Graham & Kosuth “Pavilion of Babel”

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Blerina Berberi, The Netherlands, 2005

Dan Graham and Joseph Kosuth

End of story:

The Pavilion of Babel

Conceptual art is commonly stated to have started around 1960. Robert Hughes wrote that the ‘sparkle’ of conceptual art is Robert Rauschenberg, who invested in the assumption of art existing anywhere in whatever form, material and for any purpose and destination such as in his telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”[1]. Furthermore, Robert Rosenblum stated that artists after 1960 ‘owned’ to Rauschenberg the challenging of restrictions of art and the belief in all life is open to art[2]. Rauschenberg also referred to Marcel Duchamp and the use of “readymades”. His influences were also interfused with those theories of Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. He wasn’t the only one to ignite the ideas about conceptual art.

The basic definition of conceptual art lies in its conception since according to Duchamp “All art is conceptual because art only exist conceptually”[3]. But conceptual art doesn’t completely get away with the object since some artists such as Dan Graham tried to establish a new relation between object and idea, physicality and meaning. According to Williams conceptual art is less a movement and more a “reorientation of artistic strategy”.

During 1965-1975, the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands had its ‘doors’ wide open to the new works of conceptual art. The exhibition of such artworks depended a lot on the director of the museum, co-workers, and other political and economical factors. These experimental and technological artworks were welcomed while diminishing the traditional and conventional disciplines. The different forms of visual representation, such as films, videos, photography were consolidated in the idea of challenging the concept of art and the values of visual manifestations.[4]

The social and political circumstances of the 60s and 70s ‘encouraged’ the young generation to question most of traditional forms and beliefs concerning society, museums, and above all art. This ‘reorientation of artistic strategy’ or as Kosuth might say “new methotodology” breeds a wide range of different artworks still under the same conception on conceptual art.

But how black and white is this?

‘Analytical’ artists, such as Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language group, rejected the pre-established notion of art, its theory and practice. The basic change was the dematerialization of art works. Joseph Kosuth’s works rejected formalist and aesthetic views demonstrating it in his art theory in his works. One of his works in 1965, One and Nine- A description, is a series of ten identical glass sheets, showing different words describing the quality of the same object: clear, glass, square, etc. His idea was that the essence of something is shown by “an idea contained in language”. This was an artwork neither a sculpture or painting. It was formless and colorless. In his First Investigations, represented definitions of different words taken from dictionaries, on the basis of stating that language ‘pertains’ concepts such as meaning. Therefore no forms needed to represent ideas. The Van Abbe Museum catalogue states:

“By bringing language into the context of visual, Kosuth was able to replace the pictorial image with a linguistic definition”[5]

Kosuth’s works are titled Art as Idea as Idea which express his viewpoint on the artwork as concept, since that is all that’s important. The basic shift in his thinking about art was its context. The main idea of Art as Idea as Idea was changing the idea of art itself. New forms can’t be formed but new meanings yes. He explains:

“So I felt that all art was abstract in relation to cultural meaning, in the way that the noises we utter called words are meaningful in relation to a linguistic system, not in relation to the world”[6]

He also found that “there was more of a transcultural response to achromatic color-black, white, and gray-than to the chromatic scale, which had a much more marked difference among specific individuals as well as between cultures”[7].

Kosuth advocates not to make art for its own sake because that is dependent on its tradition for meaning, through form, which speaks to itself. Furthermore, he states that language as a cultural system is parallel to art, by being both useful in theory and practice. Therefore, ambiguity on art’s role is something that is part of the culture, language. More explicitly he states:

“I choose language for the ‘material’ of my work because it seemed to be the only possibility with the potential for being a neutral non-material; considering the transparency of language meant it use in art would, in a sense, allow us to ‘see’ art, while still focusing on the social/cultural context it’s dependent upon for meaning…art would tell us something about our art by being our art..”[8]

Regarding his new ‘methotodology’ that artists should consider, he expresses his position in relation to art institutions, politics and society. He says that “institutionalized ‘individualism’ divides us”. In this case he is referring to museums and art market whose role is considered to be negative in the evaluation, categorization, appreciation of art and the social connections in a society. He also wanted his works that by the use of the labels one person can read at a time. Therefore each individual would feel at ease “looking” or rather say reading his artworks, contrary to the crowd in front of Mona Lisa’s in Louver. Another important issue for Kosuth is that artists should talk and explain their works more than critics, since critics’ position is different and might lead to a variety of misinterpretations.

The ‘famous’ concern of many artists is something, which according to him is a simple choice if you understand the mass population of the world. He states:

“…there’s a lot more dumb people out there than there are smart ones, so if your goal in life is to be popular, and/or rich, the choice isn’t a difficult one”[9].

Briefly, Kosuth main characteristics are his new ideas on the conception and context of art, in relation to language, culture, society, institutions, politics, etc.

But what about other conceptual artists? How different were they? The difference between Kosuth and some other American conceptual artists, is that the Americans were a bit keen on Minimalist art, something which Kosuth disliked.

Is it possible that different conceptualist artists, even though their artworks are so different, can be compatible conceptually?

During the late 60s, Dan Graham came up with his Magazine Pieces where their ideological and cultural context eliminated the unambiguous. Those magazines weren’t just presented as artworks but also as art criticism. Thus his art magazines weren’t ‘merchandise’ since artworks are reproduced in magazines. In 1969 Dan Graham started focusing on performance, film and video art. His main interest lied in processes of perception, social and psychological aspects between the artist, audience and surroundings. Furthermore, he was one of the first to use video not just for recording but to expose the viewer’s conditioned behavior. In his Yesterday/Today 1975 a monitor was placed in the museum and the audience could see different scenes and people in the other rooms of the museum live, while the sound was recorder one day earlier but at same time. His intention was to show to the public what was hidden to them, the presumed neutrality of such an art institution.

The young Graham, owned a gallery which exhibited works of Sol LeWitt minimalal artist, which later on went bankrupt. In his works he was focused on video and other theories because: “I think about video in terms of its self-reference. It is a kind of mirror that reflects the unconsciousness of the subject”[10].

Later on he gave up films because he couldn’t afford making them. Graham’s interest on the concept of video as mirror, has followed his later works in glass. One of the “latest” and well known artwork is his pavilion on the DIA center in Manhattan 1995 formed of two-way mirrored glass which is transparent and reflective depending on the changes of light. Graham is really into art and architecture and he also studied different European gardens. According to Cooke, the origins of this sculpture-architecture object lies in Minimalism art, which focused on pure forms of physical contexts.[11] The basic function of this project is public rather than private. Furthermore Cooker states on the forms of his pavilion:

“The outer rectilinear structure of this site-specific sculpture makes reference to the city below: to the grid pattern which determines its topography; to the predominance of modernist and modernist-derived architectural styles in its high-rise architecture; and to its framing of the dual character of urban social experience, of seeing and being seen, of spectatorship and spectacle…the viewer cannot escape consciousness of his or her-self image as mirrored in the glass, and hence of his or her agency in the act of vision…Graham’s work speaks much to a phenomenological as to a psychological reading of the self and its constructions”[12].

Furthermore, Cooker in her essay explains that the inner cylinder is formed from the ‘bodies of viewers’ as from the adjacent watertower, a feature of the Manhattan skyline. Graham, himself considers his project as a microcosmos of the whole city, where different social activities take place and people interact. The social participation is related to the understanding of an artwork where looking is an experience of recognizing and contributing to this activity. In the rooftop there is also a lounge/café room where different videos are shown for free or not.

In an interview, Graham states that he is would like to make really large galleries in order for artists not to have competition and feel free to present simple things. He is against art market per se when there is not intellectual interest in the content of art world[13].

Therefore, Graham as a conceptual artists, also at some extent a minimalist one, differs from Kosuth on his representational forms and some ideas, which are mostly psychological due to his ‘fixated’ use of mirrors and glass.

To conclude, the main idea of this paper is that Graham and Kosuth are compatible. Why?

Ernst Gombrich states that in the late 18th century some ideas were centered around primitive and child art, which consisted on the use of language of symbols not natural signs. Thus art grounded not in seeing but knowledge, so art operated with “conceptual images”. For example, kids are satisfied with conceptual scheme of tree not its branch and detailed characteristics. Therefore more important is conceptual construction rather imitation. Gombrich in more details states:

“All art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world rather than in the visible world itself, and it is precisely because all art is “conceptual” that all representations are recognizable by their style”[14]

Conceptual art and pictorial images are just as looking at ‘different angels that still derive the same information’, and there are no correct or false answers. Also, language doesn’t give names but articulates our world of experience so concepts can’t be right or wrong. They can be useful for formation of description.

Therefore, Kosuth on the idea of art as represented by language is ‘looking’ from a different angle form Graham, but still both do derive at same information or idea, conceptual art. More importantly, Kosuth in his early works made use of glass as Graham did in his latest artworks in parks and the one in DIA building. Shortly, the later Kosuth is ‘closer’ to the early Graham. Both of them in general are against some museum conventions and do accept the role and participation of the society and culture as determining and apprehending works of art, though at some extent. Both of them would agree with Gombrich that: “The form of representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency”[15].

Still, while the formless and context of Kosuth refer to language in relation to art, Graham is more an artist-architect whose ‘public service’ of art is more exercised than Kosuth. But most importantly let me explain the title of this paper:

The story starts with the tower of Babel, which was supposed the reach Heaven. But God, in order to stop the workers raising it so high, he confounded their languages so that they were not able to communicate and understand each other so that the project failed.

This story emphasizes the importance of language. Therefore, even though Graham has a different interpretation of his pavilion in DIA, still it is language that made his art work possible. Furthermore interpreting or better say conceptualizing Graham’s psychological and psychoanalytical theories of glass and mirror, it is possible that mirror and self-reflection are somehow related to Narcissistic tendencies. Narcissus who fell in love with his image in the lake, lacked the understanding of the importance of the language. Thus he died because he didn’t communicate through language but “loved the image, object”, so he ignored language, and fate the fatal destruction of not believing in the power of language as building or connecting realities.

Getting back to what is being mirrored and reflected in Graham’s pavilion is not just some people and buildings of the city. What is reflected in that pavilion is what language has created. Therefore Kosuth is right in relating language to art, since the meaning of art is also to be found in language which built the city and the pavilion. Therefore the pavilion is a symbol finalizing the tower of Babel project, which didn’t arrive at heavens but at the highest pure idea of the concept of art.


[1] Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change,Thames & Hudson, ed. 2002, p.334

[2] Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change,Thames & Hudson, ed. 2002, p.334

[3] Williams, Robert, Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004, p.221

[4] Van Abbemuseum. A Companion to Modern and Contemporary Art. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2002, p.106

[5] Van Abbemuseum, A Companion to Modern and Contemporary Art. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2002, p.101

[8] Kosuth, Joseph, Painting versus Art versus Culture in : Art after Philosophy and after: Collected writings, 1966-1990, MIT Press, 1991, p. 92

[10] Nonomura, Fumihori, Manga Dan Graham Story, in Brouwer, Marianne (ed). Dan Graham. Works 1965-2000. Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001, p.387

[14] Gombrich, E.H., Art and Illusion. A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956, p.87.

[15] Gombrich, E.H., Art and Illusion. A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956, p.90

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