Joseph Kosuth, A Short His­to­ry of My Thought’ at Anna Schwartz Gallery

David Wlazlo
Memo Review, 21 October 2017
Cou­pled with the per­va­sive hum of the neon trans­form­ers, Joseph Kosuth’s A Short His­to­ry of My Thought at Anna Schwartz Gallery is a grab-bag of his past fifty years work­ing with neon. Far from any noir promise his­tor­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the tech­nol­o­gy, the neon works — mount­ed on the pris­tine white walls of a com­mer­cial gallery — seem mut­ed and grim, lim­it­ed in their ref­er­en­tial and atmos­pher­ic poten­tial. Tak­en on their own, Kosuth’s works often invite spec­u­la­tion on the sec­ondary tex­tu­al sources he makes use of. Tak­en all togeth­er, there is a dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent empha­sis. The show offers a chance to reflect on our expec­ta­tions of a long artis­tic career, a con­cep­tu­al art prac­tice, in what is a loose ret­ro­spec­tive for­mat. Kosuth’s short his­to­ry’ of his own prac­tice pro­vides the form of a back­wards glance over a ter­rain, sug­gest­ing many inter­pre­ta­tions and inves­ti­ga­tions through the same artis­tic mate­ri­als: neon, light, and elec­tric­i­ty. Kosuth usu­al­ly works with detailed read­ings of spe­cif­ic tex­tu­al sources, but some­how this diver­si­ty of con­cept is out­weighed by the mate­r­i­al uni­ty through­out this exhi­bi­tion. Joseph Kosuth, A Short His­to­ry of My Thought’, 7 Octo­ber — 25 Novem­ber 2017, instal­la­tion view Anna Schwartz Gallery. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wim­ber­ley. Cour­tesy Joseph Kosuth Stu­dio and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Famous from his ear­ly con­cep­tu­al art days, works such as Five Fives (to Don­ald Judd) [Ruby Red] (1965), Neon (1965) and Self-Defined Object [Orange] (1966) dis­play the acute self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty of this ear­ly peri­od. Along­side these are lat­er works engag­ing with Lud­wig Wittgen­stein (L.W.‘s Last Word [Pink], 1991), Charles Dar­win (The Para­dox of Con­tent #4 [Orange], 2009), Samuel Beck­ett ((Wait­ing for -) Texts for Noth­ing #5, 2010) and oth­ers. Some of these neons are flow­ing, hand-drawn dia­grams, while oth­ers are terse and obscure serif poems. Almost all of the pieces are made in neon, with the excep­tion of Mon­dri­an’s Work XI (2015) and Dou­ble Read­ing #12 (1993), which both include silkscreen prints on back­lit glass. Joseph Kosuth, L.W.‘s Last Word’ [Pink], 1991. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wim­ber­ley. Cour­tesy Joseph Kosuth Stu­dio and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Neon was cho­sen by Kosuth in the 1960s for its lack of artis­tic pre­ten­sion. The sta­tus of the neon sign as a vehi­cle of pop­u­lar com­mer­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion has passed, how­ev­er, and now — out­mod­ed for prac­ti­cal use — neon is yet anoth­er ubiq­ui­tous artis­tic mate­r­i­al, an exot­ic and lux­u­ri­ous indus­tri­al object avail­able to artists and hip­ster bou­tiques like those sur­round­ing Schwartz’s Flinders Lane gallery. Over the past decade, Kosuth has devel­oped a cer­tain for­mu­la to his works with neon. In 2007, his Lan­guage of Equi­lib­ri­um spanned the exte­ri­or walls and edges of the island monastery of San Lazarro, Venice. In 2009, his work Nei­ther Appear­ance Nor Illu­sion was installed under­ground on the medieval foun­da­tions of the Lou­vre. Both of these works respond to archi­tec­tur­al sites rich with cul­tur­al and lit­er­al tex­ture, affix­ing neon texts to their facades. These tex­tu­al excerpts are drawn from con­tex­tu­al­ly spe­cif­ic doc­u­ments, such as the Armen­ian dic­tio­nary’s def­i­n­i­tion of water (in Venice) and a rework­ing of Kosuth’s own writ­ing at the Lou­vre. While the neces­si­ty of read­ing and com­pre­hend­ing these writ­ten sources in each work may be ques­tion­able, the effect of the archi­tec­tural­ly ancient’ against the neon inter­ven­tion pro­duces both an atmos­pher­ic the­atri­cal­i­ty and a dis­tance from com­pre­hen­sion. Clos­er to home, Kosuth’s 2010-11 show at ACCA, ‘(Wait­ing for-) Texts for Noth­ing’ Samuel Beck­ett, in play, also fea­tured a dra­mat­ic pre­sen­ta­tion of neon texts drawn from Samuel Beck­et­t’s work Wait­ing for Godot and The Unnam­able. Like the ear­li­er exam­ples, the archi­tec­tur­al atmos­phere was used in this show through the place­ment of the neon works very high up in the dark­ened space, as well as half-dip­ping the glass text in black paint. Also in 2010, Kosuth exhib­it­ed An Inter­pre­ta­tion of this Title: Niet­zsche, Dar­win and the para­dox of con­tent at Anna Schwartz Gallery Syd­ney. In all of these works, the texts are spec­tac­u­larised, with­out quite being elu­ci­dat­ed in Kosuth’s treat­ment of them. Joseph Kosuth, ‘(Wait­ing for-) Texts for Noth­ing #10’, 2010 (detail) and A/C (J.J.:F.W.)’, 2011. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wim­ber­ley. Cour­tesy Joseph Kosuth Stu­dio and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Why so much neon, why so much light in this exhi­bi­tion as mini-ret­ro­spec­tive or DIY his­tori­ci­sa­tion? Per­haps these are works from the back­room, still kick­ing around since the 2010 shows in Mel­bourne and Syd­ney? Or per­haps there was a thought that neon might be well received in Mel­bourne? The show seems to assert Kosuth as a dom­i­nant fig­ure in neon, stress­ing his his­tor­i­cal lin­eage. In any case, a ret­ro­spec­tive in a com­mer­cial gallery has a dif­fer­ent remit than a pub­lic insti­tu­tion, and the idea of being a neon mas­ter’ seems quite at odds with Kosuth’s broad­er prac­tice. This show opens up a new range of ques­tions for this prac­tice, not least because of its com­mer­cial set­ting facil­i­tat­ed by Anna Schwartz. Kosuth’s work often has a mon­u­men­tal­i­ty — in phys­i­cal terms as well as in its rela­tion to art his­to­ry — but here we are invit­ed to think of his work in a more human scale. Joseph Kosuth, A Con­di­tion­ing of Con­scious­ness’, 1988. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wim­ber­ley. Cour­tesy Joseph Kosuth Stu­dio and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Indi­vid­u­al­ly, there is lit­tle spec­ta­cle or atmos­phere in A short his­to­ry of my thought. Each art­work seems iso­lat­ed among its peers, some of them fifty years apart in intent and con­text (the ear­li­est work is from 1965, while the most recent is from 2015). Yet there is a cer­tain uneasy uni­ty to the exhi­bi­tion as a whole: the var­i­ous sources and dates all coa­lesce into a com­po­si­tion of colour and neon. It does­n’t help that there seems to be no way to mate­ri­al­ly date the works, as Kosuth has a flex­i­ble under­stand­ing of the artist’s edi­tion as a seem­ing­ly open-end­ed project. From his ear­li­est work in the 1960s, his dis­tinc­tion between the idea (as the art­work) and the mate­r­i­al (as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the idea) allowed the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the con­cept in seem­ing­ly unend­ing series: the same work from the same year can be repro­duced in any time and place. Each neon in this show has the same pow­er trans­former, and there is a sense that all the work was phys­i­cal­ly pro­duced at the same time. When faced with the prospect of a short his­to­ry’ of any­one’s thought, the appar­ent lack of tem­po­ral dis­tinc­tion and the dif­fi­cul­ty of trac­ing vari­a­tion becomes a prob­lem. We are faced with some­thing quite homo­ge­neous, yet are encour­aged to expect diver­si­ty and growth. In the 1960s, to use neon text was an edgy cri­tique, yet today it is any­thing but. Over such a long time, the rea­son for its con­tin­ued use spans the dif­fer­ence between cri­tique and con­ser­v­a­tivism. Kosuth’s work, then, offers a kind of lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of the uneasy tran­si­tion between art that ques­tions the sta­tus quo and art that main­tains it. This tran­si­tion is per­haps the main under­ly­ing focus of this exhi­bi­tion and its call to self-his­tori­ci­sa­tion. Joseph Kosuth, Self-Defined Object’ [Orange], 1966. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wim­ber­ley. Cour­tesy Joseph Kosuth Stu­dio and Anna Schwartz Gallery. The con­cep­tu­al art of the late 1960s and ear­ly 70s is what Kosuth is prob­a­bly best known for. His work with def­i­n­i­tions, pho­tog­ra­phy and pub­lic con­texts rep­re­sent­ed one of the many frac­tured and con­test­ed shards of what we came to call con­cep­tu­al art. Strip­ping impor­tance from the object and the visu­al expe­ri­ence, Kosuth’s ear­ly work helped place greater impor­tance on the idea behind the work than the mate­r­i­al man­i­fes­ta­tion of it. One of the prod­ucts of this shift in impor­tance is the pathol­o­gi­sa­tion of the art­work with­in the mind and body of the artist, result­ing in a con­stant slip­page between the work and the biog­ra­phy of the artist. This slip­page has become com­mon­place, and I won­der if this is per­haps where Kosuth’s real lega­cy lies: not the empha­sis on mean­ing over form, but rather the con­tin­u­al leach­ing of mean­ing from the cul­tur­al object and its con­text to the artist as cul­tur­al­ly engaged sub­ject, to their body and mind as the real locus of art. Seen through this lega­cy, Kosuth’s focus on the great male Euro­pean thinkers of the past is also an inser­tion of him­self into this his­to­ry. While his treat­ment of these thinkers is often par­tial and aes­theti­cis­ing, in this show Kosuth effec­tive­ly approach­es his own oeu­vre and art his­tor­i­cal lega­cy in exact­ly the same way. David Wla­z­lo is a PhD Can­di­date in Art His­to­ry and The­o­ry at Monash University. Fea­tured image: Joseph Kosuth, Neon’, 1965. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wim­ber­ley. Cour­tesy Joseph Kosuth Stu­dio and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Arti­cle link: here.
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