The Thing and the Thing-in-Itself

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Curated by Robert Hobbs

December 13th – January 24, 2015

 

This month, Andrea Rosen Gallery celebrates 25 years with a gem of a show, curated by Robert Hobbs entitled “The Thing and the Thing-in-Itself.”  The exhibition pulls together the intellectual strings of the last century through seven works of art.   All of the artists are embedded in the canon of art history as we know it and each work presents its own dialectic as we move forward in the 21st Century.

In these traditional times, art is centered on celebrity, auction prices, and politics.  We experience not the thing-in-itself, but a flat picture of it, a virtual experience based on conventional wisdom.  However, Kant argued that with our faculty of judgment we have the ability to experience a sense of beauty.  The works in this show have beauty of concept, the constructed notion that aims to break up existing orders of the natural world in a philosophical sense.  Every work in essence, crystallizes the argument that we cannot know the “thing-in-itself,” we merely know our experience. Each artist pulls the curtain in an experimental way to present their own interesting and unique perspective to expose a kind of truth.

Curator Robert Hobbs leans on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  The wall text to the right of the Gallery’s entrance reads: “this philosopher [Kant] speculated that humans only know things in the world through space and time, as well as the causes they attribute to these objects and events. Instead of accurately replicating the world, people’s understanding of it is dependent on the restricted ability to grasp it. In other words, they construct the world they experience.”  Kant’s philosophy is far too vast for incorporation into any art schema.  However, in this case his “Ding an sich” (translated Thing-in-itself) works as a launch pad for an exhibition that reflects on all the majors isms of the last century: Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, and Minimalism.

Kant’s epistemological idealism is essentially a description of the artist through history inasmuch as he or she constructs the world they experience.  Therefore, Kant’s notion of “thing-in-itself” becomes a rather interesting framework to look at key elements of art history and the players that affected its course.  Any exhibition of this character would be remiss without an example of the genius of Marcel Duchamp.  The assisted ready-made was famously established in 1913 at the first Armory Show in New York, with the exhibition of an overturned urinal, re-imagined as a fountain. Thus the artist becomes a transformer of the sensational much in the same way a priest dignifies the story of creation.  Duchamp’s “Comb” (Peigne) (1916, 1964) sits solemnly on a pedestal, without knowing, a priori, its spawn of consequential associations.

Like our present condition, Duchamp felt like there was too much mystique surrounding art.  The ready-made was part of an anti-art program perpetrated by an avant-garde to challenge accepted knowledge of things, painting in particular.  Duchamp abandoned his anti-art agenda and turned his intellectual pursuits to chess instead, leaving the art world to dwell on quotes like “Three or Four Drops of Height [or Haughtiness] Have Nothing to Do with Savagery; M.D. Feb 17 1916 11 a.m.”  Years later, he told Calvin Tomkins, “I don’t believe in [art] with all the trimmings, the mystic trimming and the reverence trimming and so forth.” (1)

The challenge of painting and its joy in creation is so perfectly presented in Rene’s Magritte’s “La Clairvoyance” of 1936, that there is not much more to say about it.  This time the egg is on the pedestal not the comb, as it takes on a life of its own.

MagitteMimesis

Yoko Ono has recently received the great honor of a one woman exhibition at MoMA, which opens in May 2015.  Ono’s early works between 1960 and 1971 created a lasting impression on culture throughout the world as does her art now.   “Sky TV” (1966), is an old Sony television on a simple stand with a live feed from a video camera pointed at the atmosphere above the Gallery. I had a very primary experience with the work having no clue who the artist was nor the nature of the work.  I was overwhelmed with a sense of quaint nostalgia, nearly transfixed, bending down to square my jaw with this old Sony as if I was a ten year old in front of  “That’s Incredible.”  I recognized the sky as static, like a dream encapsulated, having no idea it was a moving image.  This is the endearing eccentricity of Yoko Ono, a captivating sense of surprise and unadulterated vision.  The very notion of taking something so vast and brilliant as the sky and boxing it in a literal sense, is a great conceptual transformation.  This transmission of faith is the very noumenon Kant is talking about when he says man can’t know the thing-in-itself.

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Installation View of the Exhibition “The Thing and The Thing-in-Itself” Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery

Mr. Hobbs curated the first retrospective of artist Robert Smithson’s works at the Whitney Museum in 1981 that went on to become the United States’ official representation at the Venice Biennial and essentially put the earth artist firmly on the map.  The curator has chosen for this exhibition a perfect exemplar of irony in art, “Non-site: Line of Wreckage (Bayonne, New Jersey.) Dislocation being a hallmark of Smithson’s practice, this work subverts our understanding of the “thing” in question transforming Bayonne to a theoretical non-site, thus unknowable and at the heart of Kant’s “Ding an sich.”

In 1970, Smithson was interviewed by Paul Cummings and stated, “The nonsite exists as a kind of deep three dimensional abstract map that points to a specific site on the surface of the earth.  And that’s designated by a kind of mapping procedure…these places are not destinations; they kind of [are] backwaters or fringe areas.” (2)

View of Manhattan from Bayonne, 1974

View of Manhattan from Bayonne, 1974 Photo Credit: Alexander Hope

Whatever the case may be, Smithson is challenging our sense of location, to “un-think” a place, the very opposite of Ono’s “Sky TV” and its projection of place in space and time.

This marriage of the physical and the conceptual is carried forward by Smithson’s contemporary, Joseph Kosuth, who comes from a more epistemological approach away from the Kantian indifference. Curator Robert Hobbs begins his essay on “Joseph Kosuth Early Works” with a quote by Nietzsche.  It is worth quoting here in its entirety.

“There is no world when there is no mirror is an absurdity. But all our relations, as exact as they may be, are of descriptions of man, not of the world: these are the laws of that supreme optics beyond which we cannot possibly go. It is neither appearance nor illusion, but a cipher in which something unknown is written – quite readable to us, made, in fact, for us: our human position towards things. This is how things are hidden from us.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (3)
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Installation View “The Thing and The Thing-in-Itself” Courtesy of Andrea Rosen

Kosuth’s “Glass Words Material Described” (1965) is closely related to Smithson’s post-structuralist practice, a coincidence of theoretical popularity of the time, reinforcing Kant’s notion of  “humans only know things in the world through space and time.”  Our experience dictates perception.  Kosuth does his best to break it all down with words and material, a poetic super structure.  Art is not a science, it can’t prove anything, but the metaphor has meaning beyond the literal, beyond the semantic to the self contained Ding an sich of meaning.  It is helpful to quote Susan Sontag here, “All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content.  This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning- the latent content- beneath.  For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) – all are treated as occasions for interpretation.” (4)

The exhibition concludes with a veritable monolith of all Abstract Expressionist art, an early “black” canvas by Ad Reinhardt.  Reinhardt was working towards casting out any impurities from these so called “ultimate” paintings.  Much in the same as Duchamp, his “Art as Art” philosophy was a reaction to the mythical trapping and trimming of painting at the time.  That being said, his work is a return to a religious sense of contemplation. In this way the modern artist reflects on the spiritual in a secular age in the same way John McCracken does now.  This is how far essentially we have come from Kant’s “Ding an sich,” and taking god out of the equation.

We have now a profusion of non-contemplative art, the end of painting as Reinhardt predicated.  We are somewhat suffocated by the trimmings and the weight of cultural inheritance, the “revenge of the intellect.”  Reinhardt overcame this, as Barbara Rose explains in her editor note to Reinhardt’s book of writings “Art-as-Art:” “Eventually he posited his conception of an art renewed in “spirituality” in its rigorous discipline and unchanging form against the demands of the market for a decorative art and the media for a sensational art. The black square paintings are thus like the changeless Buddha image Reinhardt studied: static, lifeless, timeless – a form of the Absolute. The search for the timeless and the absolute, began with Plato and the various modern forms of neo-Platonic Idealism from Kant to Mondrian, ended for Reinhardt with the abstract, black “mandala.” (5)

In all of this is the realization of what a tremendous privilege it is to make art.  We regain the experience in contemplation of it.  Congratulations to Andrea Rosen and her team on 25 years.

-JSB

Footnotes
1. Jed Perl, “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” The New York Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2014
2. Robert Smithson, “Mapping Dislocations,” James Cohan Gallery, New York, Press Release  http://www.robertsmithson.com/ex_events/mapping_dislocations01.htm
3. Robert Hobbs, “Joseph Kosuth Early Works In Neither Appearance, Nor Illusion” New York, Sean Kelly, 2008 http://roberthobbs.net/essay_files/Joseph_Kosuths_Early_Work.pdf
4. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation and Other Essays,” (Farrar Staus and Giroux, 1961), 7
5. Edited by Barbara Rose, “Art-as-art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt”, (University of California Press, 1991), 185