Joseph Kosuth is widely considered to be one of the central figures in Conceptual Art, the loose movement which traces its roots back to the 1960s. While others found different ways to challenge the significance of the creation of the material object as central to the role of the artist, Kosuth and others turned to words and language to explore this. In present times, ‘conceptual art’ has largely been adopted as an almost scathing label, directed often at the kind of works which tend to feature prominently as Turner Prize nominees or in other places as tax-payer funded public works or Venice Biennale entries. A wilful misunderstanding of its central concerns has given rise to a sort of pseudo-definition akin to something like ‘style over substance.’
The opportunity then to encounter Kosuth’s work is exciting, particularly with this show focussing exclusively on a cross-section of his neon works. Entitled ‘Amnesia: Various, Luminous, Fixed.,’ the exhibition features pieces from over a 50 year period, touching on the artist’s well documented interest in Freud, philosophy (particularly Wittgenstein) and the works of Samuel Beckett, as well as his appropriation of cartoons and their juxtaposition with philosophical quotes and texts, all geared towards his questioning of the nature of art.
On a recent trip top Vienna, I was lucky enough to encounter Kosuth’s massive installation Zero & Not at 21er Haus, a recreation of an installation produced in 1989 at Berggasse 19 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s death. The work, which took up the entire mezzanine level of the gallery incorporated works from over 70 artists, held together by texts from Freud himself, and building off of previous installations in Vienna and Brooklyn. Several works from that show (or versions of them) are featured here in the more intimate space at Sprüth Magers, allowing a more specific look at how Kosuth was influenced by psychoanalysis and how this fits into his other points of reference.
As you enter the gallery, on the right hand side of the door to the first space sits ‘Fetishism Corrected #2’ (1988), a useful starting point in understanding much of what follows. The work features an enlarged photograph of the opening page proof of Freud’s essay ‘Fetischismus’ from 1927, complete with the handwritten corrections of the author. Kosuth has taken these corrections and recreated them in bright neon blue, drawing a line between the word on the page, the word as a thing or artefact and then the artefact in turn as art.
Another key influence paid tribute to in this first space is Donald Judd, with the work ‘Five Fives (to Donald Judd)’ [orange] (1965). Comprising the words for the numbers ‘one’ through ‘twenty-five’ in orange neon, the work splits the words across five lines of five numbers, with the length of the words dictating the length of each line. It is a typically pragmatic and minimalist inspired work, worthy of its dedication. It also serves as a reflection of Kosuth’s earliest explorations of neon as a medium.
Above this work sits ‘Double Reading #4’ (1993), a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon recreated as a white neon screen print on glass juxtaposed with a quote by Hegel. Both speak to the idea of language and the different ways meanings can be constructed and represented, providing in some ways the two bookends of a possible spectrum within the artist’s theoretical interests. The biting satire of Bill Waterson’s cartoon addresses the complexity (and arguably also pomposity) of discussing a ‘definition’ and also categorization of art, while Hegal’s text seems to reflect the mechanics of the character Calvin’s cynical, cyclical musings. It makes for an amusing contrast while also shining a light on the more serious discussions behind the work as a whole and many of Kosuth’s other speculative tracts.
As part of the press coverage for the exhibition, freelance journalist Griselda Murray Brown conducted an interview inside the gallery with Joseph Kosuth, where he spoke about some of the ideas which come out of the work on show. Brown also made some interesting observations about the work, among them highlighting the way the work itself is hung within the relatively confined space.
When you first walk into the front room, there is a sense of there being a lot of work on display, splayed across the wall in various bursts of neon colour. As you round the corner the space is smaller, and the work takes on a different kind of feeling as you become more aware of the buzzing sound of the tubes, and the presence of both the cables connecting the letters and the large power sources running along the ground against the walls. As Brown puts it, “nothing here is concealed.” In the downstairs space sits the large scale installation ‘Ulysses, 18 Titles and Hours’ (1998), and the effect is magnified by an even further enclosed space, with the sheer brightness of the works in the room leaving me shielding my eyes. The overall ambience is slightly claustrophobic, but also feels like a counter to the accusations that this kind of conceptual art is pretentious by showing clearly that the formal and material properties of the work are not the central concern here (a point Brown makes in her introduction). The mechanics are evident, the objects are what they are, and in some cases even say what they are. The underlying idea(s) are primary.
Kosuth himself explains his attraction to neon during the interview, mentioning that at the time the material was very common in street signage, and was certainly not considered a fine art material (though did somehow bleed into the realm of pop art). His work with the material, and the focus on language allowed him to cut to the heart of how meaning was formed. The influence Kosuth draws attention to in terms of making the pursuit of artistic endeavour feel like a more exciting and approachable prospect for younger artists also goes against the negative associations of the term ‘conceptual art,’ and in fact many of his observations seem to contradict it’s misappropriation by cynical commentators.
As a whole, the exhibition contains some fantastic works, alongside some important cornerstones of Kosuth’s practice, both with neon as a material and as a conceptual artist in general. The installation has moments which leave you feeling somewhat bottlenecked by the light and sound of the works, and the space itself is a big factor in this, but there is no denying that these pieces often act as windows into a varied and important oeuvre of artistic production. While some of these works, the two double reading pieces for example, or strong stand-alone works like ‘The Paradox of Content #1’ [violet] (2009) or ‘Four Colors Four Words’ (1966) may have benefited by having a greater amount of room to themselves, their impact is not so diluted that their significance is lost on the viewer. It’s an impressive body of work by an artist from whom we would expect no less.
By Will Gresson