New York

Joseph Kosuth

Sean Kelly Gallery

Given the increasing number of “constituencies” that art institutions must serve, and their concomitant transformation into entertainment emporia, it is perhaps not surprising that the notoriously sober Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth has yet to be the subject of a US museum retrospective. Sean Kelly Gallery’s recent forty-year survey, whose contents were selected by the artist, reminded viewers why: Simply put, a concentrated dose of ascetic, language-based art makes for a visually numbing experience. What the exhibition offered instead—the elusive trail of an intermittently fascinating intellectual expedition—remains unlikely to win over any less than diligent crowd.

But perhaps this is as it should be. The show was titled “a labyrinth into which I can venture (a play of works by guests and foreigners),” the first half of which is drawn in part from Michel Foucault. A paragraphlong excerpt of a text by the influential thinker celebrating the freedoms granted by authorial evasiveness, which greeted visitors at the entrance, hinted at the self-awareness underpinning Kosuth’s retrospective enterprise. Thirty-one discrete works in a wide array of media, from the artist’s familiar white neons and dictionary-definition photographs to less well known sandblasted-stone tablets and prints on cloth, were dispersed among the nooks and crannies of a physical labyrinth conceived by the artist especially for the venue, itself covered in vinyl-lettered philosophical and literary quotations.

Many of Kosuth’s recent works are site-specific, and the show’s press release touted the installation’s extension into heretofore inaccessible areas of the gallery. Yet no frisson of transgression accompanied this trespass, masked as it was by the rooms’ uniformity; only an occasional patch of carpet indicated that one might be entering normally private territory. Instead, multipart site-specific works, including Whistler’s Warning (c.c.c.c.), 2003, nineteen phrases in white neon originally installed at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, were positioned sporadically throughout the space, and they functioned (paradoxically, given their displacement from their original sites) as anchors amid the nonchronological display.

A blueprint of this warren of rooms brought to mind the zigzag array of quotes, printed on glass panels, that comprised À Propos (Réflecteur de Réflecteur), 2004, the centerpiece of Kosuth’s last exhibition at the gallery. Then, the appropriated words, of obvious importance to the artist, comprised the art object; white neon tubes literally highlighted the ideas they outlined. In this show, by applying quoted texts directly to the walls and hanging artworks on top of them, Kosuth risked their being interpreted as mere decoration, a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for Chelsea flaneurs. The susurrus of text echoed the dull hum of the omnipresent neon, a sound that can be oppressive.

Those seeking more than quips to copy down proceeded into this thicket, rife with dead ends both conceptual and literal, in search of clues to the structure of Kosuth’s system or of fissures in its apparently impenetrable surface. Few were forthcoming. One and Three Photographs [Ety.], 1965, comprising three panels—a vintage print depicting several people standing in a topiary labyrinth, a photograph of this original, and a photograph of the definition of the word PHOTOGRAPH—was the earliest work in the show, and its presence indicates that perhaps Kosuth knew his artistic enterprise would eventually swell into precisely the maddeningly complex, intellectually omnivorous vortex on view here. Hung nearby, Zero & Not (Whitney Museum installation fragment), 1987, six framed silk-screen prints of dramatically enlarged text rendered illegible by redaction, made the show’s communicative limitations explicit.

Brian Sholis