Seeing is Remembering: the Expanded Field of Art Writing

Saul Anton

View of Guillaume Leblon’s “Aerosol” at Labor, Mexico City, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Labor.

November 19, 2020

Meta is a collaboration between art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Fondation Pernod Ricard, in which writers reflect on the experience of writing about art. Here, Saul Anton draws on Charles Baudelaire and Rosalind E. Krauss in reconsidering Giving Space, Sculpting Time, his essay on the work of Guillaume Leblon.

I’d like to begin with a confession. My essay on the work of French artist Guillaume Leblon turns on his 2019 exhibition at LABOR, a gallery in Mexico City. But I never saw the show—not in person. Nor did I see any of the other exhibitions the artist has held over the past two decades. I wrote my essay on the basis of dozens and dozens of images of his works and of these exhibitions, which I reviewed in detail over several lunches in New York with Guillaume, and on my own. Once I’d drafted my essay, I fact-checked it with him work by work.

Perhaps that’s a scandal to some. I don’t really know. All I can say is that I’ve never felt that way. But I know that a lot of people—artists, critics, and curators—feel very strongly that you must see the work in person. Embodied experience is a prized value in contemporary art. It’s no secret that the perennial and permanent grand tour of works of art in galleries, studios, fairs, biennials, triennials, etc., is one of the art world’s fundamental rituals.

But it is not the only value. To be perfectly clear, I nearly always write about art I’ve seen in the flesh. It just so happened that Leblon’s show was in Mexico City and I wasn’t. I do not deny that a Richard Serra Torqued Ellipse feels and reads quite differently in a magazine than standing beside it. It’s hard to get a sense of the paradoxical way it suggests both immense weight and weightlessness by looking at a photograph. But photographs, especially when viewed from above, also offer something that standing next to the work does not.

Art is always both embodied and disembodied, present and absent, there and not there. Seeing a picture of a work of art—in particular, a sculpture, which exists in three dimensions—offers an experience different from walking through a space or around a work, or standing in front of a painting. I don’t mean to open a philosophical discussion here about the nature of aesthetic experience and its possibilities—possibilities that are heterodox to some—but it’s hardly scandalous to say that embodiment is only one way to understand the phenomenology of art. There is no such thing as a transcript of an artwork, a privileged and “true” embodiment that should be held up as an ideal both of artworks and any critical account of them.

This leads to my next point. The critical description of a work of art is first and foremost a complex act of memory—always after the fact, even if it’s done while standing right in front of the work. For Charles Baudelaire, memory was a primary ingredient of our cultural modernity. In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) he held up Constantin Guys as a paradigmatic modern artist who “always draws from memory and not from the model.”1 Memory is selective and synthetic—and thus critical. In one sense, criticism is nothing but remembering, an account of the spectral, the void, the absence that inhabits and structures a work of art.

To my mind, this relation to the negative and to absence—and to associated notions of temporal decay and disjunction, to a poetics of the fragment—and of ruins—remains a major fault line in contemporary art. One important articulation of it takes place in Rosalind E. Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979), where she traces a history of “pure negativity” within the evolution of sculpture in the twentieth century. This evolution ends up in the knot, if I may be allowed a play on words, of “not landscape and not architecture.” Looking at the photographs of Leblon’s work at LABOR, I was particularly aware—perhaps because of the way that photos frame the space around his pieces—of how it engaged and refused to engage with the exhibition space. With earlier exhibitions and works, this was even more pronounced. I quickly saw how Krauss’s “pure negativity”2 of the space around sculpture played a key role in Leblon’s work, but conceived itself in terms of image and figure rather than space and extension. It was this thread of absence that I pulled on in my essay, and to which Krauss returns with a slight yet significant difference when she writes about the work of Marcel Broodthaers many years later: “It was just this structure of a spatial ‘behind’ or layering that was for him a metaphor for the condition of absence that is at the heart of fiction.”3

It also reminded me of Baudelaire’s line about memory, and his 1857 poem, “The Swan,” with which I decided to begin my essay. I’d once written somewhere (in a grad school essay, I think) that Baudelaire’s swan was an emblem of our relationship to art, whether or not we’re standing in front of it. And that means that it’s also a figure of Baudelaire the art critic (and by extension, I suppose, of me, too) as an exile. The space of this exile, the gallery understood as the space between works and their description, is the space of the expanded field.


Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (New York: Phaidon, 1964), 16.


Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring, 1979), 34.


Rosalind E. Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 47.

Temporality, Memory, Dematerialization

Saul Anton is the author of Warhol’s Dream (Les presses du réel/JRP Ringier, 2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (Afterall Books/MIT Press, 2015), and translator of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Discourse of the Syncope: Logodaedalus (Stanford University Press, 2007). He teaches in the department of Humanities and Media Studies at the Pratt Institute, New York.

RSVP for Seeing is Remembering: the Expanded Field of Art Writing

November 19, 2020

Thank you for your RSVP.

will be in touch.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.