Christopher Williams, Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095 . . . (Nr. 9), 2000, black-and-white photograph, 25 3/8 x 29 3/8".

Christopher Williams, Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095 . . . (Nr. 9), 2000, black-and-white photograph, 25 3/8 x 29 3/8".

“Adorno: The Possibility of the Impossible”

Frankfurt was Theodor Adorno’s home for most of his life, so it is fitting that the Frankfurter Kunstverein has organized “Adorno: Die Möglichkeit des Unmöglichen” (Adorno: The Possibility of the Impossible) at the end of 2003, the centennial of his birth. Including work by more than thirty artists that spans nearly fifty years, the exhibition acknowledges his momentous contributions to modern philosophy and aesthetic theory but does so in the spirit of his writing, with equal degrees of wonder and doubt. In his own time, Adorno speculated about whether art would be able to endure late capitalism and, if it did, whether it would take part in the cause to transform such a world. We can now stake out reasonable answers to his questions through the work of Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man [1993]) and others who proclaim that to live in the post-Marxist era is to witness the utter disappearance of coherent theoretical alternatives to liberal democracy. Or to put it bluntly: The world Adorno predicted—subsumed by the “culture industry” and fueled by pragmatic ethics—the world he did all he could to resist, has come to pass in spades. In this light, “Adorno” provides more than an occasion for deferential reflection. It provokes a deeper look at the philosopher’s legacy and in particular at his resolute belief in the “possibility of the impossible,” where autonomous, inscrutable, and meditative art would subvert reification and stimulate unmitigated social critique. The timing could not be better; Adorno’s reputation seems unsettled, strewn with questions as to his continued relevance now that his resistance has proved futile.

“Adorno” is an exhibition with eyes wide open to the question of relevance. Michael Hirsch and Vanessa Joan Müller, editors (along with curator Nicolaus Schafhausen) of the show’s catalogue, say unabashedly in their preface that Adorno’s “effect on the cultural awareness of the present seems quite limited.” But this is also an exhibition with evident ambitions to connect us directly to the power Adorno held out for modern art. He intended to dedicate Aesthetic Theory, left uncompleted when he died in 1969, to Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s plays for television Quad I & II (1981), in which silent, monklike figures move in obscure patterns, are the first works you encounter in the exhibition, so conspicuous that they become its visual overture, epitomizing the masterful resolution of implicit contradictions between the enigmatic artwork and radical social criticism that Adorno so admired in the playwright. Understanding Beckett’s plays as comprehensible expressions of Adorno’s möglichkeit des unmöglichen could persuade us to view Painting Number 16, 1955, one of Ad Reinhardt’s serene black pictures, and Gerhard Richter’s subtle painting Grau, 1976, as equally powerful manifestations of that paradox.

While Beckett provides substantiation for Adorno’s original influence, Schafhausen has assayed something more speculative and counterintuitive than a simple centennial homage: He flagrantly detaches Adorno’s philosophy from its historical moorings, appealing primarily to contemporary art for tests of its continued importance. In Schafhausen’s curatorial plot, Adorno’s ideological brinkmanship, requiring the courage of idealism, confronts our own impulse toward cultural revisionism, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. From that confrontation, Schafhausen seeks to discover what the philosopher will show us about our own culture. The outcome provides zesty, enlightening, and renewing contexts for Adorno’s philosophy.

Christopher Williams is among the most convincing in affirming Schafhausen’s curatorial gambit. He is represented by five photographs from his series “Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095 . . . ,” 2000, which depicts a mint 1964 Renault turned on its side. Point of view changes almost imperceptibly from photograph to photograph, making them appear identical but for some slight, mysterious skewing. The series might first give the impression of being emancipated from meaning, of being inexplicable if you prefer, but its identity as a work of art intervenes, asserting the Adorno mantra: that the enigmatic inspires profound contemplation. The conflict between the inane and the eloquent is never resolved in Williams’s art, but the work, holding within it the possibility of liberating the viewer from pragmatic and one-dimensional reasoning, leaves a lasting impression aligned with Adorno’s definitions of aesthetic value.

The four buffed-aluminum rectangles that constitute Liam Gillick’s Discussion Island Reconciliation Plates, 1997, blur rather than reflect their audience, turning individuals into apparitions. While one may rightly wonder if Gillick ever thought of Adorno specifically as he imagined the effects, when the work is approached within this exhibition, one cannot help but recall the philosopher’s total dismissal of any reconciliation with a commodity culture rife with fetishism and pseudo-individualization. Encounters such as these with Williams and Gillick give Schafhausen’s approach real traction.

“The function of art in the totally functional world is functionlessness; it is pure superstition to believe that art could intervene directly or lead to an intervention.” Even if this passage from Aesthetic Theory, one of seven from the book that appear as wall text throughout the Kunstverein, sits comfortably next to Bruce Nauman’s Concrete Tape Recorder Piece, 1968, a recorder encased in a concrete block, the sculpture, like most of the work here, does not illustrate Adorno’s philosophy but illuminates it. We cannot deny that Nauman and Adorno commonly distrust the idea that society would respond were the arts or critical thinking ever to call for change in some fundamental way. Adorno’s relevance survives in just such agreements. And, in this centennial exhibition, perhaps his influence becomes most vivid for having foreseen its own limits.

Ronald Jones is an artist and critic based in Stockholm.