Under Blue Cup


In Under Blue Cup, Rosalind Krauss explores the relation of aesthetic mediums to memory—her own memory having been severely tested by a ruptured aneurysm that temporarily washed away much of her short-term memory. (The title, Under Blue Cup, comes from the legend on a flash card she used as a mnemonic tool during cognitive therapy.) Krauss emphasizes the medium as a form of remembering; contemporary artists in what she terms the "post-medium" condition reject that scaffolding. Krauss explains the historical ...

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In Under Blue Cup, Rosalind Krauss explores the relation of aesthetic mediums to memory—her own memory having been severely tested by a ruptured aneurysm that temporarily washed away much of her short-term memory. (The title, Under Blue Cup, comes from the legend on a flash card she used as a mnemonic tool during cognitive therapy.) Krauss emphasizes the medium as a form of remembering; contemporary artists in what she terms the "post-medium" condition reject that scaffolding. Krauss explains the historical emergence of the post-medium condition and describes alternatives to its aesthetic meaninglessness, examining works by "knights of the medium"—contemporary artists who extend the life of the specific medium. These artists—including Ed Ruscha, William Kentridge, Sophie Calle, Harun Farocki, Christian Marclay, andJames Coleman—reinstate the recursive rules of a modernist medium by inventing what Krauss terms new technical supports, battling the aesthetic meaninglessness of the post-medium condition. The"technical support" is an underlying ground for aesthetic practice that supports the work of art as canvas supported oil paint. The technical support for Ruscha's fascination with gas stations and parking lots is the automobile; for Kentridge, the animated film; for Calle,photojournalism; for Coleman, a modification of PowerPoint; for Marclay, synchronous sound. Their work, Krauss argues, recuperates more than a century of modernist practice. The work of the post-medium condition—conceptual art, installation, and relational aesthetics—advances the idea that the "white cube" of the museum or gallery wall is over. Krauss argues that the technical support extends the life of the white cube, restoring autonomy and specificity to the work of art.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1999, renowned art critic Krauss (Perpetual Inventory) suffered an aneurism that temporarily impeded her short-term memory. The “urgency of remembering” was central to her recovery and is the focus of this study composed of erudite and penetrating essays interspersed with aphorisms (“the medium is the memory” is a central one) and which is itself named for the first flash card she encountered in her cognitive rehabilitation therapy. Just as a sense of who one is serves as the scaffolding for recovering memory, so, argues Krauss, the medium is the artist’s scaffolding for mnemonic support. She masterfully traces the primacy of medium from Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti’s “medium specificity” to critic Clement Greenberg’s distinction between painting as flatness and sculpture as dimensionality. Krauss’s core argument (what she deems a “crusade”) is “that the “white cube,” which conceptual and installation artists have deemed obsolete, actually thrives. For Krauss, whose writing is deeply descriptive and philosophically rigorous, both the aneurism and the recovery process provide concrete and metaphorical insight into the nature of modernism and postmodernism and the structure of individual and aesthetic memory. Of greatest interest to history of art scholars and critics. 60 color illus. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"...[D]eeply descriptive and philosophically rigorous." — PublishersWeekly

" Under Blue Cup is an extraordinary exercise in art critical writing." — Art Monthly

" Under Blue Cup is a book whose importance cannot be overstated."—Jan Baetens, Leonardo Reviews

Library Journal
A book comprised of "almost alphabetically" arranged aphorisms and ideas, this new work by Krauss (art history, Columbia; editor & cofounder, October magazine; The Picasso Papers) is a unique specimen of philosophically rigorous scholarship. In it, she explores and relates the complexities and subtleties of human memory to aesthetic medium and stresses medium as a form of remembering. Through her use of well-selected and well-placed images, Krauss does an excellent job of illustrating her complex proposition that the "white cube" of the museum or gallery wall, deemed obsolete by conceptual artists, lives on courtesy of what the author terms "technical support." The images plus the segmented layout of the text give this scholarly work a certain approachability. VERDICT A dense little book likely to be embraced by art and aesthetics scholars and art critics.—Jennifer Krivickas, Univ. of Cincinnati Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262016131
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2011
  • Pages: 152
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Rosalind E. Krauss, University Professor at Columbia University and an editor and cofounder ofOctober magazine, is the author of The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other ModernistMyths (1985), The Optical Unconscious (1993), The PicassoPapers (1999), and Bachelors (1999), all published by the MIT Press,and coauthor (with Yve-Alain Bois) of Formless: A User's Guide (Zone Books,1997).

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Read an Excerpt


By Rosalind E. Krauss

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01613-1

Chapter One


Late in 1999, my brain erupted. (1) It is called an aneurysm, but all the same it is an exploded artery launching a cataract of blood into the brain, disconnecting synapses and washing neurons away. Three neurosurgeries dammed the flow. Recovery came after in the rehab ward of New York's Hospital for Joint Diseases. In December, after this after, they advised that rehabilitation continue, both physical and cognitive. (2) Cognitive rehab consisted of strengthening short-term memory, as though I were an athlete being trained to leap over the puddles in my brain called lesions, a mysterious term from college but when I saw the CAT scans of my skull all too obvious.

In addition to elaborate memory games played on computer, the principal therapeutic tools for jumping were flash cards bearing either primitive drawings or disconnected bits of text. (3) Looking at the drawings I would see such random couples as a tennis pro paired with a zipper, or a football player teamed with a yo-yo. After a 20-minute distraction I was expected to recall them, still side by side. Viewing the first example of the written kind, I encountered Under BlUe CUp, an inadvertent present to my pocketed memory and a lesson in how to remember these exact words, even in their hapless order.

Every morning during the months of recovery my husband had brought breakfast: coffee and a sweet roll, which he picked up at a shop on his way to the hospital. So "Cup" was now accounted for. Called A Kind of Blue, the coffee shop was owned and managed by a Croatian who came from Split, making "blue" another easy association. Some years earlier I had been to Split, as well as to its crystalline blue grotto on Biševo island. So I "saw" the grotto and was on the glass-bottomed boat once more.

Aneurysm — The amnesia of the stain

(1) It is called an aneurysm, but all the same it is an exploded artery launching a cataract of blood into the brain, disconnecting synapses and washing neurons away.

UNDER BLUE CUP, the legend on my initial flash card, triumphantly proved the first rule of mnemonic therapy: if you can remember "who" you are (never a certainty if you've been comatose), you have the necessary associative scaffold to teach yourself to remember anything. It is curious to treat this narrative as if it were about myself, but I will soon disappear into its commitments to the art of the present.

UNDER BLUE CUP speaks to the project engaged by this book insofar as its subject is the concept of the aesthetic medium, which Jean-Luc Nancy is driven to call a singular plural in order to leverage the singular noun "Art" into the plurality of its aesthetic supports, each support bearing the name of a different muse. Jean-Luc announces his project when he titles his opening chapter "Why Are There Several Arts and Not Just One?" I am approaching his question by my emphasis on the medium as a form of remembering, since the various artistic supports, each represented by its individual muse, serve as the scaffolding for a "who you are" in the collective memory of the practitioners of that particular genre—painting, sculpture, photography, film. It speaks to the "who you are" of each muse, speaking also to the "who you are" of what I will show are the new genres that contemporary artists—during what I am calling the "post-medium condition"—feel an imperative to "invent." The invention of a medium will strike us as strange—since mediums develop over many centuries during which an entire guild uses their rules as a means of communication. An "invented" medium would seem to be merely idiomatic. But I will show here that there is no code (aesthetic or linguistic) that is not open to interpretation or careful reading. A medium is the articulation of such a code.

Brain — The medium is the memory

The flood I'd sustained created memory gaps that I had to be trained to bridge. Thus the aneurysm thrust forgetting into my experience as a possibility I'd never imagined. It forwarded the urgency of remembering, sustained by the identity of a "who you are."

BLDBLDhessboard — The medium is the support

It was the medieval system of the guilds that presided over the arts as so many separate crafts: carvers in charge of stone or wood; casters responsible for bronze, either statues or doors; painters at work on stained glass wooden panel or plaster wall; weavers on grand ceremonial tapestries. Separate skills were also maintained by the Schools of Fine Arts begun in France under Colbert. Ateliers divided painters from sculptors as students learned by copying the virtuosity of their masters. The rules transmitted by the guilds concerned the preparation of various supports for the artisan's work of representation—the craft of sanding and waxing the wooden panel, after which came the careful spreading on of bole so that its terra-cotta layer would cushion the gold leaf 's fragile skin. The two-dimensional support that defines painting as a medium required its artisans to conquer the drumhead flatness of wall or panel as it obstructed their efforts to resonate an opening behind it, a little fictive space on which so many figurative presences could be placed like actors human or supernatural on a stage.

Ever since the Renaissance, the stage had been the concern of what Alberti had termed the legitimate construction, his name for the geometry of perspective that progressively torqued the paving stones of palace or cathedral into the staccato of black squares challenged by white. This checkered paving made the chessboard not only the foundation for the actors in the pictures' narrative but also the means of piercing the drumhead of the painting's flatness, puncturing the opacity of its resistant matter. For painters, the memory of "who" you are means recalling a system of making that from the Renaissance forward exploited perspective and its transections as a rich source of meaning. Painting's memory nests two supports within each other, since if perspective is the support of imaging, the chessboard, as Hubert Damisch has shown us, is the support of perspective.

In the twentieth century, abstract art jettisoned the earlier access to a meaning staked on the space "behind" the canvas drumhead. Painters opposed this by using the drumhead itself as their theme.

The cubists organized the drumhead as an upright chessboard which they schematized as graph or grid. By means of the gridded surface, meaning could flow from an act of referral to the uniqueness of painting's support, as it required each artist to define the difference between the drumhead and the painter's marks by "pointing" to the drumhead itself. Nietzsche meant that kind of pointing when he called painting's specific resistance to visual penetration its "luminous concreteness," as Tim Clark gratefully quotes from The Birth of Tragedy.

This pointing-to-itself came to be called specificity and entered the discourse of modernist criticism as medium specificity.

Such acts of pointing were understood as a form of self-definition for which artists found a multitude of strategies over centuries of practice. Since pointing was meant to direct attention to the medium as support for the representation, we can speak of it as recursively representing that support, or, as I will term this, "figuring it forth." Modernist theory held this self-definition to be a recursive structure—a structure some of the elements of which will produce the rules that generate the structure itself, the way the rules of modulating color (called "atmospheric perspective") both open and close painting's "luminous concreteness." The rules of cubist practice produced the grid, which pointed three ways at once: first to the flatness of the canvas the way graph paper creates a net everywhere taut and seamless; second to the edges of this flatness with each tessera miming the picture's frame; third to the microfiber of the canvas, so as to "figure forth" the very tissue of the canvas weave. The idea of rules as the vehicle of specificity drives a wedge between the way medium specificity is being used in these pages and the way it functioned in the most prestigious theorization of its relation to modernism, at the hands of Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg, the nature of a medium was established by a brute positivism: painting is flat; sculpture is three-dimensional and freestanding like an object; drawing is the cursive tracing of edges and boundaries as opposed to painting's access to color and penumbra. Greenberg's specificity is empirically tied to a physical substance. The specificity onto which I want Under Blue Cup to open is focused, rather, on the rules of the guilds. This is what will distinguish its idea of specificity from Clement Greenberg's. The positivism of Greenberg's designations (as in his dogma that painting's specificity is to be found in the flatness of its support) has troubled certain critics and philosophers, its note sounded by Cavell's complaint that this reductive reflex has brought about "the fate of modernist art generally—that its awareness and responsibility for the physical basis of its art compel it at once to assert and deny the control of its art by that basis." Elsewhere Cavell qualifies this denial, with its feckless abdication of aesthetic responsibility—a "dire fate." His own invocation of the rules of a medium he calls an automatism, the way the rules for marrying the voices of a fugue or moving through the tonality of the development section of a sonata are alone in allowing for the spontaneity of improvisation which keeps classical Western music, as well as its jazz, alive.

Greenberg's position is also attacked by critics who might be thought to be his greatest advocates, as when Michael Fried holds Greenberg's notion of sculptural specificity responsible for what he dismisses as the "literalism" of the minimalist art he rejects: "Part of my argument with Greenberg's reductionist, essentialist reading of the development of modernist art," he says, "was precisely this case history in Minimalism of what happened if one thought in those terms" (as when the minimalists literalize Greenberg's notion of sculptural specificity as the brute distinction between painting's flatness and sculpture's physical bulk). In his further critique of Greenberg, Fried made shape into a "medium" of abstract painting. Frank Stella was his example, when his Polygon Series seemed to gather shape together on the canvas so as to "invent" what Fried called a new medium for abstraction. One of representation's pictorial conventions is that since contour produces a figure leveraged away from its background, such a depicted shape will not coincide with the painting's "literal shape"—the bounding edge it shares with any ordinary object (table chair or packing case)—a sharing minimalism welcomed as canceling Western illusionism and its separation of art from objects at large. Against this brute reduction, and contrary to Greenberg, Fried saw shape, not flatness, as a way of declaring the specificity of painting.

Discursive unity — The a priori of the medium

Michel Foucault invokes what he calls the "barbarous term" historical a priori in order to determine how a variety of authors can occupy the single "discursive unity" that gathers them, historically, into "the same conceptual field," all of them led to address the "same object." In postwar America, medium was such an object, made "historical" in Foucault's terms by its "form of dispersion in time, a mode of succession, of stability, and of reactivation."

Greenberg was perhaps the first to stabilize medium as the locus of discursive unity, his essay "Modernist Painting" fixing the a priori of the discourse around the poetic trope of synecdoche which Foucault would elsewhere call "analogy and succession" (the very trope Foucault saw Marx expounding around the a priori of labor, and Darwin developing around the a priori of life). For Greenberg himself, the analogical thread of painting was the physical support made recursive by means of a self-criticism, which drove the ways of acknowledging that support, in its very flatness, successively forward. In this sense medium can be seen as what Foucault elsewhere calls an episteme, a coherent language (based on the poetic tropes, such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, that Giambattista Vico had called "poetic knowledge"). This, Foucault argues, is a figurative language all authors within a given epoch will unconsciously speak at the same time. Foucault's discursive object is made historical by being both stabilized and reactivated. We have here seen the "reactivation" of the medium as discursive unity through the successive objections to Greenberg's modernism. The discursive unity joined Fried's voice to Cavell's supplication that modernist practice escape its "dire fate," since, as Cavell says, "modernist art ... rediscovers the fact that its existence as an art is not physically assured."

To put at a distance the term medium, with its merely "physical" assurance, Cavell introduced automatism to refer to the rules by which practitioners of a given discipline gain the freedom to improvise, by moving, for example, through the chordal progressions open to the tempered scale of Western music, as when Bach could improvise fugues on five or six voices, or the pianist can improvise the cadenza called for at the end of a sonata.

Foucault's historical a priori reopens the issue of the medium, its discursive space allowing reactivation and succession. In joining my own voice to this discursive space with its critique of a reductive logic, I am substituting "technical support" for the traditional idea of a physical medium—medium itself a "support" for the work of art—such as the canvas's underpinning for oil paint, or the metal armature's scaffold for plaster or clay. As opposed to these traditional foundations, "technical supports" are generally borrowed from available mass-cultural forms, like animated films, automobiles, investigative journalism, or movies—hence "technical" replaces the "artisanal" materials of the guilds; in the same way "support" neutralizes the individual names of the muses. The need for these substitutions arose from the "discursive unity" of postmodernism, which decreed the very idea of a medium obsolete.

Expansion — The medium is the binary

(3) Looking at the drawings I would see such random couples as a tennis pro paired with a zipper, or a football player teamed with a yo-yo.

But what if a medium were not a material support—oil on canvas, tempera on wooden panel, pigment on wet plaster—the materials worked by the guilds? What if it were the very foundation of representation, the way painting's chessboard supports the actors on its stage? What if it were a logic rather than a form of matter?

Structural linguistics discovers meaning as the sum of two opposing terms, which it calls binaries and Roland Barthes renames "paradigm." The opposition of male to female could be said to generate the paradigm of /gender/; while the opposition of front to back projects the paradigm of /depth/, and high versus low gives us /verticality/.


Excerpted from UNDER BLUE CUP by Rosalind E. Krauss Copyright © 2011 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments —....................ix
one WASHED AWAY —....................1
two ON THE ROAD —....................51
three THE KNIGHT'S MOVE —....................101
Notes —....................131
Index —....................139
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