“Almost everyone is agreed about ’70s art. It is diversified, split, factionalized.”1 These are the opening lines of Rosalind Krauss’ celebrated two-part essay Notes on the Index, first published in October in 1977. The article was immediately influential, and became even more so when it was installed as a centerpiece of Krauss’ The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, in 1985. What animated Krauss’ essay was her idea that the index might be the rudder to steer us through a storm of indiscriminate art. As she explained, an index (as discussed in the work of Charles Peirce and other semioticians) is a sign that is linked to its referent through physical rather than conventional means— like a footprint in sand, a shadow, or a photograph. In each case there is an objective, direct construction of meaning. Gesturing to a tree, or taking its picture, is different from uttering the word “tree” because it cannot be transposed into another method of signification (as one might translate “tree” into “arbre” or “baum”). The index, she wrote, “substitute[s] the registration of sheer physical presence for the more highly articulated language of aesthetic conventions (and the kind of history which they encode).”2
Let us not forget that 1977 was a moment primed for stylistic explosion. The formal/conceptual tradition of art theory, which informed Krauss’ work and was in turn formed by it, was about to enter into allout warfare with the heterogeneous welter of art styles we now call postmodernism. Facing this coming eclecticism, and the collapse of theoretical rigor that it portended, Krauss saw the “sheer physical presence” of the index as a stable foundation. It is no coincidence that 1977 also saw the multi-media exhibition Pictures open in New York, which initiated a surprising leapfrog of image reproduction from the backwaters of art history to its front lines, leading to a widespread reevaluation of photography in particular. For Krauss and her intellectual allies, the indexicality of the photograph (and the film, its time-and-animated based extension) would serve well into the 1980s as a bulwark against an increasingly miscellaneous art world.
Of course, if art was diversified, split, and factionalized in the 1970s, today it is positively atomized. Krauss’ ambition was to keep alive the sense, propagated by Clement Greenberg and others at mid-century, that “advanced” art operated within a single discursive field, anchored in the concept of medium. From the perspective of 2011, this perhaps seems a quaint notion. Postmodernism and globalism may not have delivered on many of the freedoms they promised, but they achieved this much, anyway: an art world of complete mutual unintelligibility, of heteroglossia. As Mary Ann Doane points out in her discussion of this “postmedium condition,” even the indexicality of photography itself has come to seem treacherous, as “the digital offers an ease of manipulation and distance from any referential grounding.”3
Even in an art world of infinite diversity, however, certain common grounds do remain. One of these is the market—which sets the terms of engagement much as the abstraction vs. figuration debate did in the 1950s. A lesser-theorized, indeed often obscured, source of debate is artistic production itself. I often think, walking through any large-scale biennial or other international exhibition with a bewildering diversity of offerings, that a good way to assess all the works on view objectively is to think about how they were made. What we have in art today, mostly, are found objects, outsourced fabrication, “bad painting,” videos, big photos printed on expensive equipment, “relational” situations requiring only rudimentary props, and outsized sloppy sculpture. Skilled hands are in evidence, but only very rarely are they the artist’s own. One message comes through loud and clear: the difficulties of making are still with us, and they dictate the course of contemporary art much more than most artists and curators would like to admit. Successful facture is something like a tide line in contemporary art, which helps us see whether individual practices are sinking or swimming.
And this brings me, finally, to Isabelle Cornaro. While many artists are furiously treading water, trying to keep afloat in the currents, she swims at ease within the ocean of production. Cornaro takes for granted the absolute importance of the physical making of her works (photographing, scanning, molding, displaying), always chosen on purpose because for her these processes—whether she is doing the work herself or delegating it—are significant in themselves. She embraces it as primary content, just as the index was for Krauss. Indeed, Cornaro serves as an excellent case study for comparing the present moment with that of 1977, because she so routinely employs indexical means in her work. Paramount among these is the technique of life-casting, a craft with deep historical roots, extending back through the didactic plaster casts made across Europe and America in the 19th century to the astonishing grotesques of the 16th-century French potter Bernard Palissy. These precursors point to a truth that perhaps eluded Krauss, situated as she was in the late stages of conceptualism: an index, even if direct, can be extremely difficult to make. Palissy’s chargers, festooned with every manner of lizard, frog, shell, and fern, exhibit awesome technical mastery. They also are replete with associations grounded in process (for Palissy himself, life casting was infused with divine overtones because of its similarity to the fossil-making that God conducted through the geological actions of the earth).4
It is ironic that Palissy’s intensely naturalistic works should be so inspirational for Cornaro, for as she says, her own interest lies primarily in the “denaturalization” of given aesthetic categories. “What we call a ‘minimal’ black line on a piece of paper,” she writes, “may arise from a totally metaphoric and ‘figurative’ process; or a cast heap of kitsch objects may be the result of a purely nominalist gesture and thus be quite ‘abstract.’”5 Instead of medium specificity, Cornaro explores media mutability, alchemical transformations that cross the apparent gaps between one discrete process and another. She encourages us to read a museum exhibition display, or a seemingly random disposition of gold jewelry, as a landscape painting. Architectural moldings are pressed together into freestanding sculptures, without losing their vocabulary of supplementarity. And in two related series entitled Moulages sur le vif (Vide-poches) (Life Casts [Catch All], 2009–2011) and Homonymes (Homonyms, 2010), indexical processes are brought face to face with the found objects that they reproduce. In the former series she employs a large scanner, as opposed to a conventional camera, to embed threedimensional objects into a two-dimensional array. The Homonymes are realized with the collaboration of a specialist fabricator (as Cornaro does not disdain such recourse to others’ skills), and like the arrangements of found objects that they copy, present an array of decorative and useful items on tabletops, as if a still life painting were laid out on a dissecting table. All these “flatbed” compositions (to appropriate Leo Steinberg’s term,6 originally applied to Robert Rauschenberg, but perhaps even more appropriate here given Cornaro’s use of a scanner) are nominally contained within this genre of still life. Yet they also read, again, as landscapes, or perhaps urban design models. This is the dizzying flux that Krauss dreaded—a play with mediums that might almost be whimsical. Yet Cornaro knows that no matter how rootless and subjective her works become, materiality and process will hold them in a cogent framework. The absolute difference in affect between original and cast, for example, provide a stable ground in an otherwise vertiginous viewing experience.
Making, then—no matter who is doing the making—serves as Cornaro’s anchor. It gives her what Krauss wanted for art: an objective center, on which to build a meaningful practice. And yet she has achieved this through something nearly opposite to Krauss’ vision. In place of ironclad presence, her indexicality is a sort of gamesmanship. Instead of the constancy of medium, she skips like a stone from one medium to another, subjecting each in turn to her scenographic vision. Photography, casting, video, drawing: all are part of this endeavor, and each has their specificity. In Cornaro’s hands—at work in the young 21st century, not the dying embers of the 20th—the particularity of production is nothing more (or less) than the passport to the new.