criticismExhibitions
Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Beckett on a Heideggerian Horizon: Joseph Kosuth at Sean Kelly


Joseph Kosuth’s ‘Texts (Waiting for ) for Nothing’ Samuel Beckett, in play at Sean Kelly Gallery

March 30 – April 30, 2011
528 West 29th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 239-1181

Joseph Kosuth, Ulysses, 18 Titles and Hours, 1998.  Neon, transformers, installed in the exhibition under review.  Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Joseph Kosuth, Ulysses, 18 Titles and Hours, 1998. Neon, transformers, installed in the exhibition under review. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

In his essay Art After Philosophy, Part One (1969), Joseph Kosuth argued that when art is reduced to ideas, the function of art displaces the necessity of making a conventional art object, and therefore the context in which the idea is placed becomes all-important.  For much of the work designated as “conceptual art” over the years, this has become standard practice.  For Kosuth (among others), who valued the earlier ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, the context of the idea was ultimately more important than its material form.  At the outset of his career in the late 1960s, when still in his twenties, Kosuth fabricated neon word installations, leaning plates of glass, and dictionary definitions printed as negative Photostats as a means to emphasize ideas. The transmission of these ideas is largely dependent on language — as revealed in a recent exhibition at Sean Kelly — and relies heavily on the manner in which language is appropriated and integrated into work.  Ironically, the quality of design and craft — often discounted in conceptual art — in Kosuth’s work appears aesthetically seamless as shown in a recent installation of texts by Samuel Beckett, and in another earlier series of time-based phrases taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1998).  In both works, neon light effectively transmits the language embedded within each installation.  Also included in the exhibition were a series of the artist’s iconic dictionary definitions, titled Nothing (1968), which hung in a conventional side-by-side display directly on the wall.  Whereas the original Los Angeles exhibition used inexpensive Photostats of the various definitions of the word “nothing,” the work was later refabricated on canvas to ensure preservation.  And, as it was later discovered, a motivating factor for doing this work related to his reading of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, which was published by Grove Press in English in 1967.

While, in recent years, some of Kosuth’s installations have tended toward repetition through systematic overdetermination, occasionally something exceptional will appear on the Heideggerian horizon that reaches beyond the predictable. The current work, titled “Texts (Waiting for) for Nothing,” Samuel Becket in play, is one of these occasions.  In this unusually reflective conceptual opus, the artist has formulated a strategic core that pulls together relevant aspects from two earlier works.  Typically dense in its literary, philosophical, and semiotic references, Kosuth’s tripartite installation manages to make all the elements appear as simple as pie (or as dense as pi).  In his dialectically reductive black and white installation — a quality willfully apparent from the beginning — Kosuth reaches a kind of apotheosis in this homage to Beckett.  This suggests a subtle turnabout in artist’s thinking.  Traditionally adverse to hermeneutic or metaphysical concerns in art, it would appear that he has extended his purely linguistic connection ascribed to his modus operandi of the 1980s into a poignantly dark and light theatrical presentation.

 Joseph Kosuth, 'Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing', Samuel Beckett, in play, 2011. Neon, transformers, detail. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Joseph Kosuth, 'Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing', Samuel Beckett, in play, 2011. Neon, transformers, detail. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Here Kosuth appropriates texts from two early works by Samuel Beckett, titled Texts for Nothing (1950-52) and Waiting for Godot (1948-49).  The first is a group of abstract narratives or ruminations, while the second is a well-known play first performed in Paris, 1953.  In combining the two works by Beckett, Kosuth offered a trace of potential meaning – a  quality often exempt or eliminated in his work.  Given the slow, steady, dramatic incantation of the words traveling laterally across the upper reaches of the four walls close to the ceiling — using a technology known as “cancelled warm neon light”—I found the work illuminating from a phenomenological point of view as it moved to the core of  “meaning” in Beckett’s work without jargon.  The intensity of this kinetic operation was further augmented by a small black and white framed reproduction of a painting by German Romantic painter, Casper David Friedrich, in which two figures are poised by a tree, thus echoing an affinity with the original stage set designed by Sergio Gerstein in Paris. As Beckett’s word fragments merged – appearing and then slowly dissolving into the dark void – I felt the sensation of entering a simulation of descending twilight along with Beckett’s two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who – in the play – speak to one another using a hesitant metaphysical phraseology while stranded in a barren landscape.  (I once performed the cameo role of Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, while a student in Boston, during my rather short-lived theatrical career.)

However, the metaphysical words of the Beckettian characters perpetually end without any perceptible resolution, that is to say, they perpetually end in/with nothing.  Somehow this nothingness is emotionally moving in the context of Kosuth’s opus – and not merely because it happens to coincide with the concluding proposition in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, for which the artist was formatively aligned.  Nevertheless, the intersection between Beckett and Wittgenstein — not to mention the obsession with relativist time in James Joyce, for whom Beckett served as a personal secretary during his apprenticeship years – intuits on some level the commitment of Kosuth in maintaining his focus on the foregrounding language in art. While he may ignore the potential significance of a critical contextualization coming from the outside as he continues to function within the context of language, he remains at his best when he allows “nothing” to stand in the way. This work is amazing without reprieve, a masterwork that carries the original intent of how conceptual art functions at its best and therefore achieves validity. It is the intersection between art and language, a topic that engaged me over thirty years ago as a doctoral student, nearly as much as it does today – particularly when confronted with works of this caliber.

Installation view of Joseph Kosuth 'Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing' Samuel Beckett, in play, at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, March 30 – April 30, 2011

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Joseph Kosuth, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), 1968. 10 mounted photographs, 48 x 48 inches each, installed in the exhibition under review.  Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

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