Rosalind Krauss: Grids


Following submission of the grid-based Lockdown story for Assignment 4, my Tutor recommended I read Rosalind Krauss’ 1979 essay ‘Grid’ (1) published by MIT Press. She dispairs of the proliferation of the use of grids in 20th-century art. She says:

It is not just the sheer number of careers that have been devoted to the exploration of the grid that is impressive, but the fact that never could exploration have chosen less fertile ground.

Krauss discusses grids from a number of perspectives. She suggests the grid ‘declares the modernity of modern art’ in two ways. Spatially in the sense that it flattens and orders – ‘it’s what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’ – and temporally in the sense that its use is emblematic of 20th-century art.

Krauss Goes on to discuss the grid’s role in 20th-century religious art. She explains it’s origin in the 19th-century colour matrices used to appreciate physiological optics and its further appearance in the form of windows in 19th-century symbolist art.

The Schizophrenic Grid

In her essay, Krauss discusses the idea of grids being centrifugal and centripetal. Two examples of each are shown below.

Piet Mondrian. ‘Composition No. 1: Lozenge with Four Lines’. 1930
Larry Poon. ‘Spanish Dancer’. 1975

Frank Stella. ‘Club Onyx-Seven Step’s from Black Series I. 1967

Piet Mondrian. ‘Tableau 2’. 1922

In the centrifugal works, she explains that the art presented is only a fragment of an infinitely larger piece. The grid works from the art outwards, forcing us, she argues, to implicitly acknowledge a world outside the frame. In the first two images, the lines on the canvas break the grid structure. Compare that to images three and four. These centripetal pictures are self-contained within the frame. She goes on to say:

Here again one finds one of those curious paradoxes by which the use of the grid is marked at every turn. The beyond-the-frame attitude, in addressing the world and its structure, would seem to trace its lineage back to the 19th century in relation to the operations of science, and thus to carry the positivist or materialist implications of its heritage. The within-the-frame attitude, on the contrary, involved as it is with the purely conventional and autotelic reading of the work of art, which seem to issue from purely symbolist origins, and thus to carry all those readings which we oppose to to ‘science’ or ‘materialism’ – readings which inflect the work as symbolic, cosmological, spiritual, vitalist. Yet we know that by and large, this is not true. Through a kind of short-circuiting of this logic, the within-the-frame grids are generally far more materialist in character while the beyond-the-frame examples often entail the dematerialisation of the surface, the dispersal of matter into perpetual flicker or implied motion. And we also know that this schizophrenia allows many artists to think about the grid in both ways at once.


Krauss, R., 1979. Grids. October, [online] 9, pp.50-64. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 September 2020].

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