BY Susan Hapgood in Frieze | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Fonts of Wisdom

Reading between the lines of Conceptual Art

BY Susan Hapgood in Frieze | 06 SEP 96

In the 50s, it was common for discussions about art to centre exclusively on formal attributes. Even during the mid-60s, plenty of critical attention was still being lavished on quasi-formalist questions of process, manufacture and physicality. But by the end of that decade, enough had changed to warrant a radical overhaul of assumptions about art. Conceptual artists led the call for change, questioning the supremacy of aesthetics and formalism in art and art criticism.

In his seminal 1969 article, 'Art After Philosophy', Joseph Kosuth wrote, 'Aesthetic considerations are ... always extraneous to an object's function or "reason to be" ... Any and all of the physical attributes (qualities) of contemporary works if considered separately and/or specifically are irrelevant to the art concept'. Likewise, Lawrence Weiner stated, in a 1969 catalogue published by Seth Sieglaub, that 'presentation ... has very little to do with the art'. When their art did take form, it was most often in the mode of printed text. The use of neutral, rational typeset text, and the activity of reading black and white words (as opposed to viewing colours and forms) were giant steps away from the trappings of the individual artist's signature, brushstroke, favoured material, process, or other identifiable subjective quirk.

However, the urgent issues seem to have been adequately redressed by now, and the formalist issues don't appear quite so simple. Two recent New York gallery exhibitions of work by Kosuth and Weiner, arguably the best-known Conceptual artists, served as a kind of testing ground for questions of style throughout Conceptual art. As if in a laboratory study, the conditions were comparable - each show was roughly the same size, had the same number of objects and was limited to the same category of production, namely multiples. The fact that multiples are by their nature discrete, portable, and collectible sets up an interesting situation for artists prone to emphasising the importance of temporality, contingency and context to the presentation of their art; it shows their default settings, as it were.

Kosuth and Weiner's exhibitions each displayed between 50 and 100 multiples - T-shirts, buttons, matchbooks, dishes and other objects produced in large, often inexpensive editions. Opening in late Autumn, Kosuth's show at Leo Castelli Graphics covered the past decade of multiples and was titled 'Editions (Or, works and related articles, things, props, which are multiplied): The Past Ten Years'. Spanning three decades of work, Weiner's show, which opened a few weeks later at Marian Goodman Gallery, was selected by Piet de Jonge and titled 'Some Things Brought to Hand: The Multiples of Lawrence Weiner'.The colour scheme in Kosuth's show was made up predominantly of black, white, grey and silver, complementing his use of elegant serif typefaces, most often Garamond and Bodoni. Both typefaces are considered classics, and are derived from roman letters: Garamond was the standard European type of the 16th century, and Bodoni was introduced in the late 18th century. Although most of Kosuth's early texts employed sans-serif type, his dictionary definition series, the Investiga-tions, was taken straight from the printed page, and may have led to his increasing use of serif type in the 70s. When combined with the often lengthy philosophical texts in Kosuth's art, the serif typefaces conjure up scholarly locales, intellectual rigour and library stacks lined with books.

Kosuth's specific interest in the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud seems to have spilled over into his aesthetic preferences. Thus, a certain place and time - Vienna around the turn of the century - is subtly evinced by Kosuth's texts, his austere black picture frames and his installations, as well as by the elegant opulence of his more recent materials. In this show, for instance, one could find sets of porcelain dinnerware, velvet trimming, silk scarves, feather pillows, a jacquard bedspread and a hand-knotted wool carpet, all of which had been pressed into service as art.

In contrast, Weiner favours frugal materials such as cardboard, metal, wood and canvas. Utilitarian simplicity characterises the standard typeface of Weiner's choice, Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed, invented by an American in 1903. The fragmentary texts he adopts are basic as well, often drawn from American or German colloquialisms which take on open-ended meanings in their new-found art contexts. Visual rhythm is provided by bright primary colours, diagonal compositional elements and stripped down geometric forms, all of which are reminiscent of de Stijl. The Dutch influence may well have been boosted by Weiner's part-time residency on a houseboat in Amsterdam. Indeed, a love of the sea is often suggested in the work by language adopted from ships and sailors, and the stencil-like lettering used to make the words. The stencils may be a nostalgic hangover from the places he worked during the late 50s - in the engine room of a tanker, on the docks, and on railroad cars - and perhaps also owe something to the art of Jasper Johns.

Gradually, Weiner and Kosuth have gravitated toward specific styles which convey their own meanings. But in conversation with the author, both artists protested vehemently when adjectives that carry uncomfortable ideological weight are used to describe the appearance of their work - for Kosuth, the word is 'academic'; for Weiner, 'proletarian'. They both decried these labels as oversimplified and ultimately meaningless in the present cultural context, warning repeatedly that focusing on form is not the way to perceive their art. They were somewhat intrigued, however, that their aesthetic preferences were so easily identifiable.

While personal style or sensibility may be irrelevant to the intent of an individual work of Conceptual art, the strength of its presence in widely differing contexts confirms a traditional assumption - that an artist's aesthetic eventually turns up, despite efforts to neutralise or thwart it, and that it affects the understanding, however non-visual that understanding may ultimately be, of any art taking physical form. Far from being a continuous raison d'être, it's just another way of gleaning information from art. To ignore Conceptual art's visual attributes, so amply evident at this point in its history, seems like wilful myopia.