Tim Maul is an artist and critic who lives in New York.
The last space one enters after threading through an exhibition in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art contains tables, chairs, and a variety of catalogues and other publications pertaining to the show we have just experienced. Attendant to museum shows or as art itself the archive and reading room is a common presentation strategy in tedious ‘relational aesthetic’ manifestations dependent upon the academy, blue chip gallery, or any institutionally sanctioned locale. Decades ago, Joseph Kosuth merged the site of the library with the art context. Kosuth’s challenging art cannot escape the connoisseur, whose eye he attempted to redirect to the scholar’s page – however ‘style’, as Ed Ruscha noted, exists even in the casual display of a chair . Kosuth’s 2011 exhibition Samuel Becket, in Play at Sean Kelly Gallery offers, through the elegant installation of three works, the opportunity to reconnect with the art of this important figure. From here in I will use the term ‘conceptual’ to categorize art made for mind, page, wall, or for objects that many of Kosuth’s peers held in revulsion – at least for that time. Kosuth may welcome the term ‘conceptual artist’ as Paul McCartney would ‘ex-Beatle’.
Kosuth graduated art school in the mid-60s, establishing, along with Christine Koslov, a storefront gallery in the East Village which hosted several shows, notably Fifteen Artist Present Their Favorite Book (1967), before emerging from a tight field in the competitive climate that followed minimalism. Kosuth exhibited no premature or transitional work; his signature style employed minimalism’s visual language (pristine surfaces, seriality, etc) to demonstrate ideas culled primarily from the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Jasper Johns had introduced into the conversation of art, changing how it was made, written about, and received. Kosuth risked costly production for the period, employing glass, neon, and photography to actualize the process of seeing / reading. Compared to other local conceptualists – Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler, Dan Graham, and Mel Bochner (a post-minimal checklist sensibility prevails here), Kosuth’s art was deemed ‘ambitious’ in that his ideas resulted in physical things, earning the artist accusations of heretical ‘materialism’. This new puritanical strain had many origins – but Sol Lewitt’s 10 Sentences on Conceptual Art, which was published by the austere Art & Language press (of which Kosuth was briefly American editor), held biblical sway in a movement that strove to purge art of all but the unseen pleasures of the intellect – cool art in hot political times. The conceptual, while utopian in its employment of new technologies that could transmit information everywhere, expressed little belief that that art could affect anything other than art.
Kosuth had formulated a position of ‘Art as Idea as Idea’, continuing a chain of thinking from Malevich through Duchamp, Johns and Stella – whose ‘black’ paintings along with Ad Reinhardt’s seemingly empty canvases are important precedents. Kosuth’s enlargements from Webster’s Thesaurus along with his extension of the readymade with his object, image, and definition pieces of the late ‘60s. are classic works of the conceptual movement, rewarding the artist with early defining moment(s) (2).
At Sean Kelly, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), (1968) occupies three walls of a medium-size gallery space. Paintings finally, white sub-definitions of the word ‘nothing’ are centrally located upon each canvas. In physical terms, the ten 48” x 48” black squares ‘hold the wall’ very well, a great deal of ‘something’ produced out of ‘nothing’.
Their proportions may suggest the aggressive scale of ‘hard edge’ or ‘color field’ painting that followed on the heels of Pop. The dictionary’s lettering font differentiated Kosuth from other ‘words on the wall’ artists Weiner and Barry, who by the ’70s were strongly identified with specific styles of lettering. How would this choice of text font contribute to these artists’ future reception? Barry’s words soothe, the ubiquitous Weiner syntax is singularly Euro-efficient. Mel Bochner’s recent hand-lettered ‘rant’ paintings are refreshingly cranky. Did the blocky nineteenth-century ‘wanted poster’ lettering chosen by Les Levine undermine his movement up the cultural ladder? Kosuth was the best designer of this group – a single-employee ad agency conducting each ‘one man show’ as mini campaign on gallery walls, in magazines, and by the all-important postcard invitation – often the only proof that an exhibition happened at all. Kosuth’s use of the reversal or negative of a text image is also provocative. In the production of the now obsolete Photostat, a same-size negative of the ‘original’ was made to print positives off of. How would standard black-on=white text fared instead of its opposite? Are we reading a ‘negative’ or an original? Printed language in tandem with photography soon became familiar along with other documentation to the ‘Body’ and ‘Narrative’ offshoots of the movement. Encountering ‘nothing’ retained the thrill of engaging with a radical art that, as the ‘come together’ ’60s shambled to a close, was as exclusionary and forbidding as a downtown art bar.
Jasper John’s According to What (1964) may have introduced neon to contemporary art and it flourished in Pop, Noveau Realism, Art Povera, and Post Minimalism. Today neon tubing is everywhere and Kosuth’s early syntactical works in this medium look remarkably current. The exposed black rubberized wiring and cables recall the looping stenographer’s script upon which the glowing art is located. Language in neon never lies; as both word and emblem it appears as holy signage, apparitions of irrefutable truth. Ulysses, 18 Titles and Hours (1998) occupies a single room, comprised of the headings from that mad volume hung in diagonals from floor to ceiling. It is beautifully considered, notable for the cloudlike placement of each configuration, allowing for something of a lyrical reading. The expatriate Joyce’s brilliant ‘book of the day’ provides for distinctive fonts that border on the ornate.
The manipulation of lighting sets the stage for drama. Entering the gallery’s largest space to view Texts (Waiting for—) for Nothing; Samuel Beckett, in play our immersion in darkness demands one’s eyes’ adjustment to decode the frieze of white neon text that wraps around the room where wall and ceiling meet. The positive ‘white cube’ gallery is reversed into a negative ‘black’ cube. Kosuth culls excerpts from two texts from Beckett, Waiting for Godot and Texts for Nothing – presenting them in white neon that has been ‘canceled’ by dipping each letter and punctuation mark in black paint which reduces legibility depending on your position in the seemingly cavernous space. Kosuth has lured us into a ‘Plato’s Cave’ of manufactured night where the words of the ‘dead end kid’ of the stage are beheld in pinpoint celestial grandeur. On the wall to the right a box holds a reproduction of Casper David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819), which inspired Beckett to write Godot. The artist exerts a wry form of control over this romantic favorite by both its colorless reduction in scale and by its display in a structure equally conducive to the reading of menus on the sidewalk. Kosuth has engineered an unexpectedly ecclesiastic space for the gallery; his discrete treatment of the neon letters risks visual obscurity, blackened neon in a dark room, to produce a Johnsian environment between language and the conditions of its presentation. Waiting around for Godot results in ‘nothing’ but more language.
The diluted project of ’60s conceptual art is found both in the appropriation of the ‘Picture Generation’ which evolved out of film and critical theory available in pockets of ’70s academia and in the glamorized ’80s readymade – barometers of monetary value and cousins to Kosuth’s spare One and Three Chairs (1965). The art-market crash at the end of that decade led to a re examination of conceptual art as historically proven template, at least in style, as a platform from which to articulate social intentions. Glenn Ligon’s current retrospective at the Whitney Museum is homage to conceptual art as style, specifically Kosuth’s neon language pieces and to the Johnsian stencils used by artists from Weiner to Wool.
Critic Lucy Lippard, in her invaluable book Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, etc, mentions in reference to the Art & Language group that she understands not all of what they say but admired their ‘spadework’. Reading this as a student in 1973, I felt relief in her admission. My background in Philosophy remains on a cocktail-party level, dependent on a blithely repeated William Burroughs quote that “Marx was just a guy writing at a desk” – hence I was intimidated by the content of Kosuth’s art but appreciative of its photogenic appearance and of the artist’s tenacious international presence. His late-’80s involvement with Sigmund Freud’s writings may be an invitation to scrutinize this work through an analytical lens; thus, his framing does double-duty as ‘mirrors’ while the neon enhancements of Freud’s handwritten marginalia could be interpreted as ‘fetishistic’. In both recent works at Sean Kelly Gallery permissions are granted towards inclusion, reverie, and drift. Joseph Kosuth’s art quietly moves to recognize us and in doing so reflects our condition and possibly his too – illuminated against a background of Joyce’s brilliant day or lost in Beckett’s night.