New York

Joseph Kosuth

Leo Castelli Gallery

Joseph Kosuth’s “Protoinvestigations,” first exhibited in 1972, made contributions both to the conceptual-art vocabulary and to certain elementary combinations of the units of that vocabulary. In those days conceptual art, perhaps still feeling roots in Minimalism, felt constrained to stress simplicity and unity. Nowadays one wonders whether conceptual elements and procedures will build into more complex structures perhaps less puritanically reductive.

In his recent show Kosuth showed six photographs entitled, after a famous passage of Freud, “Fort! Da! 1–6.” Each 6-by-10-foot image, mounted on the wall, functioned like a mirror that eliminated the viewer; that is, it showed the space behind the viewer as if the room were empty of people. The photographs faced each other in three responding pairs along the main axes of the gallery space. Each wall and adjoining floor space had been prepared for photographing with a verbal message in stick-on letters (for example, “There are readers blinded by pictures they can’t see,” “There is a list of surfaces with depth erased and framed,” and so on), and with five Xs of tape in different colors applied to both wall and floor in such positions that they produce different angles of foreshortening in the photograph. In addition, each image had a sixth, black X affixed directly to the photograph, and therefore not foreshortened as the others were. Lying on the floor in front of each framed photograph was an array of six taped Xs in the same colors, like a color spectrum on a photograph or a list of ingredients in a recipe.

Kosuth provided no text for this show, but one might apply to it a note he wrote on a related exhibition in 1982. Kosuth said then that “the material of this work is relations,” and “for those able to see beyond the ‘form’ of the work (how it’s made) there is to be seen that combination of relations which is the work (what is made).” Well, that is familiar enough, and the variety of relations manipulated in the current group is not too large to ingest mentally, and the mental moment happens, as of old. But the artist’s plea that we see past the form of the work does not distract attention from the fact that several clichéd conceptual strategies are uneasily put together here. These include the juxtaposition of texts and images that do not intersect but deflect off each other, as in the ’20s work of René Magritte; the presentation to the viewer of a photograph of the wall behind the viewer, a tactic pretty fully developed by William Anastasi in 1970; a correction of perspective something like that in Jan Dibbets’ work of the late ’60s; and the placing of verbal messages on the wall, as done by Anastasi, Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler, and so on.

Kosuth has combined what is for him an unusual number of vocabulary elements into a piece of somewhat greater complexity than those he is primarily known for. But in recent years conceptual art, primarily in various fusion forms, has gone on to new pastures, sometimes truly complex, and this work looked archaic and museumified. It was business as usual, classical conceptualist minimalism, redundantly and self-consciously retracing elementary relations among elementary vocabulary units. There was nothing more here than a reshuffling of cards dealt ten or more years ago, mostly in the works of other artists.

Thomas McEvilley