Neon in Contextual Play: Joseph Kosuth


After age-old fights between black power, Irish cops and Italian garbage men, New York finally became liveable again; it even turned into the Big Apple, a destination for millionaires and parvenus. Neither a millionaire nor a parvenu, I went there because they had invited me to a memorable night event at Waldorf Astoria. No less a place than Soho, where new art sprang up with such wild and insolent luxuriance, that it convinced everybody that it was the centre of the world, for better or for worse. The event was aimed to celebrate an artist I had never heard about, who – at the early age of thirty-two – plunged his works in the Hudson River and, soon after that, drowned himself with them, in a last, tragic dive into the chilly Spring waters. He wanted to kill himself and his art, which, according to some critics and museum directors, had been characterized by remarkable expressive skills since the beginning. Here is what was written in the invitation, “He was not the kind of artist who looks at a work of art; he was the kind of artist who becomes a part of it.” Almost nothing was left of him, apart from the memories of his friends and admirers, who, that night, wanted to celebrate his merit.

“We request the honour of your presence.” The invitation bore the signatures of a famous artist, who lived with an equally famous porn star, and of the curator, who came from a good museum that was in the ascendant. The fateful event was attended by the elite of Manhattan, as well as by many important American people. A glass of Martini in their hands, the guests chatted easily and gave their opinions: “If he hadn’t committed suicide, he would have become the new Pollock.” “No, no, there is something more incisive about his art, there is accomplished aggressiveness.” Many of them had seen his works. A couple of them had interviewed him. An influential collector owned three large-size paintings by him. They were real collector’s item, according to an art critic from Washington: “he used to paint only medium sized canvases.”

Lastly, the host gave a speech; he thanked us all for attending the event and explained to us that the only death to be remembered that night was that of people’s trust in the others. The painter never existed. But one thing was made clear: in the Big Apple, one just needed to make up something that did not exist to create a myth. Chaos followed. The event showed experts and collectors to be liars, and proved how easy it is for modern art to be turned into “mass self-deception”, especially when fostered by dealers and speculators.

I still wonder if it is really like that. Now that I have grown up, not only do I believe in witches any longer, but I also do not believe in the exaggerated auction prices paid for works by both unknown and even too well established artists. These are figures, not art. Was the undaunted art critic John Berger right, after all?

Umberto Cecchi

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