Joseph Kosuth at Sean Kelly, John Baldessari at Marian Goodman, Barbara Kruger at Mary Boone
Joseph Kosuth at Sean Kelly until December 4 (528 W29 Street between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212-239-1181).
John Baldessari at Marian Goodman until January 8 (24 West 57 Street, between 5 and 6 Avenues, 212-977-7160).
Barbara Kruger at Mary Boone until December 18 (745 Fifth Avenue between 57 and 58 Streets, 212-752-2929).
Joseph Kosuth, A Propos (Reflecteur de Reflecteur) 2004
unique installation with 86 quotes on 289 glass panels
neon dimensions variable
Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery
There’s a conventional wisdom that neo-conceptualism is a light version of a heavy duty original. In their philosophical and political questioning of the fundamentals of art, the pioneers of the 1960s movement took puritanical pride in producing visually arid, intellectually forbidding work. They were proud to be part of the “dematerialisation of the art object,” taking art into the realm of pure concept and away from bourgeois luxury goods. Younger artists of the last decade or so, while looking with certain nostalgia to the iconoclasm of that period, introduced designer verve to jolly up their creations. The intellectual ambitions remained intact, but the work got sexier and more saleable.
Current shows of veteran conceptualists, however, might force a rethink of this theory: it seems that, in their second childhood, some of the pioneers are taking on characteristics of the “neos.”
Take, for instance, the more recent work of the grand old man of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth, whose installation at Sean Kelly closes, after a long run, this weekend. His classic contributions were studiedly drab assaults on any notion that art needed aesthetic appeal. He would take an object like a clock, for example, making sure to select as ubiquitous example as he could find, photograph it, and present the object itself, its image, and one or several blown-up dictionary definitions of the word “clock”—or if you were lucky, he’d throw in “time” for good measure. He performed similar stunts with chairs and other objects, apparently at the service of the philosophy of Wittgenstein.
On another occasion his exhibition consisted of a table heaped with the literature he wanted you to read in connection with an idea (or idea about an idea) that he wished to convey.
But Mr. Kosuth obviously confronted the dilemma of how to sustain a life in art from such pristine, anti-aesthetic actions. His answer to keeping busy and remaining visible lay in graphic design: text remained paramount, expressive handling of materials verboten, color rare, but through meticulous choice of font and means of presentation he could set about sounding clever and looking pretty. A trademark idiom became text with lines neatly ruled through them set on Wehrmacht gray walls, and dictionary definitions projected onto elegantly if austerely draped exhibits in museums,
His latest installation suggests his design in lightening up, if not his reading. In a side room there’s a classic piece from 1966, “Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), [Meaning],” a triptych of definitions that visually revels in dictionary typography though not much else. But the main room presents the apotheosis of design over idea—not that there is a shortage of the latter. “A Propos (Réflecteur de Réflecteur),” (2004) displays 86 quotes on 289 glass panels, each back lit by neon strips. The selected words reflect highbrow tastes dominated by continental thinkers, many of them the “usual suspects” of intellectually fashionable critical theory: Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, Levinas, and Gilles Deleuze, a paragraph from whom forms the 139 word long title of the show (unless you count the author’s name and date—which I guess you should, really—in which case it is 142 words long, possibly a record?)
The quotes, which also come from older philosophers including Rousseau and Kant, are by no means without interest, and you can have an educative trip to the gallery, standing there uncomfortably reading them all, though the neon might give you a headache. It would have required more determination than I brought to it to find connecting themes amidst this grid circuit of cleverness. But maybe to even attempt to do so is, literally, to over read the piece. In reality, the installation is a modern update of the neo-classical habit of placing the names of the great and the good on institutional facades—only here the façade in interior, and the names recede to initials at the end of the quotes. The thinkers are represented by words rather than visages. Beyond meaning, however, it is a pantheon. The work is about the thought of meaning rather than meaning itself—and the career too.
Stripes and representations are also of the essence in John Baldesarri’s new installation at Marian Goodman. Of similar vintage to Mr. Kosuth, if not quite on the same plateau of pretension, Mr. Baldesarri has been an influential teacher on the West coast as well as an internationally celebrated artist. His trademark idiom uses a black and white movie still and blots out significant features (faces for instance) with brightly colored geometric shapes. Balls were his big thing, though in the current show, stripes and more amorphous shapes appear, ranging formally from deep cutout to smooth paint, either on the plexiglass surface or within it.
There are stills blown up to a fulsome scale with playfully subversive inserted figures in a strategy that recalls Max Ernst’s collages, as in “Two Person Fight (One Orange): with Spectator,” (2004), where an actress in Western costume fights with an orange King Kong type silhouette. A cinephile would do a better job than me identifying the actress, film and situation, as they would in “Twenty Gazes: Women, Black and White (one in Color),” (2004), which belongs to the other composition type favored in this show, in which stills of similar category form a pristine stack. The eyes belong to stars of the 1950s-1970s. By stockpiling signifiers of desire the desire evaporates, which may be the point of the piece. Still, the work could provide hours of parlor game amusement to its eventual owners and their guests.
Barbara Kruger, who has a show at Mary Boone’s uptown space, fits neatly into a discussion of these two veteran conceptualists, although there has never been a conflict of values, in her aesthetic, between graphic design and political purpose. Tellingly, she is an artist who emerged in the 1980s, a golden age for the interaction of slickness and posture. She too has a trademark graphic design strategy, in her case looking to Russian Constructivism and Berlin Dada, tapping the subversiveness and revolutionary fervor of these historic moments as surely as Mr. Kosuth does the authority of the dictionary, or Mr. Baldessari does the glamor of Hollywood. She uses black, white and red to declamatory ends, often with white italicized letters on a red boundary, the texts superimposed upon grainy, appropriated images. Her politics falls in line with her styling, offering bolshy and belligerent castigations of consumer culture and sexism.
There is still plenty of lecturing and hectoring in the lastest show, which coincided with the general election. But there is a newfound poetic quality, a wistfulness even, mixed in with the agitprop. An American flag has text in the place of the white decorations: in lieu of stars she writes: “Look for the moment when pride becomes contempt” while the stripes comprise a series of questions culminating in “Who Salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?”
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 2, 2004