New York

Joseph Kosuth

In an interview a couple of years ago, Joseph Kosuth lamented that although his work is “in the collections of all the major museums,” he has “never had the support of collectors.” Instead, he said, his art had become “dissertation fodder,” more frequently studied than bought. Despite his concern about this “predicament” (a situation many artists would envy), Kosuth’s new work somehow manages to be more pedantic than ever. The Conceptualist recently presented his “Essays” series, 2000, large color photographs of his own earlier works, to which he had added snippets of text by some of the more enigmatic Serious Thinkers of the twentieth century: Beckett, Buber, Derrida, and Foucault, among others. The repackaging was supposed to reflect a play on meaning: By reframing work that had already (“originally”) questioned its frame, Kosuth wanted to create a mise en abîme that throws into question the viewer’s orientation and mode of interpretation. But he didn’t, and it doesn’t.

The large photographic diptych Essays #I records Kosuth’s 1992 installation at Documenta 9, in which he draped part of the Neue Galerie’s permanent collection (Day Without Art-style) in black and white material and peppered the room with quotations meant to alter, undermine, or expand the works’ meaning. In cool type on bright rectangles on the diptych, Kosuth has added two new quotes: On the left, in part, “It is by judgment independent of my action that I shall recognize that my work is ’finished,’ that the object is ’made,’ since the object in itself is only one possible stage, among others, in a series of transformations that might continue beyond their goal—indefinitely.—P.V.” (Paul Valéry, get it?); on the right, in part, “To record the distance between the object and myself, and the distances of the object itself (its exterior distances, i.e. its measurements), and the distances of objects among themselves, and to insist further on the fact that these are only distances (and not divisions), this comes down to establishing that things are here and that they are nothing but things, each limited to itself. . . . —A.R.-G.” (Alain Robbe-Grillet, or the viewer’s frustrated cry?) In another “Essay,” Kosuth restages his 1990 installation at the Brooklyn Museum, where he again surrounded the permanent collection with text. To this image he adds another “P.V.” excerpt and the oft-cited passage“ There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play.” This snippet is attributed to “J.D.” (Guess who—the very thinker who problematized such attributional “signatures” in the first place.) In the most disappointing “Essay,” Kosuth has repictured his groundbreaking 1965 work, One and Three Photographs, two grainy black-and-white photographs of a tree alongside a photograph of a dictionary definition of the word “photograph.” This original reframing is reframed with a quotation from “T.T.” on immanence and one by “G.P.” on interpretations of beginnings and endings. Six other “Essays” mine a similar, bone-dry vein.

No matter who his collectors are. Kosuth is still undoubtedly a seminal figure in the history of late-twentieth-century art; but this warmed-over, spruced-up work veers more than a bit into the realm of self-aggrandizement, even self-monumentalization. Kosuth might say that such a process is precisely what he is calling into question, but like his scholarly excerpts, that would be a little too pat. T.W.A.—that is, Theodor W. Adorno, whom Kosuth, surprisingly, doesn’t cite in the show—once claimed that “the essay’s innermost formal law is heresy.” Based on this criterion, Kosuth’s strangely doctrinal “Essays” fail utterly. In fact, this exercise in the exhaustion of hermeneutics seems ultimately to be more about the hermeneutics of exhaustion.

Nico Israel