What Conceptual Art Owes to Psychoanalysis

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The New York Sun

At the center of Franz West’s “Liege” (1989) stands a 5-footlong iron couch whose smooth, gently sloping surface culminates in the upward curve of a headrest. The work, one of 13 from the Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna currently on view at the Austrian Cultural Forum, contains two other elements: the white pedestal supporting the sculpture, which both establishes it as art and distances it from the viewer, and a piece of paper whose single German sentence contradicts the pedestal, declaring: “‘Liege’ does not become art until you lie on it.”

By accepting this invitation, the viewer not only completes Mr. West’s work, but also reenacts the opening gambit of Freudian analysis: the leap of faith by which the patient crosses the threshold of the analyst’s office and assumes his position on the couch. “Liege” is an artwork about trust and the surrender of visual control. Though the viewer begins by examining the iron sculpture, he ends up staring at the empty ceiling, a blank screen on which to project his desires and fears while the couch’s cool metal surface supports his reclining body. Though not visual, this experience is profoundly sensual. Like the ideal analyst, Mr. West’s sculpture is a silent, unseen, but deeply felt presence.


For 15 years after its opening in 1971, the Freud Museum Vienna was an unchanging memorial to the inventor of psychoanalysis. It consisted of a scholarly library and his restored office at Berggasse 19, where he worked from 1891-1938. In 1986, the Freud family donated the adjoining private apartment, and the museum widened its mission. In 1989, Joseph Kossuth, a leading theorist and practitioner of 1960s conceptual art, created an installation in the space. Since then, several contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Marc Goethals, Jenny Holzer, Ilya Kakokov, and Mr. West – all of whom could loosely be described as conceptualists – have also donated works to the museum.

Critics of conceptual art dismiss its products as overly theoretical, elitist, and visually inert. But the great strength of this exhibition is the way it reconsiders conceptualism as a whole. Surprisingly varied and generally accessible, the works on view all cast Freud as an intellectual and spiritual forefather to the movement – a role typically assigned to Marcel Duchamp. In this context, they become much more than dry theory and esoteric scholastic puzzles. The allusion to Freud reveals conceptualism’s metaphorical and expressive content, highlighting its method of directly engaging the viewer.


Mr. Kossuth is represented here by “O.&A./F!D! (TO I.K. AND G.F.)” (1987), an installation that greets visitors immediately after they enter the gallery. As in Mr. Kossuth’s iconic 1960s pieces, a blown-up fragment of printed text is affixed to the wall, in this case, a page from Freud’s 1899 masterpiece “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Leaning against the wall and obscuring the lower right section of the page is a framed vertical photograph depicting the interior hallway and door of an apartment. The photograph’s lower right corner is blocked in turn by a horizontal rectangle bearing a brief, second text: “A boundary here is between an independent ‘thing’ and its selection and substitution.”

In this work, the artist relates Freud’s theory of dreams – that dreams ex press subconscious desires through coded, or substituted, objects – to Duchamp’s notion, embodied in his readymades, that art consists solely of an artist’s selection, and that aesthetic qualities and technique are superfluous. Following Freud and Duchamp, Mr. Kossuth is saying that a “thing” can be separated from its underlying, sometimes hidden, intention.


Mr. Goethals’s black-and-white photograph-cum-collage “Le Nom-du-Pere” (1996) depicts two goats – one black, the other white, horned, and wearing a link chain around his neck – standing beneath the protective shade of a tree. Also sharing the tree’s embrace is a concrete water tank, on which the artist has pasted a cutout photograph of an extended finger. Metaphorically allusive and strangely affecting, this image is also a subtle, believable dream vision; in fact, it is more successfully Freudian than such classic Surrealist works as Salvador Dali’s orgiastic fantasyscapes and Rene Magritte’s visual paradoxes.

Mr. Kabakov’s installation “The Man Who Flew Into His Picture” (1987-89) blends the intellectual richness of Mr. Kossuth’s work and the participatory nature of Mr. West’s, welcoming the viewer to sit down and read three stories. The principal objects in the installation – a table, two chairs, and a trestle – were all left in Freud’s apartment by those who inhabited the space after he fled Nazi-held Vienna in 1938, and thus are laden with hidden memories.

The trestle divides the space. On one side are a chair, the table, and the stories. Opposite, the second chair stands in isolation, though a wooden board, painted white, adorns the wall beyond it. To one side of the board, the viewer gradually discerns a tiny male figure, tilted at a 45-degree angle. Small and indistinct, this man is easily mistaken for an inadvertent mark, but his presence seems to grow as one reads the stories and contemplates the work. Whether interpreted as a representation of the artist or the viewer, he becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.

Like many other works in this excellent exhibition, Mr. Kabakov’s layered installation, with its multiple interpretations, is a sort of love poem to Freud. Intelligent and complex, it stands as a tribute to the Viennese psychologist’s intricate vision of the human soul.

Until July 8 (11 E.52nd Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212-319-5300).

The New York Sun

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