Joseph Kosuth: The artists at the top of the bil­lion­aires’ lists are quite derivative’

Stephanie Convery
The Guardian, 14 October 2017
Joseph Kosuth was 24 in 1969 when he wrote his sem­i­nal essay, Art After Phi­los­o­phy. It’s a sta­ple of art the­o­ry class­es every­where these days, but when I ask him about it, he imme­di­ate­ly reminds me how young he was back then. I threw a lot of things in and maybe not quite as thought­ful­ly as I could have,” he says. At 72, the Amer­i­can con­cep­tu­al artist is just as forth­right and opin­ion­at­ed as he was when he was writ­ing agit­prop art the­o­ry” as a self-described wun­derkind – though now he is bol­stered by more than 50 years of a high-pro­file artis­tic career. Fre­quent­ly self-ref­er­en­tial, con­cerned with lan­guage, phi­los­o­phy and the nature of art itself, Kosuth’s works pio­neered the use of text – of words, lan­guage – as visu­al art. One of the key fig­ures in the con­cep­tu­al art move­ment of the 1960s, who reject­ed a con­ven­tion­al under­stand­ing of art in favour of focus­ing on the ideas behind the work, he has main­tained a career as a cura­tor and writer as his pieces have been exhib­it­ed across the world, fea­tur­ing in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of major muse­ums with career ret­ro­spec­tives trav­el­ling across Europe. So Kosuth is rea­son­ably sur­prised when, sit­ting on a met­al stool at one end of a stark, white­washed room cov­ered in his works in Flinders Lane, Mel­bourne, I tell him that his art – which has not been seen much in Aus­tralia – is rel­a­tive­ly new to me. Dar­ling, how did you man­age to avoid me all these years?” he exclaims. Kosuth has a gruff man­ner – accen­tu­at­ed per­haps by the fact that he is slight­ly hard of hear­ing this week” – but he is engag­ing and opin­ion­at­ed. He is known for hav­ing high-pro­file con­nec­tions, and when con­ver­sa­tion turns to pol­i­tics, the anec­dotes begin to flow. There was the time actor Vanes­sa Red­grave would pound on my door and sit in my kitchen and go on and on, try­ing to con­vince me to join her rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers’ par­ty – oh mon dieu!” he says, putting his head in his hands. Then there was his ances­tor, Lajos Kos­suth, who played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the Hun­gar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion of 1848, and who cor­re­spond­ed and ulti­mate­ly fell out with Karl Marx. And gave away some thou­sands of hectares! My inher­i­tance! Gave away to the Hun­gar­i­an peo­ple!” Kosuth laments. Which is fine – I did fine with­out it, thank you very much.” When it comes to art, though, he is seri­ous: Artists make mean­ing; that’s what we do,” he says. Kosuth’s own brand of mean­ing-mak­ing is most often rep­re­sent­ed by his most well-known work, One and Three Chairs (1965), in which a chair, a pho­to­graph of that chair, and the dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion of the word chair” are installed side-by-side. A Short His­to­ry of My Thought’, cur­rent­ly on show for Mel­bourne fes­ti­val at Anna Schwartz Gallery, is per­haps the ide­al entry point for a Kosuth novice. Com­pris­ing main­ly neon, lan­guage-focused pieces made between the mid-1960s and a cou­ple of years ago, the exhi­bi­tion is less a ret­ro­spec­tive than a judi­cious sam­pling of a career built on ques­tion­ing the very nature of art itself. Kosuth ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed his art prac­tice with teach­ing, until it began to make enough mon­ey to sus­tain itself. But younger artists, he says, seem to be par­tic­u­lar­ly influ­enced by com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, uncon­scious­ly con­flat­ing artis­tic worth with finan­cial val­ue. He is scathing of those who are stu­pid enough” to think that the answer to who is the most expen­sive?” can also answer the ques­tion who is the best?”  Those artists at the top of the list of bil­lion­aires’ [col­lec­tions] are rather quite deriv­a­tive artists,” he says. Then: They’re friends of mine, so I won’t say spe­cif­ic ones. But I watch this phe­nom­e­non and they cite me as their child­hood hero some­times and I don’t know what to do with that.” By way of explain­ing how sti­fling com­mer­cial con­sid­er­a­tions can be to art, he points across the room to where Dou­ble Read­ing #12 is hang­ing – a work com­prised of a Blondie car­toon and a quote from the philoso­pher Got­tfried Wil­helm Leib­niz about the nature of truth. This was a show I did in LA at Mar­go Leav­in [Gallery]. It was a real­ly long time ago, and traf­fic was ter­ri­ble that night in LA and I got to my open­ing like, in the mid­dle of it, and as I walked in these Hol­ly­wood lawyers that were col­lec­tors of mine came run­ning out, say­ing, Joseph, did you get per­mis­sion to use that [car­toon]?!’ I said, No’.”
Texts for Nothing and Double Reading #12
Two of Kosuth’s works: (Wait­ing for -) Texts for Noth­ing #6, 2010, and Dou­ble Read­ing #12, 1993. Pho­to­graph: Zan Wimberley/​Joseph Kosuth and Anna Schwartz Gallery
He notes that he didn’t get per­mis­sion from Leib­niz either, but per­mis­sion was not the point. I point­ed to the Blondie car­toon and said, See that? That’s not my work.’” He points to the Leib­niz quote: Not my work either. My work is the gap between. It’s where the sur­plus mean­ing is cre­at­ed from those two. Those are just props to give me that.” This con­cern for spaces – for the gap between” – is part of what drew him to use neon as a mate­r­i­al in his art. I need­ed some­thing with qual­i­ties that I could unpack and sep­a­rate,” he says. Peo­ple were used to see­ing [neon], although for oth­er pur­pos­es than art. They were used to see­ing these things lit on the wall. So I trans­formed them,” he says. Any neon used before me was basi­cal­ly dec­o­ra­tive, for­mal­is­tic stuff.” The con­cern for spaces also fuels his rela­tion­ship with his audi­ence. I expect the audi­ence to com­plete the work,” he says. I am ini­ti­at­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. While I can explain my work and can talk about it, I am some­times ret­i­cent to do it, because peo­ple want to look at the answers in the back of the book instead of work­ing it out them­selves.” There are facts, how­ev­er, that under­pin his art – facts that are some­times use­ful to know in order for the piece to res­onate. Kosuth points to a large, pink work at the end of the gallery. That’s the very last word that [philoso­pher Lud­wig] Wittgen­stein wrote as he died,” he explains. That was the word lan­guage’, in Ger­man, crossed off. I mean, I was fas­ci­nat­ed by that … it gives a human side that you don’t always get from dear Ludwig.” 
LW's Last Word
Kosuth’s LW’s Last Word [Pink], from 1991, at the Anna Schwartz Gallery. Pho­to­graph: Zan Wimberley/​Joseph Kosuth and Anna Schwartz Gallery
I tell Kosuth I once stud­ied that great thinker’s philoso­phies on lan­guage, and he nods approv­ing­ly. Kosuth curat­ed the cen­ten­ni­al exhi­bi­tion in Wittgenstein’s hon­our for the city of Vien­na – the philoso­phers were fight­ing over his body – it’s very con­tentious, the Wittgen­stein indus­try,” he says. He was also invit­ed to cre­ate a work for the side of the house Wittgen­stein made for his sis­ter, Mar­garet. Giv­en his con­cerns about com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, how should artists respond to the con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal moment? There are things you can do – dirty tricks’ they would call it dur­ing the Nixon era,” he says. Kosuth was him­self active against the Viet­nam War, engag­ing in guer­ril­la-type cre­ative activ­i­ty like drop­ping lit­tle cards from a plane over Boston that said: if this was napalm, you’d be burn­ing”. But it’s one thing to do that; it’s anoth­er to make it part of your career portfolio.” 
WFT #1 Yellow, 2008
W.F.T. #1 [Yel­low], 2008. Pho­to­graph: Zan Wimberley/​Joseph Kosuth and Anna Schwartz Gallery
Pol­i­tics is always local, he says. We have the worst pres­i­dent in mem­o­ry and the thing about the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent is that he’s everybody’s pres­i­dent, he impacts everybody’s life, whether you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote for the guy or not … but there are always local issues that have to be dealt with.”  Ulti­mate­ly, though, it’s the role of artists to look beyond pol­i­tics – beyond the tem­po­rary. We’re in a world where the two most pow­er­ful groups – the two motors of soci­ety – are on one hand busi­ness­men and women who want to see prof­it at the end of the day, and on the oth­er politi­cians, who want to main­tain their pow­er. Those are short-term goals, and if there’s a com­mit­ment only to short-term goals, it’s not good for soci­ety. That’s why the intel­lec­tu­als, the artists, the writ­ers – the intel­lec­tu­al work­ers, shall we call them – are so impor­tant. They pro­vide the long threads in this tex­tile of soci­ety.” A Short His­to­ry of My Thought by Joseph Kosuth is show­ing at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mel­bourne, until 5 November
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