New York

Joseph Kosuth

Invited to exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, Joseph Kosuth chose to root through the museum’s remarkable collection, acting as a kind of curator-cum-archaelogist. The result is a salon-style installation in the museum’s lobby of works that have, at some point and for one reason or another, been found offensive, juxtaposed with text silk-screened directly on the walls, which explains why and to whom they were objectionable. The whole installation is called The Play of the Unmentionable, a twist on the title of Kosuth’s previous curatorial investigation, The Play of the Unsayable: Wittgenstein and the Art of the 20th Century.

The visitor to the installation is greeted by a giant work by Barbara Kruger, mounted on the wall facing the front doors. It reads: “We Are Notifying You Of A Change of Address,” and the puns it makes off the exhibit inside are multiple. The museum is too rarely visited by Manhattan art audiences, though as Kosuth’s installation shows, its collection is formidable. What’s more, the mode of address Kosuth himself employs is quite a bit subtler and less preachy than most discussions of the themes he broaches.

The works inside are grouped into rough categories, among them erotic, or at any rate nude depictions of women, men, and children; representations of people of color; ritualistic phenomena; the Armory show; and Bauhaus design. Some of the pieces are familiar enough as signaling radical shifts in art history: there are a few Matisses, a Breuer armchair, some Rodin bronzes, and a Picasso. Some are images from our own time, like the Kruger photograph, a large Cindy Sherman print, a portfolio of Larry Clark’s “Teenage Lust,” a Robert Mapplethorpe nude, and an Andres Serrano. But quite a bit of the show is unfamiliar and eye-opening, including illustrations from Japanese books of erotica, illustrated editions of devotional Muslim texts, and, most wonderfully of all, a Norman Rockwell painting, smack-dab in the midst of the “primitive rituals” section of the installation, showing a tattoo artist at work on a patron who has, judging by the number of crossed-off lovers’ names on his arm, already been by several times before.

The quotes on the walls around and above each group offer pointed analyses of the sense in which the works were considered beyond the pale, and the discussion comes from all sides: a few anthropological texts are represented, as is Leo Steinberg’s analysis of the sexuality of Christ in painting, along with a couple of religious tracts, and fragments of cultural criticism. The railings of Hitler and Goebbels cover the Bauhaus wall.

Kosuth is a gifted curator, not only because the works he’s unearthed complement each other in surprising and thoughtful ways, but because the show never attempts to be neater than the issues it tackles. The fact that blatantly racist works are among his radical array testifies to his refusal to simplify a complex story about tastes and mores to a few platitudes about freedom of speech.

Nonetheless the installation has its contradictions, most notably the tension, familiar to any relativist, between one’s belief in cross-cultural tolerance and the need to extend that suspension of judgment to very intolerant cultures. So an anthropologist warns against imposing our values on other cultures, which may strive instead for a balance based on terms that we cannot see, while an Islamic scholar points out that for Muslims, image making is a sin; there is a special place in the hell of Islam for artists.

Kosuth for the most part escapes such inconsistency by making the show less normative than descriptive. The anthropological or coolly analytic stance that informs most of the writing generally avoids passing judgment, and this sobriety is the exhibition’s saving grace. Instead of a simple championing of expression, we are given access to an ongoing conversation, a web of art issues—practical, moral, formal, and political—all shifting and tugging at each other within the history of esthetic and cultural consciousness.

James Lewis