your own increasingly theoretical interests… sort of interests in things outside the sort of…formalist… increasingly academicized version of Modernism…. and the need to sort of keep the department…
RK: Yeah, basically Sandy Wurmfeld and Vinnie Longo are invested in a certain kind of color field, grid abstraction which is fine, but that’s… you know, I think that’s one option. There need to be other options. Of course, there had always been other options at Hunter and… [phone interruption]
… So what was I saying, oh, that Robert Morris, since he was at Hunter, was very interested in theoretical issues and, you know, other kinds of ideas, so he was always a sort of resource that swam against the current of this kind of Luongo-Wurmfeld axis. But he didn’t have much power. I mean he had one vote.
TA: How was your relationship with Morris?
RK: Well, obviously, I’d written about him and done his retrospective at the Guggenheim. I was very close friends with him, and I was… you know… I agreed with him. But neither one of us… he generally was on the P & B, but he only had one vote, and he was outvoted over and over again. The person who would be endlessly be voted on for P & B was this absolutely horrible woman… they would always put an art historian… I think her name was Mary Moore…
FG: She’s here…
RK: And she was their… sort of, tool. So the artists would control what art historians got on the P & B… (inaudible)
TA: Were there professors that you feel you had more kinship with, either ideologically or…education-wise?
RK: Well, I was kind of a strange bird. We all…. I mean I was friendly with a lot…at first… I liked Sandy Wurmfeld a lot, personally, and we worked together to write the MFA proposal. You know, so this isn’t personal, but rather, it began to sort of… pervade whatever sort of personal… you know… relations… you could have. [interruption from another room]… I mean as things began to get more I mean, as certain things that I felt were really crucial, began to fall apart. Then the personal relationships also… you know… were certainly under a strain. I’m sure there were people (inaudible)…
FG: Craig Owens?
RK: Craig Owens was my student.
FG: He was?
RK: …at the Graduate Center. … I… you know… got them to hire him… I don’t remember.
TA: [inaudible]… did your decision to leave Hunter for the Graduate Center…
RK: Well, by the time I got an appointment at the Graduate Center so that I could leave… I think… well, by that time I was in a position to blackmail the University, and that’s what I did, I blackmailed them to get me out of… everything. But by that time we were really in a fight… and I think, as I said, I can’t remember the dates, but by the time Sandy, in an incredibly high-handed way, didn’t hire Benjamin, and ended up hiring whoever it was they hired, I just knew (inaudible)…
TA: Were you glad you went there… [inaudible]?
RK: Well, yeah.. I mean… Linda Nochlin was at the Graduate Center, Jack Flam was at the Graduate Center… I mean, you know. So I was able to… blackmail the City into doing this.
RK: … I don’t remember how, exactly that worked. But we did it.
TA: ….[inaudible] …at Hunter…how did this work with respect to your teaching?
RK: It didn’t affect it at all. I mean, this was just an extension of this kind of… I mean I would say that, dealing with the City University and having … you know… the kind of situation I had, with… sort of a lot of time to pursue my own things, I was able to do the …[inaudible]… that I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to. So, you know, one of the things, of course, that happened at Hunter… I mean I had a rather high-handed attitude towards, towards… the whole business This is before the department moved down to, whatever floor it is, and we were still on the sixteenth floor, and we had no offices and the artists…. May have had offices, but we were… we didn’t even have a shelf, I mean we had… no place to put coats, nothing, nothing. My motto was “no office, no office hours. You know. I mean, I would go to Hunter, I would give my classes, and I would go home.
TA: Do you consider yourself more interested in education, or writing, or………….?
RK: Well, at that time I was really interested…. first of all I had a very productive relationship with… you know… I mean I’ve always had… for me teaching has always been very important because it’s a way of testing ideas, exchanging ideas with students, and… you know challenging myself to work out new materials and new issues. So I find it very productive. But it all then goes into writing.
FG: How did your colleagues receive The Originality of the Avant-Garde ? Was it much discussed, was it …?
RK: By the time The Originality of the Avant-Garde came out… which was now the early ’80s… ’85… I think I wasn’t even at Hunter any more. By that time…
the few friends I had…. I was friends with Susan Crile…. friendly with Bob Morris…. I was friendly with Janet Rearick… these friendships I had, but the Hunter thing… that never worked for me…let them do their thing. If that’s what they want to do, then let me out of it.
TA: How did you feel about the students at Hunter as opposed to the students at Princeton or Columbia, …?
RK: The students at Hunter were… some of them… marvelous, you know, because of… City University… because of… therefore… not a fortune to go to…. you know the studio students often came from very strong undergraduate backgrounds and were very motivated, and so a lot of them were really good, and some of them really were not very good. But I liked teaching there. But by the ’80s I only taught Master’s students, I only taught MFA students, and I only taught the occasional Master’s history of art seminar. I never taught the undergraduates again. I was also…I was teaching at the Graduate Center.
TA: Apart from the Pop Art seminar, were there any other seminars or any other (inaudible)….
RK: Well, at a certain time, Mary Ann Caws was in the French Department at Hunter, and I … welI, the… think it was when Donna Shalala was the president, she applied for some sort of grant from the NEA… I don’t know… she got some sort of funds… there was money for trying to do certain kinds of experimental courses that involved team teaching. So Mary Ann and I decided to team-teach some courses, you know… cross-elective undergraduates. We taught a course together on Surrealism and another one on Symbolism for about (inaudible)…. And I taught a variety of other seminars. I don’t really remember…those two, or the Pop Art seminar. Mainly, I put a lot of energy into this course that I taught for the Master’s students in Modernism, for the Master’s and the MFA students that I taught regularly.
TA: Did you feel that the faculty was amenable to your ideas about what kind of seminars you wanted to teach? Did you find that you had to fight for seminars?
RK: I never had to, no. I could do anything I wanted, as far as I remember.
FG: In terms of the material that you presented to class… you could use ….as well as theoretically…
RK: I think that at a certain point… as… you know, I began to sort of develop theories and issues and talk about Post-Modernism and talk about…you know… certain things that were increasingly obnoxious…
FG: [Critical-?] theory-was that considered obnoxious?
RK: Pretty much everything I was doing was obnoxious. You know…, they…
as the… studio students would then go back in their studios and say, “well, what about so and so”…. you know… and obviously there’s a sort of interchange between what’s happening in one part of their brain and what’s happening in another part of the brain which they would discuss with their studio instructors. And I’m sure…. it became obvious that I wasn’t part of the team. This was a bad scene that we’re describing… this was a dysfunctional family… so…
TA: And why wouldn’t the Graduate Center…[inaudible]?
RK: Well the Graduate Center, I mean that’s not part of your …….
Rewald RK: Well, it became a mess. I mean… Proshansky [sp?]… well, it became it was actually kind of interesting…. the Provost changed, and a guy named Steven Kahn [sp?] became the Provost, he’s some somebody who’s…
somebody that’s worked in Bill Bennett’s NEH. So he was like this neo-conservative… you know… goon… and he wanted us all..you know, to be walking around in togas… and reading classics. And the Graduate Center had been actually… under force of circumstances… Its Ph.D. program was limited to modern. What happened was, when Leo Steinberg, Milton Brown, and John Rewald… went to the… President of the Graduate Center… I think this was around 1970… the Graduate Center was formed in the early ’60s… they had… there was no program in the history of art. In the early ’70s when they went… they set up this program in the history of art, there was a big outcry from Columbia and NYU. They did not want a full history of art program at the Graduate Center because they thought it was some sort of… you know… redundancy, or whatever. And Nelson Rockefeller was the Governor of New York and on the Board of the Museum of Modern Art, and very… you know… responsive to these objections and so it became clear that they were not going to be able to form a competing, full history of art program. Plus, it’s very expensive to set something up… (inaudible). So what Milton Brown and Leo Steinberg decided was that what was really needed and what the… the competition…in fact, would complement what was on the ground, was something specializing in Modern. So that’s what they did. And it passed in Albany, and it became a raving success, in fact. Steven Kahn… who was referred to as King Kahn… decided that this was some… I mean Modernism for him was Radicalism…. it was known as Gay Studies… I mean he had like this wholel Chinese menu of bad things that came up the minute you started talking about Modernism. And so he was interested in dismantling the program. Under the rubric of fairness and a lot of other … [tape separates-some words lost?] …… backing the program…. he began to attack… and several things began…evolved, in some horrible way. It became clear to Linda Nochlin and me… (inaudible)….
FG: Was that very much contrary… seem very much contrary to what the students wanted?
RK: Totally. The students had all kinds of protests, petitions. But the Graduate Center, unfortunately, had a system that meant that the Chairs of the Departments were not elected but appointed by the President. And because the President was involved-you don’t want to hear about the politics of all this-but anyway there was nothing we could do. Linda and I tried to… we were friends with the Chairperson of the City University, Joe Murphy. We wore pins, we went to everybody… there was nothing we could do. I would see the Provost, I went to see the President of the Graduate Center… I tried.
FG: So it was a situation that you could sort of taking or leaving it, you could easily go somewhere else, but it was something that you really wanted to keep working?
RK: I wanted to keep working if it was workable. But again it began to be obvious that it wasn’t workable. And so we left.
FG: Going back to Hunter, I thought I might ask you about a couple of the exhibitions that you curated at the Hunter Gallery.
TA: The “……..Abstraction” show in ’89 and “Francesca Woodman ” in ’86?
RK: “Francesca Woodman” despite the moment…. a number of moments…. that “Francesca Woodman”… I mean,both of those….that was a beautiful exhibition.
TA: …(inaudible)… catalogues that were …
RK: I can show you the catalogues. It was really fabulous. Sandy was very worried…. the catalogue was …it was more expensive than they were used to doing. It was a collaboration. The reason this happened …was a collaboration with Wellesley College, and that was something. I mean just having that all happen smoothly was not easy. Not because of Wellesley, but because of Hunter. And though… at that point, the relations between the president of Hunter and the president of Wellesley was… that level was just fine… but for every other level it wasn’t so great. The “Abstraction” thing was sort of a gun put to my head. I mean Sandy’s saying that we were… they were doing this sort of… things about abstraction and… you know… it was Sandy basically legislating that “let there be abstraction”… you know… let there be this sort of Late Modernist ..academic… thing, going on in the gallery. And this, I think, happened at a point when… somebody had been… I forget who… in the gallery… making these sort of shows that I guess Sandy thought were too radical, so he sort of took the reins back. It was just supposed to be abstraction. I don’t even remember how he ended up having the power over me to make me say… you know… say yes. But somehow… (inaudible)… so I said yes. But then… then I decided to really sort of turn the light…. I did… abstract photography… which was… completely goes against the grain of what he wanted. So if…(inaudible)
TA: (inaudible) … also teaching at Hunter?
RK: No, she was a student of mine at the Graduate Center, and she was very interested in photography and feminism, and it seemed like a good idea that… you know… that she do the Francesca Woodman material since she was interested in that.
TA: Why did you choose Francesca Woodman?
RK: Well, I didn’t choose Francesca Woodman. I have a very close friend whose name is Ann G______, who… she was an art historian… she’s now a potter, a ceramicist, and she is close friends with Betty Woodman , who was a very distinguished ceramicist. And Francesca studies…the work. So Ann also has a specialization in photography and so she thought… you know, everyone… would want to see this work. So Ann wanted to do… by that time was the Director of the Wellesley College Museum… and she wanted to do the Francesca Woodman thing and wanted very much for it to have a New York venue. And so it just… you know, seemed like a good idea.
It looked really beautiful. There were pieces… that are not represented in the catalogue, which were these extraordinary prints… I think…sort of in the …..
RK: Um hm.
TA: …..together on that show?
RK: She was terrific. Yeah, really great. But she was a student of mine at the Graduate Center.
TA: Oh, was she really.
RK: Yeah. [phone interruption]
TA: Any further overall impressions, or interesting stories, or anything in particular that sticks out in your mind, during your experiences here, any anecdotes?
RK: Well, I’ve sort of told you quite a lot. No, I don’t think I have anything else I remember.
TA: So, what’s your overall impression of …(inaudible)….
RK: Well, you know, it was good at the beginning and bad at the end, and then, you know… I… frankly… just from a totally, totally selfish point of view, it was this extremely positive experience for me because it gave me a lot of time to pursue my own work, it was stimulating, and… you know… it had its own very special kind of way that it worked for me. Then when it stopped working for me, I just sort of was able to get out of it.
TA: Thank you very much.
RK: You’re welcome.
FG: Thanks very much for your time.
RK: You’re welcome. I hope it’s helpful to you.
[end of interview]