New York

Art & Language

The museum, both as idea and as physical space, is the subject of Art & Language’s remarkable ongoing series of paintings “Index: Incident in a Museum.” In recent works from this series, a group of which were shown here, Art & Language has been trying to strike a new balance between language (or concept) and art (the actual, material work—in this case, paintings), with an emphasis now on the art. The concept behind this series appears to be Art & Language’s belief that all art is intended for the museum from the start. This includes not only these very works but even the books that Art & Language has produced, an idea conveyed explicitly by Index: Incident in a Museum XXV, 1987, with the central area of the canvas cut away and replaced by a bookcase full of these books. The word “index” here has more than one meaning, not just the usual linguistic one, for the works don’t simply point to the museum and their connection to it. The reference is also an optical one (appropriate to pictures), alluding to the index of refraction, a measure of refracting power—specifically, the ratio of light’s velocity in a vacuum to its velocity in a given medium. Applied to an “incident in a museum,” this equation can be interpreted as follows: if the “light” referred to here is art, and the “given medium” is the museum (the medium in which it can manifest itself at greatest advantage), art has one velocity in the museum and another in its theoretical vacuum (its purely conceptual identity). Art & Language is interested in the difference. Thus, in Index: Incident in a Museum XIX, 1985–87, featuring a reproduction on plywood of a reproduction of an Art & Language work that appeared in Artforum, with the original work underneath the plywood—bits and pieces of it are visible through peepholes—the issue is not merely the relationship of an original to its reproduction, but of what kind of velocity—if any—the work gains through the interrelationship of the work, its “museum” setting (both subject and context), and its multiple levels of reproduction. Does it “move” in any way, or is it just inert? Does it necessarily revert to its idea? I think the latter is what Art & Language wants to happen.

The problem is that all the works are beautiful, whatever museum situation or concept of a museum situation they reproduce. They even make the works that they reproduce in their paintings more beautiful than they actually are. (This seems to be the point of their having eliminated the menacing image of a helmeted Nazi from their version of a colorful Nazi poster made in Occupied France.) Such beauty—a traditional sign of museumworthiness, but here also of museum banalization—makes the works self-canceling and thus conceptually inadequate. Art & Language’s works, being emptied of language by becoming beautiful, speak vacuously. Perhaps Art & Language is making an ironic comment on the “new spirit of painting” that has dominated the ’80s, suggesting the bankruptcy of that spirit; but their own paintings can be said to be equally bankrupt.

Also, the recognition of the inescapability of institutionalization has become trivial. No conceptual Dadaist rebellion against it seems valid any longer, for most art today is conceived with a gallery or museum context in mind. The question is, What’s left of the art after it has been institutionalized? Not much, suggests Art & Language; wrong, say I. Art & Language hasn’t looked hard enough at the art they reinstitutionalize in the institution of their own art. They facilely skim it with their clever beauty. They’ve become rebels without a cause.

Donald Kuspit