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Tautological self-description

The tautology is the conceptual equivalent of the monochrome. It is the proposition which is necessarily true; stating its truth thus conveys no information. (In Kantian terms: a tautology expresses an analytic judgment.) Prototypical tautologies are the truths of logic and mathematics.

A circular statement may be tautological in that its very form guarantees its truth. ("Dit is Nederlands." "This sentence consists of six words.") Such self-referentially true statements are sometimes presented as visual artworks: painted verbal descriptions which state a self-evident property of the painting itself.

In conceptual art, this strategy is used so often that it is sometimes taken to be the defining characteristic of this artistic genre. Commenting on On Kawara's Date Paintings, Gudrun Inboden asserts: "Dass die einzelne Arbeit nichts mitteilt, was über den ablesbaren Tatbestand hinausginge, und nichts außer sich selbst verkörpert (hier ihre an einen bestimmten Tag geknüpfte Entstehung), ist das spezifische Merkmal von Konzeptkunst." [Cf. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart: On Kawara.]

Self-referential statements need not be tautological. They may be contingently true, contingently false, or paradoxical. The latter case arises when a statement implies its own falsehood; i.e., its circularity is vicious. (The prototype example is the liar paradox: "I am lying now." ) Paradoxical statements constitute a distinct subgenre of conceptual art; we anthologize it on a separate page.


Gerhard Rühm: Ein-wort-tafel, 1955

Timm Ulrichs: Bild, 1972


Ben Vautier: Art, 1958

Roy Lichtenstein: Art, 1962


Joseph Kosuth (From Nine Paintings
with Words as Art
), 1966


Ben Vautier: Rouge, 1958

Sol LeWitt: Red Square, White Letters, 1962


Joseph Kosuth: Wittgenstein's Color, 1989


This piece
is its name.


Tony Conrad, 1961

On Kawara:
Nothing, Something, Everything, 1963.

herman de vries, 1990


Roy Lichtenstein: Masterpiece, 1962

Pieter Engels: Well painted, 1996.


Yannis Kounellis:
Untitled ("Paint"), 1965


Joseph Kosuth:
Nine Paintings with Words as Art, 1966

Mel Ramsden: 100 % Abstract, 1968

Ben Vautier: Toile, 1965


Joseph Kosuth:
Nine Paintings with Words as Art, 1966



Derek Jarman:
Light Sculpture,
ca. 1970


Joseph Kosuth:
"Neon", 1965

Bruce Naumann:
"none sing / neon sign", 1970

Tracey Emin:
Red, White & Fucking Blue, 2004

Reynald Drouhin: Keyword, 2006

Ben Vautier, 1966

Mel Bochner: Measurement Room, 1969 (detail)


William Anastasi, 1967

Arman: Accumulation, 1973 (detail)

herman de vries, 1991

Fred Eerdekens: The image as distance between name and object, 1991.

Lawrence Weiner:"A translation from one language to another / Een vertaling van de ene taal naar de andere", 1996.

Ceal Floyer:
Reserved/Reversed, 2005

Erik Dietman: "Pain", 1967

Mathieu Mercier:
"Caractères", 2001

Jenny Holzer:
"Scrivendi sui muri di notte", 2003


Stefan Brüggemann:
"Looks Conceptual", 1999

Annika Stroem:
"This work refers to Joseph Kosutt", 2004



Trivial self-description

Bordering on the tautological, there are self-referential artworks which convey unremarkable (but contingent) information about themselves.


Billy Apple:
For Sale, 1960

Bjarne Melgaard:
Untitled, 2004

Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux:
"Profitez-en – l'art est encore en vente libre!", 2005

Matthieu Lorette:
"Let's make lots of money", 2005

Annika Ström:
"This piece is made to support me"


Robert Morris:
Box with the sound of its own making, 1961


John Baldessari:
A painting that is its own documentation, 1968


Lewis Carroll: "the country itself, as its own map".

“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

“About six inches to the mile.”

“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

”Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893 [Chapter XI: The Man in the Moon.]



As the tautology is the redundant proposition, the self-representing image is the redundant sign. This kind of vacuous mimesis is displayed, for instance, by Marcel Duchamp's readymades, Aleksandr Rodchenko's monochromes, and Jasper Johns' flags. (Self-denotation constitutes by no means the only possible interpretation of these works one, but it is the most parsimonious one. Noting that the very emptiness of these works invites hallucinatory over-interpretation, one may decide to decline the invitation.)

Joseph Kosuth acknowledged the connection between pop and conceptual art: "And in Jasper Johns' work – such as his 'Target' and 'Flag' paintings and his ale cans – one has a particularly good example of art existing as analytical proposition." [ "Art after Philosophy, Part II." Studio International, November 1969, p. 161.]

Arthur Danto: "Some interesting attempts in contemporary art have been made, pre-eminently, I think, by Jasper Johns, to collapse the distance between vehicle and content, making the properties of the thing shown coincident with the properties of the vehicle, and hence destroying the semantical space between reality and art. Needless to say, I regard all such attempts as logically foredoomed." [In: "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Winter, 1974), pp. 139--148 (p. 148).]


Cornelis Gijsbrechts:
Canvas, 1670

Marcel Duchamp:
Porte-bouteilles, 1914

Aleksandr Rodchenko:
Pure Blue Color, 1921

René Magritte:
La Belle Captive, 1931

Jasper Johns:
Flag, 1954-55

Robert Indiana: Zero, 1964

Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin:
Map of an area of dimension 12''x12'' indicating 2.304 1/4" squares (Map of itself), 1967 (detail).

This 'map' has no correspondence with anything else but itself in terms of the spatial indices. It is 'the country itself'.

Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison, Mel Ramsden:
Art & Language in Practice. Vol. 1. Illustrated Handbook.

Catalogue Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Barcelona, 1999.





Tautology in Software Art

Patrick May: Lightswitch, 2000. A self-documenting web-page.

RiXtA (3SC): Self Disassembler, 2000. A program which prints out its own code.
(Assembly code for MSDOS. Download here.)

More tautological and self-denoting works by:

      René Magritte

      Ben Vautier

      Jasper Johns

      Robert Indiana

      William Anastasi  

      On Kawara

      Joseph Kosuth

      Mel Bochner

      Stefan Brüggemann

Tautology: Related genres

      Redundant Photography  

      Redundant Video

      Art About Art

      Measurement Pieces



Is all art tautological?

      Discussion at the end of the Kosuth page

Compiled by Remko Scha, 2002-2008

Jochem van der Spek suggested one of the links.