Organized by seminal conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, ‘Dot, Point, Period,’ a Curated Installation by Joseph Kosuth covers every square foot of wall at the Castelli Gallery’s 40th Street space. A selection of artworks by over 40 artists are dispersed within a continuous string of short texts. This string of text, in a three-inch typeface, follows the gallery’s irregular contours, wrapping around the walls and dodging behind the pilasters, sprinkler pipes, and electrical conduits of the tidy but still raw space.
Embracing the inevitable pandemonium of a project involving 40-plus voices, Kosuth’s art-as-idea expands beyond the unyielding didactic confines of his typical fare and into something more encompassing and open-ended. In addressing the endless possibilities suggested by the exhibition’s pinpoint focus — the small black dot — a complex of poetics, spontaneity, and humor redirects the viewer’s attention from each artwork’s narrow conceptual punchline.
Whether considered as the least one can do with a writing implement, a proto-writing meme of Paleolithic descent, or a semiotic signal that a sentence has ended, a deluge of perspectives spill over the installation’s conceptual sandbags, flooding the room with interpretive possibilities, the sheer variety of which seem uncharacteristic of the genre Kosuth has practiced for decades. And yet the show’s oddly compelling chaos will likely prove familiar to those of us more amenable to conceptual art’s alternative — the art of painting. Dot, Point, Period may be a gathering of concepts, but the overall effect reflects the structure of painting, or any art form dedicated to the intuitive arrangement of parts into a predictable or unpredictable whole.
The entire exhibition feels like a large canvas packed with ambiguity, spontaneous association, instinctive expression and personal idiosyncrasy. Its quasi-randomness brings to mind the work of several contemporary painters, notably Nicole Eisenman, Neo Rauch, and Peter Williams, each of whom embrace complex imagery with the feel of non-sequiturs. By diminishing the singularity of each work in the exhibition, an effect of Kosuth’s role as curator, the result is a painterly spread of provocative ideas combined with an appealing lack of ideological finality.
Consistent with his disdain for formal flourish, Kosuth favors art in gray scale, which here includes drawings, music scores, photographs, prints, and a smattering of wall-mounted sculptures. Only a few paintings dare a bit of color. Each artwork employs dots or circles of some kind, though in certain pieces they are not applied so much as referenced, as in William Wegman’s “On the Ball” (1973–74), a still frame from a video of his beloved Weimaraner toying with a sphere. Other inclusions amplify the dot as an open symbol, for example Damien Hirst’s poker-faced dot painting, “Cytosine-5-H” (2007), and there are instances of dialogue between artworks, like the same Hirst painting, staring down the proportionately cynical “Painting with Detail (Blue)” (1987) by Roy Lichtenstein, on the opposite wall — an example of Lichtenstein’s occasional self-depreciating jokes.
Other works reveal an earnest sense of wonder. Trisha Brown’s “Compass” (2006) records a choreographed pivot on a printer’s plate. Robert Morris’s “Untitled (working in the dark and attempting to place 3000 invisible stars in the night sky)” (1980) hints at enchantment. Tim Rollins & K.O.S.’s “Metamorphosen (after Richard Strauss) #1” (2008), an ink-splattered sheet of score paper, delves empathetically into late Viennese Romanticism.
More lighthearted entries include Richard Artschwager’s, “Dat, Dat, Duh” (2007), an ellipse and an exclamation point made of a painted fibrous material, which seems to revel in its cryptic enthusiasm. The humor in Ed Ruscha’s “Cheese Circle” (1975) is obvious, while Lorna Simpson’s “Polka Dot & Bullet Holes #2” (2016) winks at the viewer while nodding to a bleak reality.
Kosuth’s choice of texts also reflects a wider range than the philosophical fare typically associated with conceptual art. Skipping over a blessedly brief dose of Jacques Derrida, and dutifully recognizing Theodor Adorno’s ruminations on punctuation, I found writings by Willa Cather, James Baldwin, and Samuel Beckett, each infusing an emotional sense into the open space between punctuation marks. Beckett’s How It Is (1961), though not quoted in the exhibition, comes to mind as its 145 pages include no punctuation at all. But it is Baldwin’s quote that proves especially apt in representing the essences of writing and art:
Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.
That one quote — indeed, the word intangible on its own — sums up the significance that art has maintained throughout the ideological push and pull of modernism. Between the gregarious anarchy of spontaneous painting and the confining cerebral focus of conceptual art lies the modernist paradox of seeking unique individual voices in the hope of discovering consensus. It is this paradox that gives the role of curator increased importance as this new century unfolds. Curatorial projects may risk assuming the continued presence of linear threads, as in the Forever Now exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, or choose the relative safety of arbitrary theses, like Dot, Point, Period, which suggests that consensus will remain elusive. Either way, we are left with the strange and growing trend, as Dot, Point, Period attests, of reassigning art’s creative function to the curator.
‘Dot, Point, Period,’ a Curated Installation by Joseph Kosuth continues at Castelli Gallery (24 West 40th Street, Manhattan) through July 20.