• Review

  • December 30th, 2014 12.30.2014

    Joseph Kosuth: Sprüth Magers


    “I am observing X,” “Imagine hands,” “I never ask myself the question,” “An object self-defined,” and “What does this mean?,” read some of Joseph Kosuth’s neon works currently on view at the branch of Sprüth Magers gallery in London. The exhibition, entitled Amnesia: Various, Luminous, Fixed, is the second of the series following Insomnia: Assorted, Illuminated, Fixed that was presented at the gallery’s Berlin space back in 2013.

    Encompassing works dating between 1965 and 2011, the exhibition presents an eloquent collection of twenty-five light sculptures, a comprehensive survey of Kosuth’s oeuvre and extensive artistic practice. Spanning the gallery’s ground floor and lower ground floor areas, the neon pieces are installed on the surface of all the walls, creating a sublime visual experience for art lovers and visitors alike.

    Following the supremacy of the 1950s abstract expressionism, the outburst of consumerism and popular culture in the 1960s brought a breath of new aesthetics into the spectrum of the artistic realm. The rise of the pop art movement—embracing the mass-produced imagery of advertising, as well as the role of mass media—challenged the status of “fine art” and its traditional subjects as they were known up to that time. These remarkable events in the history of the 1960s, in conjunction with the emergence of minimalism, especially in New York, pronounced the progression of experimentation with new, industrial, non-traditional, mediums. One of these materials was neon.

    Although neon was previously incorporated in the works of other artists, such as Gyula Košice in the 1940s and later by Stephen Antonakos, Kosuth was the first in the 1960s to employ neon in the domain of “written public speech,” freed from fine art affiliations. Among the Sprüth Magers exhibit we find one of Kosuth’s first neons, Five Fives (to Donald Judd) [orange] conceived in early 1965, alongside Fetishism (Corrected) (1988), part of his Freud series (1981–89). Here, Kosuth reproduces Freud’s hand written corrections appearing in the introductory page of the essay Fetischismus, enlarged and mounted onto the walls in forms of blue neon text, appearing as blown-up highlighted scribbles. Here, Kosuth divulges to the viewer how writing (or in this instance isolated text) may turn into an independent artwork, liberated from previous linguistic and semasiological associations. By extracting isolated words or letters, Kosuth concentrates on the power of language itself and its ability to be transformed into a brand new work of art. While Freud’s scribbles are the original source of text, the neon words are now context-free and stand as autonomous artifacts.

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    Joseph Kosuth, ‘Amnesia: Various, Luminous, Fixed’, Installation view. Photo courtesy of Sprüth Magers London | Photography © Kris Emmerson

    Ludwig Wittgenstein (as well as Nietzsche and A.J. Ayer) was one of Kosuth’s most influential philosophers—his discourse had affected his thinking deeply since his youth. L.W’s Last Word (1990), a work from his Wittgenstein series (1989-93), manifests the infinite power of art and language over philosophy. For Kosuth, a work of philosophy was merely restricted to the sayable, whereas the boundaries of a work of art are limitless. Art can express and say what philosophy—eventually—cannot. In L.W’s Last Word, Kosuth engages with the last word ever written by Wittgenstein, which the philosopher cancelled before he died. “Sprache” (translating as language) in neon, appears crossed out as exactly as it was in the philosopher’s manuscript. Kosuth’s playful intervention turns the sayable into an artwork—beginning where philosophy has left off. Now the word speaks for itself, we experience its liberation and the genesis of a brand new linguistic value.

    Part of Kosuth’s most recent Beckett series (2011) on display includes three white neons with their front side covered in black paint. Borrowing fragments from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Texts for Nothing, the artist interrogates not only the significance of language and speech but also the hypostasis of meaning through the process of its production. Kosuth is a key agent of a linguistic ‘legacy’ that deeply influenced not just the art scene of the 1960s and its generation of conceptual artists, but also today’s international contemporary art world—making Amnesia: Various, Luminous, Fixed an incredibly current exhibition.

    Amnesia: Various, Luminous, Fixed at Sprüth Magers London runs through February 14, 2015.