PRINT March 1973

Joseph Kosuth: 2 Shows

JOSEPH KOSUTH SHOWED EARLY works from 1965–67 at Castelli downtown and his recent Ninth Investigation-Proposition 1 at the uptown Castelli gallery late last year. The early work under the general title Protoinvestigations all deals with language, but could be broken down into work dealing explicitly with the relation of language to the physical world, and work dealing primarily with language and only by extension with the physical world. This latter group of works had the form of the well-known white on black photographic blow-ups of dictionary definitions, in this case of the words “red,” “white,” “yellow,” “purple,” “blue,” and “green,” all under the general title Art as Idea as Idea. The dictionary is rather helpless in the face of color words. It is almost comic to read the contortions the dictionary goes through to come up with something that looks like a definition but which relies on saying under what conditions the color might be observed. But those conditions cannot be said to constitute a set of definitions for the words, and, in fact, there are no definitions for those words; yet somehow, everyone knows what those words mean. The word “color” itself (not in the show) is even more problematic and usually gets defined in terms of what it is not rather than what it is. Generally Kosuth’s definitions of this kind, by referring to the physical world only extensionally, reveal the tremendous gap between language and the physical world or between a word and its denotation. In addition, Kosuth’s definitions show implicitly that, if not how, language makes the continuum of the world discontinuous, i.e., that we can conceptually isolate “red” from objects having that characteristic, and the simple utterance of the word accomplishes that isolating act. Curiously, the photographic blow-ups were accompanied by the original portions of the dictionary pages, all neatly framed, and raising the question of all the anti-art-object, anti-product-for-consumption mumbo jumbo of a few years ago—as if when Kosuth said the photographic blow-ups were not the art of the work or the work itself, what he meant was that the original dictionary page was actually the art. Undoubtedly this is not what he meant, but those little framed originals with bits of pencil marks, presumably photographing directions, look rather ominous.

Among the works dealing explicitly with the relation of language to the physical world were three neon works. The piece in yellow neon reads Neon Electrical Light English Glass Letters Yellow Eight. The other two neon works, one in violet and one in white, read the same except for the substitution of “Violet” and “White” for “Yellow” in the respective pieces. Using the yellow work as an example, it is obvious that the words in the piece are all self-referential, but it is also obvious that the words can refer to any number of things not in the piece, i.e., “Glass” refers to all glass, not just that particular glass in the word “Glass” or in the entire piece or in the three neon works. The word “Eight” is the most obvious example of this point. The counting word counts itself if words are what is considered as being counted, and words seem to be the most obvious unit that “Eight” counts; but in a sense “Eight” refers to the number of words only coincidently. There are also eight letters in the piece, and, of course, more than. eight letters. However in the yellow piece there are eight E’s and eight L’s; but this is obviously not the case in the violet and white neon works. The point is that the number eight can count or refer to any entity we choose to single out for counting, andthis returns to the notion of language making the continuous world conceptually discontinuous. But in all of the neon works, there is a word “Letters” but no word “Words”; but “words” is, in a sense, denoted by the number “Eight” and is the most obvious denotation of the number.

Three of the works in the show, Hammer, Table, and Saw, were, except for the different objects, the same situation as One and Three Chairs in which the actual object is photographed on its site and is surrounded by an actual size blow-up of the photograph on the left and a blow-up of the dictionary definition on the right. These works examine not only the relation between language and the physical object, but also the relation between pictures and objects, presenting a situation in which language can be seen to function as representation, and language and representation can be seen to relate to the physical world in much the same way. One can also consider the relation between language, pictures, and the physical world as presented here as one of being next to on a wall, which raises questions of inferences and shows that all inferences or readings or constructs are contingent on context. A fourth piece of this type, using a clock, goes further in exploring all these questions. In addition to the physical clock and the photograph are three definitions: “Time,” “Clock,” and “Object.” The dictionary, of course, can’t cope with the word “Time,” and the presence of its definition raises some interesting questions about the relation of time and clocks, for it is only through clocks that we have any comprehension of time at all, though clearly time cannot be identified with clocks. The real problem here is that to define a clock without defining time is to present an obviously inadequate notion of what a clock is, for apart from notions of time, a clock is some sort of odd mechanical compass. The additional presence of the definition of “Object” indicates that the list of descriptive words for the clock or any other object is infinite, and that the words used are, in this sense, arbitrary. This notion of infinite descriptive words is also evident in the neon pieces and in another work consisting of four 4’-square panes of glass leaning against the wall, each bearing one of the following words: “clear,” “square,” “glass,” and “leaning.” From the fact that the list of descriptive words is infinite, we can infer that an object is never completely described.

Kosuth’s Ninth Investigation-Proposition 1 at the uptown gallery makes the Protoinvestigations, which must have once seemed rather forbidding, seem friendly, almost warm by comparison. In the Ninth Investigation references to the physical world are gone except for the existence of physical objects in the gallery. However, the physical objects in this case are functional rather than something to be looked at, though of course one can look at them and one can decide to count reading as looking at something. Proposition 1 has a set of nine photographic blow-ups of sentences or paragraphs numbered “1 A(1)1” through “3 C(9)3” around the gallery walls. Beneath these blow-ups are tables with loose-leaf notebooks, one notebook per photographic blow-up. Each notebook contains three sections (A,B, and C) of Xerox copies of excerpts of philosophical writings on scientific and linguistic theories regarding the relation of theories to models. The blow-ups seem to be selected passages from the notebook texts, but they are without quotation marks and ascriptions; the presence of these blow-ups is somewhat annoying, as Kosuth seems to be telling us what in the texts is of importance. In a sense, there is nothing unusual about this—we normally expect the artist to leave certainbits of evidence of his or her concerns in the work. But so much philosophical theory seems to be saying “This is how all these people who know about this sort of thing say it is, therefore that’s how it is,” amounting to one great argument from authority. However, distinguishing what one senses to be intellectual fascism from one’s own intellectual paranoia is a bit difficult, and is undoubtedly irrelevant to Kosuth’s intentions one way or another.

Kosuth seems to be trying to get at the relation of art theories to models by way of an analogy with the relation of theories to models in philosophies of science and language. Analogies between art and science or language are bound to be tenuous. There is so much theory available to Kosuth because the relation between theories and models, like all relations, is problematic because, among other things, it involves notions of one-to-one correlation between entities in two distinct systems. This problematic relation is, in fact, what was explored in Protoinvestigations, which understandably exposed the scope of the problems rather than attempting a solution. This kind of problematic relation is similar to the relation of models to theories and of art to language. Analogies can be formed, but their use is extremely limited. What in art would count as a model? Model, without a restricted definition in the context of its use, is so completely ambiguous that we wouldn’t know what an answer to the question looked like.

The question here seems to be, if Kosuth is questioning the nature of art, what is he questioning? There doesn’t seem to be any point in focusing on the philosophical texts as readymade concepts, or that these texts are simply being introduced into the art framework as new entities. Though model remains undefined, it seems likely that Kosuth has introduced theories of the relation of theories andmodels into a situation, the gallery, normally reserved for what would generally be thought of as models, that is, artwork is a model for art theory. It can be thought of as replacing models with theories in a model situation, or more interestingly, as a structural synthesizing of the relation between theories and models. In this latter sense, the theories presented as models are theories of the relation between theories and models. If considered this way, the relation becomes even more entangled and brings up the question of whether the framework can itself be considered as an entity within its own framework. It also becomes clear that if theories can in another context become models, and perhaps conversely as well, then the identity of a theory as a theory or as a model is a question of use and a question of context. Here the Wittgensteinian slogan “the meaning is the use,” often quoted by Kosuth, becomes clearer than usual because it isn’t really a case of meaning being contingent on use. What is contingent on use here is what we are willing to call a model or under what conditions does something become a model, which in this case would seem to be, under what conditions does a theory become an artwork. Those conditions for Kosuth depend on the context and the use within the context.

Questions have been raised as to whether the Protoinvestigations are early work, later conceptions of early work, or early work but not that early. The most perplexing question is this: does a work made in 1972 answer the sensibility and technology of an artist’s conception dating from 1965—assuming, of course, that these conceptions existed or can be documented as coming from that date in the first place. No satisfactory answers have been given, and I shall not speculate on the answer but stop after having raised the question.