The Linguistic Turn
at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, Through September 25th.
Five contorted stripes lay across the paper, left-slanted, the first and last inked in black, the others in prussian blue. Penciled below in a neat hand: “Eskimos?” The drawing – Guy de Cointet’s 1982 Eskimos? – means to call attention to the allegedly problematic relationship between word and image, sign and signified, meaning and nonsense, image and language. It asks us to decode the stripes, find some connection between these seemingly arbitrary forms and the title of the piece. But the operation fails: the only answer to de Cointet’s question – Eskimos? – is the question itself: Eskimos? The four stripes admit no stable interpretation; they mean to animate the difficulty posed by any interpretive act.
The works collected in The Linguistic Turn play out variations on the same difficulty. Each tries to investigate, criticize, prod, play, problematize, tickle, and undermine a given system of meaning. In Russell Baldwin’s 1977 Untitled, text sandblasted into a framed glass panel declares “This is a unique work especially created by Russell Baldwin to be placed above a simple sofa covered in white-on-white linen fabric woven in a sculpted geometric pattern”. Beneath the glass sits the specified sofa, framed by Nixon-Era vintage lamps sitting on end tables. One supposes, charitably, that the piece attempts to deflate the claims of artistic “uniqueness”.
Walk in the gallery and find yourself confronted with four steel bricks, attached together by a through-bolt, with metal lettering declaring “MOVE ME”. The piece, Doug Edge’s 1972 Move Me, riffs off the alleged heroism of the minimalist object: These objects, these hulking masculine minimalist works, they are just things, heavy things, but still things. Any difficulty they pose is a physical difficulty: “move me”. One can, and should, question the adequacy of the critique, but this is a theoretical and not an aesthetic judgement. If the difference seems opaque or questionable, this suggests the problem. The pieces on display defer, and mean to defer, any kind of judgement on their quality as works. Instead of objects to behold and judge, each are intended as arguments, jokes, or commentary on other works. Deferring judgement, they mean to judge themselves.
One might find one work’s critique more effective than another, but assessment quickly becomes a judgement on the underlying project: what has come to be called conceptualism. While different works express different strains – Merwin Bellin’s jokey text-paintings (“DEATH IN A HOT ROD”, “I KNOW THE RESIDENT ART CRITIC OF STUDIO CITY”, “TORTILLA FLAT HOT ROD”) suggest the free-wheeling-fun-in-the-sun-LA-Baldessari-Ruscha-strain, Lawrence’ Weiner’s contribution, a masonite panel attached to a wall, and instructions for a masonite panel attached to a wall, indicates its apophatic, reductive, reflexive aspect – assessment of any theses depends on one’s stance towards the underlying conceptual project – what Benjamin Buchloh has claimed to be the the “postwar period’s most rigorous investigation of the conventions of pictorial and sculptural representation and a critique of the traditional paradigms of visuality.” If the program is convincing, the works will convince.
Why shouldn’t it? Start reading curatorial or academic writing on contemporary art, and you will soon find mention of how the artwork “problematizes” some dominant system of beliefs or “undermines” comfortable oppositions. By offering a “perspectival view of collective actions, political protests, and popular sovereignty movements worldwide,” Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Demonstration Drawings are said to “confront commonly-held assumptions about globalization, democratic mass movements and ongoing forms of resistance to economic liberalism.” Kara Walker and Ellen Gallagher each “strive to destabilize the stereotypes of the black past in an innovative and thought provoking-way.” William Kentridge’s animations “attempt to undermine a certain kid of spectacularization of memory”. Although the monogamous purity of the conceptual moment has been diluted, its vocabulary has triumphed, and become the very furniture of contemporary art criticism and curation.
The vocabulary developed out a transformation within art criticism begun in the late 1960s. The following, taken from Michael Fried’s 1964 review of Kenneth Noland’s Hover exemplifies the prior mode.
“In Hover the field is wine-red, the small central ellipse steely blue-gray and the elliptical band separating one from the other bright red. But no mere enumeration can begin to convey the subtle interactions of the colors, or the surprising intensity with which the bright red elliptical band makes itself felt. Using only three colors, Noland has succeeded in constructing a color-situation of great optical force. It should be observed, however, that this color-situation is not coercive in character but, on the contrary, remarkably reticent. Far from overpowering the beholder by the juxtaposition of high-keyed complementaries -one of the stock devices of what has come to be called “op art”- Hover tends to appear dark, subdued and perhaps uninteresting at first glance. It is only after the beholder has looked at it hard for some time that the colors begin to come fully alive, and to involve him in their life.”
Fried explains how Hover comes to compel the viewer: the dun color-world of the painting first presents a modest, and even boring, front. But under extended attention, the circuit completes and the whole of the painting begins to pulse with a new kind of energy. Writing on the process of successful painting, Hazlitt observes “There is a continual creation out of nothing going on. With every stroke of the brush a new field of inquiry is laid open; new difficulties arise, and new triumphs are prepared over them.” Fried’s criticism narrates the experience of rediscovering those new difficulties, triumphs and fields of inquiry. To experience the painting recrosses the paths of discovery and judgement that lead to its creation.
Compare, then, with a a footnote from Joseph Kosuth’s 1969 quasi-manifesto, “Art and Philosophy.
“The conceptual level of the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Ron Davis, Anthony Caro, John Hoyland, Dan Christiensen, et al, is so dismally low, that any that is there is supplied by the critics promoting it”.
For Fried, a painting, a successful painting, compels our conviction. Conviction of what? Of the painting’s validity, its quality. A good painting makes us believe in it. But Kosuth sees this belief as a critical appendage, pasted onto a dumb, mute artwork. He wants artworks –- not the shift from painting to the generic ‘work’ – that can be intelligent on their own, works that recognize and execute their function.
The shift in criterion, in value, expresses another, deeper, transformation in the understanding of the artwork and its place within modernism. Fried, following and emending Clement Greenberg, regards modernism as the project of maintaining artistic quality and adequacy under the radically challenging conditions of modernity. Manet’s harsh light-dark contrasts, his rough brush-work, the direct address of his figures: each developed out of specific problems within painting in the 1860s as a means of sustaining artistic quality.
Kosuth’s modernism begins with Duchamp’s first unassisted readymade of 1914 – the Bottle Rack. With it, Kosuth writes
“Art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said. Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to a question of function. This change – one from ‘appearance’ to ‘conception’ was the beginning of ‘modern’ art and the beginning of ‘conceptual’ art. All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually)”
Although Kosuth’s specific conception of the function of art (centered around a quasi-philosophical repetition of analytic statements) did not last, the focus on purpose, on instrumentality, on “what was being said” persists. The intelligibility of a practice as seemingly sensuous as Oliafur Elliason’s depends on understanding art as a fundamentally purpose-driven practice – in Elliason’s case, aimed at investigating questions of perception, scientific knowledge, and collective behavior.
Judged with functional criterion, the works collected in The Linguistic Turn accomplish very little indeed. The pieces work as conceptual one-liners to be grasped and understood in a moment. In John Baldwin’s second piece shown, one part of the declaration “This work of art is so fucking good it was sold immediately” is painted on four canvases, with a picture of the whole printed on each. The painting means to parody the high pretensions of artistic value. But its effect is no greater than, say, the impact a Woody Allen’s quip about mortality has on death itself. To make light of a situation is not to change it. The same follows, too, for many of the successor projects of conceptualism: despite some thirty years institutional critique, museums thrive, even fester.
Kosuth and his compatriots took themselves to be revolutionaries of a sort. The old framework, of aesthetic judgement, form and taste, seemed to be dying or dead. Nihilism stood at the door. By re-functioning art around what Rosalind Krauss has called “logical operations on a set of cultural terms,” art would find new meaning. But the result, fully evidenced in this show, was to leave a nihilism devoid of all tension: the end of art as an ever-lasting punch line. To reconsider the critical program of Fried and Greenberg (and, indeed, Adorno, Hegel, Kant, Rousseau and Diderot) entails no neo-populist cooing about “beauty”. It demands, instead, attending to the animating difficulties of modern art: the inconceivable possibility of artistic judgement, the self-undermining search for value under capitalist modernity, the persistent evasion of consummate meaninglessness, and – above all, and most opaquely – the problem of freedom. Long evaded, these questions seem obscure relics. But if there is hope – whether for the heroic accomplishments of high modernism or the most minor riffs of conceptualism – the hope lies in the past, this past, our past.
1. Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions
2. Rirkrit Tiravanijia, Demonstration Drawings, gallery announcement: http://www.artcat.com/exhibits/7596
3. Lisa E. Farrington, Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2004), pp. 59-61
4. Krauss, Rosalind, “”The Rock”: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection” October, Vol. 95, (Winter, 2001), pp. 53
5. Quoted in “Conceptual art: a critical anthology” p. 177