St. Gallen


Wittgenstein is one of those philosophers who has not yet been totally demolished because in the ’40s he was already performing deconstruction on his own system. Now the Wiener Secession has celebrated the centennial of Wittgenstein’s birth, not by pursuing a historical transfiguration, but by taking seriously the philosopher’s potential for contemporary relevance. Joseph Kosuth curated an homage to Wittgenstein that was one of the few bright spots in the disaster area of European group shows. Naturally, Kosuth’s tribute requires some clarification. It was neither an exegesis in the academic sense nor an illustration of Wittgenstein’s thinking—and it was anything but a history of Wittgenstein’s reception in art. Rather, this exhibition, subtitled “Das Spiel des Unsagbaren” (The game of the unspeakable), was a Kosuth opus: the artist, who has studied the philosopher’s thought for more than twenty years, aimed at presenting an explosive and interesting thesis on the goals, meanings, and functions of current art.

The walls of the gallery were divided into two swaths: a gray and a silver one. At the top and bottom of each wall, bands sporting quotations from Wittgenstein ran all the way around the rooms. Hanging between them or standing in front of them, the works of more than seventy artists were loosely distributed and barely systematized into seven groups. At first glance, they looked almost like a window display, but gradually, their subtle nuances became apparent. A Donald Judd work stood in a corner (in an alternate reading, he carried the entire show, like Atlas); a silver Andy Warhol sank into the silver wall. Gerhard Richter’s romantic landscape painting collided head-on with one of Clegg & Guttmann’s nonscape photographs; Haim Steinbach had to hold his own between Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Broodthaers. By and large, the painting and sculpture that were shown here are exclusively conceptual. The only large painting on canvas was by Richard Prince, and it has inscribed on it a joke. In this way, the selection was not truly comprehensive, yet it was precise and oriented to the subject. Just as throughout his life Wittgenstein tried to make traditional problems disappear, Kosuth tried to eliminate the categories of traditional art. His disposition of the groups of works fended off any claim by an individual work to autonomy, to substantiality, to totality of meaning. Instead, linguistic games were inserted between the works, between a single work and the overall space, between art and its social site. Robert Rauschenberg rubbed shoulders with Reinhard Mucha, Thomas Locher, and Robert Gober, just as On Kawara fraternized with Braco Dimitrijevic, Werner Büttner, and Guillaume Bijl, and an early Kosuth appeared cheek by jowl with an llya Kabakov.

What saved Kosuth from sheer arbitrariness was his own conceptual grounding. He didn’t simply deprive the works of their autonomy; rather, he replaced that autonomy with a theoretical coherence, which served as its own justification. The catalogue text reformulates Kosuth’s “Art after Philosophy,” an impudent and ambitious essay that in 1969 tackled Hegel’s statement about the end of art and turned it upside down. This reversal has manifested itself in a rigorously antitraditional art. This, we are told, enables art to reject the role foisted upon it by bourgeois society (art should be lovely, harmless, and valuable) and to redirect the resulting pressure for legitimation into artistic self-definition. This exhibition as the meta-level of a meta-art, was intent on proving that very point. And Wittgenstein made a grateful victim.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.