BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 11 NOV 97
Featured in
Issue 37

Joseph Kosuth

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 11 NOV 97

The elegant René Magritte gouache, La Condition Humaine (1948), which Joseph Kosuth included in this exhibition, reminded me immediately of his own One and Three Chairs (1965). The two works not only share a special affinity, but are adjacent in history, separated by only 17 years. Magritte shows us a crackling fire's flickering light against the dim walls of Plato's cave. Just outside the cave is Magritte's own well-known motif: an easel holding a painting whose rendition of a sublime snowy mountainous scene, worthy of Caspar David Friedrich, is precisely aligned with the landscape it depicts. 'Now do you suppose that if a person were able to make the original as well as the image, would he seriously devote himself to the image-making branch? Would he allow imitation to be the ruling principle of his life, as if he had nothing higher in him?' Plato's indictment of poets and painters hums the tenor line in this metaphysical polyphony as the memory of Kosuth's One and Three Chairs takes its place in the chorus indexing Plato's hierarchy of truth to imitation. It cannot go unnoticed that La Condition Humaine has found its way into the private collection of an artist who famously confused that hierarchy when he produced 'pictures' of 'real' letters and numbers on canvas. Only seven years separate Jasper Johns' first number paintings and this Magritte picture he now owns. Kosuth mixes strong art historical cocktails. It is one of his greatest gifts. With this installation,'L'essence de la rhetorique est dans l'allegorie' (The Essence of Rhetoric is in Allegory), he has named this particularly dizzying mixture of Plato, Magritte, Johns and himself with an exquisitely scripted and appropriate wall label: 'representation'.

Two other ingredients comprise this soberly refined installation. One is centred on another Magritte painting - this time from the collection of Robert Rauschenberg - titled The Literal Meaning (1929), which Kosuth has labelled 'paradox', and the other is a drawing, L'Usage de la Parole (1927) that he labels 'description'. The drawing belongs to no one in particular but was central to Magritte's life-long meditation on the use of language, and so becomes a lamppost you can use to steady yourself in the face of Kosuth's intoxicating effects. I believe Kosuth means us to ingest all this non-linear, art-historical indexing as if it were in Hypertext: weaving in and out of different databases, but touching on each and every one. It was Foucault who, in his powerful book This is Not a Pipe, faithfully pondered Magritte's use of language, especially the way it is used in the painting that shares the book's title. That painting, Foucault quickly surmises, is about '...the impossibility of defining a perspective that would let us say that the assertion is true, false or contradictory'. Magritte himself concurred: 'The titles are chosen in such a way as to keep anyone from assigning my paintings to the familiar region that habitual thought appeals to in order to escape perplexity'. Reading these words sets us not all that far from Samuel Beckett's longish essay Proust, in which he dissected 'habit'. 'Habit is a second nature,' Proust once wrote, 'it keeps us in ignorance of the first, and is free of its cruelties and enchantments.' Surprisingly, or perhaps not at all, we are by this point not very distant from Kosuth: he, like Beckett, has dissected 'habit' from the very beginning of his career. 'Being an artist now,' he wrote in 1968, 'means questioning the nature of art'. To do otherwise would be to embrace habits and abandon conviction, he would go on to say. Beckett worried about the habits that chained us all to the practice of being human; Kosuth struck out against the habitual nature of art history's practice. For this he has famously accumulated many enemies within Departments of Art History. Good show.

Setting aside content for a moment, I wish to do the unthinkable to a conceptual artist: applaud Kosuth as a formalist. His subjects scroll rather than assert themselves as ...Chairs once did, flowing from Foucault to Magritte, to Beckett, to Kosuth, to Proust, and turning the corner to Rauschenberg and Johns. This effective tactic has been abundantly clear for at least a decade, perhaps beginning with his exhibition 'The Play of the Unsayable' at the Weiner Secession in 1989.

A year later, his recasting of the epic form, which he had begun in Vienna, came to a very particular moment in 'The Play of the Unmentionable' at the Brooklyn Museum. You could glide from subject to subject and not feel the least bit of resistance. One always expected that the streamlined feeling he lent to the saga-form was in great measure due to the abundance of all the work included in those earlier and heartier exhibitions but, as it turns out, that was not the cause at all. This New York installation, comprising only four pieces, gives us the same opportunities as the elegant swagger of the Vienna and Brooklyn exhibitions. Kosuth has crafted a form of presentation that speaks directly to our culture in the way we have come to understand: scrolling and reciprocal, interactive and with mutual relations, but in such a way as to keep anyone from assigning his work to the familiar region to which habitual thought appeals to in order to escape perplexity.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.