Con­cep­tu­al Artist Joseph Kosuth

Kate Holden
The Saturday Paper, 28/10/2017
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.” I’M A REAL­LY OPIN­ION­AT­ED SON OFBITCH. SOFOUGHT FOR CER­TAIN IDEAS THAT MAT­TERED TO ME.”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 56most­ly 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”.
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