In the wake of the massive "Global Conceptualism" exhibition at the Queens Museum this summer, two smaller exhibitions of Conceptual art have taken a more focused retrospective tone at century's end. At P.S. 1 in Queens, the British art group Art & Language put together a kind of wailing wall of socialism. And at American Fine Arts in SoHo, Silvia Kolbowski has a video and audio installation that monumentalizes the artists' tête-á-tête.
Art & Language's project was a backward look at their own history. Titled "The Artist Out of Work," the installation began as impenetrable propaganda and ended up decorative -- the first room contained ranks of gray index cabinets, the long central gallery was hung with framed posters, texts and journal covers, and the final room was filled with a structure of brightly colored canvases.
Although the show consisted of work from 1972 to 1981, we couldn't call it a retrospective since organizers Michael Corris and Neil Powell wouldn't have it. They stand against such "teleological conventions," and if you wanted an "ABC of Art & Language," you'll just have to "ask yourself why."
The A&L group, which began publishing their at first abstruse and later polemical journal in England in 1968, were important early players in Conceptual art, taking a central role in its politicization during the later 1970s. The objects that were on display in this show date from the period when the group embraced a strident left-wing point of view. Some journeyed to Newark to join black poet Amiri Baraka's Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union, M-L-M (that's Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse Tung Thought, for you young 'uns).
But even before politics, Art & Language was addicted to theory, analytical philosophy and the history of science. From this mix they confected dense, elliptical texts-as-art, work that culminated in the Index of 1972 at Documenta V, a work exhibited here. Their New York journal The Fox (bankrolled by Joseph Kosuth and edited by Sarah Charlesworth) inspired Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson to found October.
The rabid polemics exchanged during this period included the salty, colorful and ad hominem characterizations that foreshadowed the ways of today's L.A.-based art journal Coagula. That frenzied climate of intellectual "seriousness" is charmingly evoked here in antique battle photos altered to depict a literal culture war, as tommies assault an "Institute of Semiotic Research" (A&L called semiotics "the French disease").
Although this show includes flags, posters and paintings, text was A&L's principle product. And regardless of their often perversely inaccessible arguments, the way the group works the reader/viewer in these rooms is often masterful.
At American Fine Arts, Silvia Kolbowski's installation "An Inadequate History of Conceptual Art" is also retrospective, but here there are no objects. It's only sound and image, Godard's constituent elements of film, each in its own room.
In the front gallery is a large, wall-sized video projection of a series of mostly middle-aged hands, gesturing or static. These are the hands of artists recorded as they talk, at Kolbowski's request, about the Conceptual art work that most impressed them (not their own).
In the other room, a wall-mounted CD player fills the room with the artists' narratives. Clean, succinct and immaterial, it's a bright way to display what could be a book in progress.
Kolbowski's "history" also presents "idea art" in what has to be its purest form, as a story, a retailed memory, a conversational performance of recollection.
As a Conceptual artist, Kolbowski is a "neo," and these two simultaneous "historical" presentations reveal the differing substrata of media behind two generations' approach to the "style." Based in film, Kolbowski's installation seems like a natural for a digital book, while Art & Language remains journal-bound, as they started. They revere the wall, which is packed here frame-to-frame and includes one of their famous Pollock imitations that contains a hidden portrait of Lenin. Their work has all along been romancing painting.