Coupled with the pervasive hum of the neon transformers, Joseph Kosuth's A short history of my thought at Anna Schwartz Gallery is a grab-bag of his past fifty years working with neon. Far from any noir promise historically associated with the technology, the neon works—mounted on the pristine white walls of a commercial gallery—seem muted and grim, limited in their referential and atmospheric potential. Taken on their own, Kosuth's works often invite speculation on the secondary textual sources he makes use of. Taken all together, there is a distinctly different emphasis.
The show offers a chance to reflect on our expectations of a long artistic career, a conceptual art practice, in what is a loose retrospective format. Kosuth's short 'history' of his own practice provides the form of a backwards glance over a terrain, suggesting many interpretations and investigations through the same artistic materials: neon, light, and electricity. Kosuth usually works with detailed readings of specific textual sources, but somehow this diversity of concept is outweighed by the material unity throughout this exhibition.
Famous from his early conceptual art days, works such as Five Fives (to Donald Judd) (Ruby Red) (1965), Neon (1965) and Self-Defined Object (Orange) (1966) display the acute self-referentiality of this early period. Alongside these are later works engaging with Ludwig Wittgenstein (L.W.'s Last Word (Pink), 1991), Charles Darwin (The Paradox of Content #4 (Orange), 2009), Samuel Beckett ((Waiting for -) Texts for Nothing #5, 2010) and others. Some of these neons are flowing, hand-drawn diagrams, while others are terse and obscure serif poems. Almost all of the pieces are made in neon, with the exception of Mondrian's Work XI (2015) and Double Reading #12 (1993), which both include silkscreen prints on backlit glass.
Neon was chosen by Kosuth in the 1960s for its lack of artistic pretension. The status of the neon sign as a vehicle of popular commercial communication has passed, however, and now—outmoded for practical use—neon is yet another ubiquitous artistic material, an exotic and luxurious industrial object available to artists and hipster boutiques like those surrounding Schwartz's Flinders Lane gallery. Over the past decade, Kosuth has developed a certain formula to his works with neon. In 2007, his Language of Equilibrium spanned the exterior walls and edges of the island monastery of San Lazarro, Venice. In 2009, his work Neither Appearance Nor Illusion was installed underground on the medieval foundations of the Louvre. Both of these works respond to architectural sites rich with cultural and literal texture, affixing neon texts to their facades. These textual excerpts are drawn from contextually specific documents, such as the Armenian dictionary's definition of water (in Venice) and a reworking of Kosuth's own writing at the Louvre. While the necessity of reading and comprehending these written sources in each work may be questionable, the effect of the architecturally 'ancient' against the neon intervention produces both an atmospheric theatricality and a distance from comprehension. Closer to home, Kosuth's 2010–11 show at ACCA, '(Waiting for-) Texts for Nothing' Samuel Beckett, in play, also featured a dramatic presentation of neon texts drawn from Samuel Beckett's work Waiting for Godot and The Unnamable. Like the earlier examples, the architectural atmosphere was used in this show through the placement of the neon works very high up in the darkened space, as well as half-dipping the glass text in black paint. Also in 2010, Kosuth exhibited An Interpretation of this Title: Nietzsche, Darwin and the paradox of content at Anna Schwartz Gallery Sydney. In all of these works, the texts are spectacularised, without quite being elucidated in Kosuth's treatment of them.
Why so much neon, why so much light in this exhibition as mini-retrospective or DIY historicisation? Perhaps these are works from the backroom, still kicking around since the 2010 shows in Melbourne and Sydney? Or perhaps there was a thought that neon might be well received in Melbourne? The show seems to assert Kosuth as a dominant figure in neon, stressing his historical lineage. In any case, a retrospective in a commercial gallery has a different remit than a public institution, and the idea of being a 'neon master' seems quite at odds with Kosuth's broader practice. This show opens up a new range of questions for this practice, not least because of its commercial setting facilitated by Anna Schwartz. Kosuth's work often has a monumentality—in physical terms as well as in its relation to art history—but here we are invited to think of his work in a more human scale.
Individually, there is little spectacle or atmosphere in A short history of my thought. Each artwork seems isolated among its peers, some of them fifty years apart in intent and context (the earliest work is from 1965, while the most recent is from 2015). Yet there is a certain uneasy unity to the exhibition as a whole: the various sources and dates all coalesce into a composition of colour and neon. It doesn't help that there seems to be no way to materially date the works, as Kosuth has a flexible understanding of the artist's edition as a seemingly open-ended project. From his earliest work in the 1960s, his distinction between the idea (as the artwork) and the material (as a manifestation of the idea) allowed the manifestation of the concept in seemingly unending series: the same work from the same year can be reproduced in any time and place. Each neon in this show has the same power transformer, and there is a sense that all the work was physically produced at the same time.
When faced with the prospect of a 'short history' of anyone's thought, the apparent lack of temporal distinction and the difficulty of tracing variation becomes a problem. We are faced with something quite homogeneous, yet are encouraged to expect diversity and growth. In the 1960s, to use neon text was an edgy critique, yet today it is anything but. Over such a long time, the reason for its continued use spans the difference between critique and conservativism. Kosuth's work, then, offers a kind of longitudinal study of the uneasy transition between art that questions the status quo and art that maintains it. This transition is perhaps the main underlying focus of this exhibition and its call to self-historicisation.
The conceptual art of the late 1960s and early '70s is what Kosuth is probably best known for. His work with definitions, photography and public contexts represented one of the many fractured and contested shards of what we came to call conceptual art. Stripping importance from the object and the visual experience, Kosuth's early work helped place greater importance on the idea behind the work than the material manifestation of it.
One of the products of this shift in importance is the pathologisation of the artwork within the mind and body of the artist, resulting in a constant slippage between the work and the biography of the artist. This slippage has become commonplace, and I wonder if this is perhaps where Kosuth's real legacy lies: not the emphasis on meaning over form, but rather the continual leaching of meaning from the cultural object and its context to the artist as culturally engaged subject, to their body and mind as the real locus of art. Seen through this legacy, Kosuth's focus on the great male European thinkers of the past is also an insertion of himself into this history. While his treatment of these thinkers is often partial and aestheticising, in this show Kosuth effectively approaches his own oeuvre and art historical legacy in exactly the same way.
David Wlazlo is a PhD Candidate in Art History and Theory at Monash University.
Title image: Joseph Kosuth, 'Neon', 1965. Photography: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy Joseph Kosuth Studio and Anna Schwartz Gallery.)