End of story: The Pavilion of Babel/ Dan Graham & Joseph Kosuth

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
art2. 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
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
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
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
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 world13.
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
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 artistarchitect
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
6 http://www.squirrel.com.au/~barberr/gems3.html
7 http://www.squirrel.com.au/~barberr/gems3.html
8 Kosuth, Joseph, Painting versus Art versus Culture in : Art after
Philosophy and after: Collected writings, 1966-1990, MIT Press, 1991, p. 92
9 http://www.squirrel.com.au/~barberr/gems3.html
10 Nonomura, Fumihori, Manga Dan Graham Story, in Brouwer, Marianne (ed).
Dan Graham. Works 1965-2000. Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001, p.387
11 http://www.diabeacon.org/exhibs/graham/rooftop/essay.html
12 http://www.diabeacon.org/exhibs/graham/rooftop/essay.html
13 http://www.nyfa.org/level4.asp?id=121&fid=1&sid=51&tid=167
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