Just a Thing

When Marcel Duchamp displayed an overturned urinal known as Fountain, the first in a series of readymades, at a New York art show circa 1917, it set the precedent for an era where art came to prioritize ideas over aesthetics. 

Nearly a century later, academic and curator Robert Hobbs has set out to explore the Kantian philosophical tenet of “the thing”–humans’ experience of an object, versus “the thing-in-itself”–its intrinsic nature, beyond human perception. Honing in on humans’ sensory limitations, Hobbs found Duchamp’s readymades an obvious starting point; Duchamp’s artworks were the first in art history to ascribe value to “the thing,” value that viewers could not sense nor deduce, giving rise to a separate, conceptual “thing-in-itself.” Art was no longer solely about what met the eye. From Duchamp onward, Hobbs traced a line to seven 20th-century masterpieces that each touch on the notion that the full truth of an object is unknowable (or at least indiscernible without supplemental explanation). The culmination of his efforts, an exhibition aptly titled “The Thing and Thing-in-Itself,” opens tonight at Andrea Rosen Gallery.

For an example of a readymade, Hobbs acquired Duchamp’s Comb (Peigne) (1916, 1964), a steel dog grooming comb with an inscription reading “3 ou 4 gouttes de hauteur n’ont rien a faire avec la sauvagerie; M.D. Feb. 17 1916 11 a.m.” (“3 or 4 drops of height [or haughtiness] have noting to do with savagery”), which is “this very elliptical statement,” Hobbs says. “You know, what the hell does this mean?” he continues. In other words, it effectively outwits the viewer’s grasp of “the thing.” 

Hobbs also chose a work by René Magritte titled La Clairvoyance (1936). “Magritte sets up, rather than solves, enigmas and so the whole point of the work is the mystery, the conundrum, the puzzle,” he explains. A black canvas called Abstract Black (1954) by Ad Reinhardt also confounds the viewer. “It’s really at the limits of vision. You look at it and start thinking, ‘I’m not seeing this, my mind’s imagining it!'” Hobbs says.  Also included in the show are Yoko Ono’s Sky TV (1966), Robert Smithson’s Non-site: Line of Wreckage (Bayonne, New Jersey) (1968), and Joseph Kosuth’s Glass Words Material Described (1965).

Over the years, critical theory has sought to explain works such as these; there are pages upon pages elaborating on “the thing” until merely a fraction of “the thing-in-itself” is revealed. Hobbs composed brief wall texts to help elucidate the meaning of each piece—a neccessary task, yet not a small achievement considering how much he had to boil down. Works like these must be appreciated for the ideas therein, for the point is that they are not just “things,” but rather art objects opening themselves to questions, thoughts and philosophical musings–the unfathomable “thing-in-itself.”