As a pioneer of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth’s reflections on the world’s great thinkers glow with deeper meaning. “It’s not about how, it’s about why,” he says. “So I think – not to be vainglorious about it – I instituted, for very selfish reasons, a view of art as something quite different from the inherited tradition.”By Kate Holden.
Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth
Joseph Kosuth is a big man, a big figure in the art world, a big intellectual. He moves in European art circles, New York society circles. His work gleams on the facades of august institutions. At lectures, he is introduced by serious characters with heavy accents, speaking of Freud, of Wittgenstein.
Kosuth wears a beautiful black fedora and carries a silver-topped cane. For 50 years he has been a sage of art, a pioneer of conceptual art, a creative force who, along with his peers, has lifted the idea of art as ornament into one of art as profound philosophy, who married text and image in indelible light signatures behind the eyelids and within the consciousness. He carries heft with him, gravity. This is a serious guy. But on a grey, cool afternoon in Melbourne, jet lagged, hungover, insomniac, and in pain from a recent operation, he is unfailingly courteous and patient and cares deeply about the arrival of some duck bao for lunch.
Kosuth is here for a retrospective at Anna Schwartz Gallery, part of the Melbourne Festival, and to deliver a lecture at the State Library of Victoria. The American artist is in the middle of a “crowded year” – four shows this season; off home to London in a few days, where he mostly lives as the endowed Millard Chair at Goldsmiths, University of London; then immediately to Paris. With a studio in London and another, with a second staff, in New York, he whizzes largely within latitudes of the 40s and 50s, from one European capital to another, attending biennales, forums, fortresses, central train stations, museums and galleries, upon which his assistants affix his hallmark luminous texts spun from glass tubes filled with neon. There is a permanent fixture on the walls of the Louvre, for example. In Figeac, France, the birthplace of Jean-François Champollion, there is a giant replica of the Rosetta Stone deciphered by the French scholar, lying in a courtyard. For this, Kosuth was honoured by the French government with a postage stamp and a knighthood.
What does he make of the prestige? Does he feel tremendously revered? Clad all in black and mixing a correct ratio of ice to sparkling water at the restaurant table, the artist flashes a mordant grin. “You see, you never really understand that. I suppose that in fields where you can get a Nobel prize you can say, ‘Ah, I have achieved something.’ But artists don’t get Nobel prizes. There’s probably a good reason for it.”
It can be intimidating to get past the prestige, the reverence, but Kosuth is a working artist, not a monument. From 1965, when he first read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and, later, a then-rare copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he irritably shrugged off the last vestiges of late Modernism and began to focus on creating art not as object but as a response to what he calls the industrial world’s “meaning-crisis”. Starting with Leaning Glass and its later iterations, in which panes of glass, sometimes printed with words such as “Glass”, “Material” and “Described”, were leant simply against gallery walls, a series of projects have pushed a provocative, lucid emphasis on the tautological. “I was very interested in philosophy,” he says, “and got into it in my late teens. It affected my work in ways I wasn’t completely directly aware of but I can see it now in my work, its tautologies. Then I moved along and I went to the Investigations.”
From here came works such as One and Three Chairs, which has been shown in various manifestations since 1965, consisting, with gorgeous simplicity, of a chair, a full-scale photograph of that exact chair in its current position, and a photostat print of a dictionary definition of “chair”. It is always, as it is reiterated for each exhibition with different chairs and different photographs, accompanied by Kosuth’s diagram instructions, which are an essential part of the installation. Thus a perfect exemplar of sign, signifier and signified: language/reality/representation and their transportability embodied. Such creations emerged in the semiotically excited period of 1960s cultural theory which, building on Wittgenstein, lifted text away from signification, then re-adhered it. All this suggested, with what was huge impertinence at the time, that representation was a fiction to be acknowledged. As Kosuth aphorised in his major manifesto, “Art After Philosophy”, in 1969: “being an artist now means to question the nature of art”. From that point, though, it was through traditional media of installation, photography, wall works and public monuments, he was, as he put it himself, making art which was the idea of art.
“When I was younger in America, the idea was that a painting is something nice to hang over your couch. America has a very strong anti-intellectual tradition, and it’s alright with a painter who’s like a plumber or a carpenter. It takes off from the idea of art schools like trade schools, and it’s about how. But it’s not about how, it’s about why. So I think – not to be vainglorious about it – I instituted, for very selfish reasons, a view of art as something quite different from the inherited tradition.” He shrugs. “It shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s obvious.”
His interventions, such as placing dictionary definitions in the advertising sections of newspapers, helped shoot modern art onto a new trajectory, one in which works are ambiguous riddles, camera obscura in which a received assumption is turned upside down, shrunk, enlarged inside the dark chamber of the viewer’s mind, and reinstituted with an “aha” revelation of the elegance and erudition of the artist’s proposition.
After Marcel Duchamp and his “ready-mades”, it is a world in which an object is “art” as long as it is conceived so, where meaning is embodied in the item as long as it is under consideration; indeed, the object barely needs to exist at all. It is truly not so much art as an expression of inquiry. “What happened was,” and there is a long pause in which to chew a mouthful of fried prawns, “philosophy essentially atrophied in the academy. And it increasingly became a history of philosophy, with very little new creative work being done. And when new things came into print they didn’t call it philosophy; it was called theory. So that was going on. We had a culture where, from many anthropologists’ points of view, the new religion is science. If we want to understand the nature of reality, we don’t go to a rabbi, a monk; we go to a doctor, a physicist – some kind of scientist. And they tell us how reality is constructed. So that would be fine, but it’s a very impoverished kind of religion. It doesn’t really answer the big questions, like death: the things that humans need help with.
“So as a result, advanced industrial society is in a meaning-crisis of tremendous importance. But simultaneously there’s been this activity called art. And both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche both essentially said that art would replace God. Most art, in some way, has a relationship with mass culture that forms our consciousness. So we really learn a lot about our world when we see what artists are doing.” Kosuth’s chopsticks hover as more food arrives. “So while everyone wants to say, ‘Contemporary art is elitist, specialised, arty’, meanwhile more and more kids coming out of university – coming out of high school – want to be artists. More museums are being built for it. Because artists are dealing with our meaning-crisis. Nobody has told them that’s what the job is, but the nature of art is that that’s really what the activity’s about. Anyway. So that’s it.”
In the time since his precocious arrival – Kosuth was 20 in 1965 – he has developed through his own Investigations, as he calls a sequence of preoccupations, a philosophical evaluation of texts that have significance for him. These are long-term projects, thoroughgoing, all-absorbing. For 10 years he “worked with” Freud, or the man’s ideas at least, having analysis, inscribing rooms around the world with blown-up texts from the psychoanalyst’s writing, solemnly crossed out in a tremendous obsession called Zero & Not. Standing in the ur-chamber, Freud’s bedroom, “where he did his dreaming for 36 years”, Kosuth realised that, having formed the work in a dozen cities across the world and made it to the famous bedroom, if he hadn’t finished with him then he never would. He also noticed that Freud’s sister-in-law would have had to come through the analyst’s marital bedroom to go for a night-time pee.
Since the watershed year of 1965, Kosuth has fixed glowing texts to walls to confound and enchant viewers. These are his neons, his best known and most popular works. One, Five Fives (to Donald Judd), spelt out the numbers one to 25 in five lines of five words. Another, most literal example, said, simply, “NEON”.
“When I first used neon,” Kosuth says, “because it was not a fine art material, it didn’t signify art opera. It was a form of public writing, a certain kind of popular association, and it wrote interesting words. And then I wanted to take that and transform it, so it would have a little bit of a trace of its source, but I would use type fonts like Garamond or serif-type fonts that you didn’t find in neon ever. But more to the point, I was trying to construct works of art that were tautologous. The most classic reason to use neon is the work which is neon-electrical-glass-lettering, and then the colour, whatever it is, and then so it would be a complete self-description.”
Kosuth has composed dozens of works of this type since, elaborating the play between form, signifier and meaning, and they adorn everything from Brutalist concrete towers to mediaeval church islands in Venice. In the Melbourne show, a piece reads “Sprache”, meaning “language”, the last word Wittgenstein wrote and then himself crossed out. It is rendered loosely in the philosopher’s hand, glowing like an enormous after-image on the gallery wall. Another, “AN OBJECT SELF-DEFINED”. Another, a reproduction in light of Freud’s handwritten diagram of human sexuality, A Conditioning of Consciousness.
There are quotes from Samuel Beckett, too; another, a representation of language as a diagram of its Indo-European evolution. It is no surprise to find that in his pantheon of early 20th-century intelligentsia Joyce and Nietzsche, too, are hallowed by Kosuth. To lighten the ponderously dead white male mood, he tells a story about how, once he had the keys to Freud’s apartment, his artist friends could only yearn to sneak in there for a quickie in the bedchamber of the oedipal complex.
Kosuth has travelled much, worked hugely, talked and talked his way through lectures and prize acceptances and glamour parties and exhibition openings. He reads hundreds of books a year and has published 56 – “mostly catalogues”, he says, modestly. He tips big. His works are shining, this very minute, on some of the most famous buildings of the world. After a lifetime of reducing thick philosophical tomes to panes of clear glass, gleaming lines of light, a chair against a wall, he still enjoys mischief, the droll, telling the wonderful anecdotes.
“I’m a really opinionated son of a bitch,” he says. “So I fought for certain ideas that mattered to me, that weren’t shared by others, that weren’t being constituted by reality, and worked to make that happen.”
The light-trace will fade eventually, the neons die, but the neat metaphors will remain. Kosuth will probably still be thinking, making the abstract lucid, gazing through a clean pane of glass in a white gallery room.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Kosuth saying". Subscribe here.