New York

Joseph Kosuth

One of the things that Conceptual art reminds us is that contemporary artists tend to read a lot. If Joseph Kosuth had been honest enough simply to exhibit his summer reading list as his latest work, I might have been amused; it might have been a clever, if trivial, political gesture. But he didn’t stop at that.

His show looked like this: toward the end of the gallery was a large square table with four chairs each at three sides of it. In front of each chair on the table was a black looseleaf notebook; the first row of notebooks was marked “A” and numbered one through four, the second row marked “B,” one through four, and the third row “C,” numbered likewise. Each notebook contained eight pages of text numbered, e.g., “1.1–1.8” in the first notebook in each row, “2.1–2.8” in the second book in the row, and so on. On the wall opposite each row of chairs (and books) were eight identical clocks registering various times. The clocks in each row were numbered respectively, 1.1, 2.2, 3.3, 4.4, 1.5, 2.6, 3.7, 4.8. So much for what you got by seeing the show; reading it was another matter.

As I sat down alone in the gallery to read the show I felt as if I were about to take the Exam of Exams, the great reading comprehension test that would make or break my already unlikely “career” as an art critic. All those unsynchronized clocks ticking away. It was harrowing at first. One of the annoying things about work like Kosuth’s is that it turns reviewing into a kind of competition with the artist.

There was an explanatory note tacked to the wall of the gallery which purported to initiate the visitor. But unless I misunderstood the actual setup of the piece, the physical arrangement of it, there was an error in the posted explanation. According to the note, each of the notebooks contained seven “standard elements” and one “variable.” This meant simply that the texts on certain pages of the notebooks in each section (A, B, and C) were repeated on the corresponding pages in the other sections; that is, page 1.2 in section A, for instance, was identical to the pages designated 1.2 in sections B and C. These were the “standard” elements. But the contents of page 1.1, for instance, varied from one section to the next; 1.1 was a “variable” element. Upon examining the piece, however, one found that each notebook contained not one but two variables which occurred in the same location in each section. What I can’t really figure is how this error could have been let slip, since the numbers marking the clocks were the numbers of the variable elements. The operation of the piece was supposed to consist in an automatic shuffling of variable elements—into variously meaningful contexts—with the standard elements, by the correspondence of the clock hand positions with numbers designating the several propositions. (The number that marked each clock was also the time the clock was initially set at; that is, the clock numbered 2.6 would initially be set at 2:30, the one numbered 3.7 at 3:35, and so on.) Since each clock was assigned the number of a variable element, the movement of its hands represented changing associations of the variables and standard elements through their numerical designations. Exciting stuff.

Perhaps Kosuth included an error in the explanation of the piece just to throw the visitor off, or perhaps he really did mean this to be a competitive arrangement. (And perhaps that wasn’t an error after all and I lose.) There was certainly an air of hokey intellectual intimidation about the piece. One starts out reading the various texts thinking that Kosuth must really have a lot of material in his grasp to be able to speak with such authority about linguistics, the philosophy of science, logic, and related matters. It wasn’t until I got to section C where the variable texts were on the subject of tautology that I recognized the reason why Kosuth had been careful to include a “bibliography” (summer reading list). All the texts in the notebooks were quotes from the various texts Kosuth mentions; I didn’t realize this until I read the texts on tautology which I recognized from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Not only is this Conceptual art, but automated Conceptual art.

I suppose Kosuth considers that he set up a model for what ideally happens when someone with an eidetic memory and a lot of time on his hands reads the books on his summer reading list, various ideas get compared and contrasted. So what. Another dubious notion concerning Conceptual art is that it is not a likely vehicle for the artist’s self-aggrandizement.

Kenneth Baker