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Allen Ruppersberg, ‘Kunstkammer’, 1991/2005, the 1991 installation view at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

This is a retrospective of an American artist who has been prominent since graduating from art school in LA in the late 1960s. I responded to it in contrasting ways, which I’ll try and reconcile as I go along.

I’ve never come across an artist who has been so consistently stimulated by the written word, literature in particular. There are works here in homage to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the French writer Raymond Roussel, Oscar Wilde, DH Lawrence and more.

Certainly, I got much pleasure from viewing and considering the artist’s copies and appropriations.The trouble is, as a first generation conceptual artist, Ruppersberg has a tendency to bludgeon ‘the idea’ at the expense of other things. There’s an installation called ‘Remainders: Novel, Sculpture, Film’. Basically it’s a pile of different hard-backed books (all professionally made to the artist’s instructions) on a table. That’s the sculpture element. Pick up any of the books and flick through it and you get an impression of consecutive frames in a film. In the show’s accompanying publication there are three pages of Ruppersberg’s densely argued notes, justifying each of the many essentially arbitrary decisions made to come up with the work, which is about the blurring of art forms that were once distinct. The ‘concept’ seems overworked. These explanatory notes made me feel even less comfortable with a work that was already making me feel uneasy, having seen it, touched it and first thought about it.

Maybe the difficulty is that in this retrospective, several installations that were originally displayed on their own are brought together, so that inevitably there is a density of ideas that is not compatible with a single contemplative stroll around the gallery supplemented by a quick read. And perhaps in an effort to get around a related problem, ‘These Fragments …’ (which dominates the main space of the gallery) takes various multiples and mixed media pieces from 1968 to 2003, and mounts them on plinths consisting of brightly painted theatre furniture. This lends a superficial coherence, but does not totally resolve the issue that there is an awful lot of stuff around: words, drawings, ideas, sculptures, art world references, trains of thought, personal obsessions, books, books, books.

Much more successful is the show’s first room, where the curation allows three distinct installations to bounce off each other in a thoroughly engaging way. Floor tiles spell out a tribute to seven individuals from across the arts who died in 1997, Ginsberg being one. Then, on a wall alongside, hundreds of colourful posters phonetically spell the text of Ginsberg’s visionary poem ‘Howl’. This is done so effectively that the poet’s words of discontent seem to boom out in the gallery. Then again, on the opposite wall, in ‘Where’s Al?’ from 1972, Al (either Ruppersberg or Ginsberg in this context) has gone missing from the beach party in California. ‘Where’s Al?’ asks a sentence on one of the typed cards in between Polaroids. And another answers: ‘Probably sitting in some coffee shop on Hollywood Boulevard.’

Where’s Al? The retrospective gives you more likely answers to that question. For 16 years he was in a studio in Manhattan. When he left it, he took photographs of the book-lined room and used the information in the images to replace the 1911 Harvard publication Five Foot Shelf of Books with his own 50-volume version. Instead of the text-packed classics, you get a few printed notes at the beginning of each facsimile volume, then blank pages with the odd obituary inserted between them. I’m drawn to it, but would need to spend a lot longer with it to explore all the issues it raises concerning knowledge, ego, wisdom, library and cultural arrogance.

Where’s Al? Well, he spent some of the 1990s in Europe and three projects are represented by parts of the original installations. For instance, he was commissioned to make a work for a show in Arnhem, commemorating the battle fought there in 1944. For this he reprinted 100 copies of each of five books for each of the four nations whose armies were involved. Books that might have been read by the soldiers who died in the bloodbath.

Where’s Al? He’s everywhere and nowhere. Maybe not such a bad place for fellow readers, art-lovers and citizens to poke around in.

Duncan McLaren is an arts writer