American Conceptual Artist and Theoretician
Summary of Joseph Kosuth
Joseph Kosuth was one of the originators of Conceptual art in the mid-1960s, which became a major movement that thrived into the 1970s and remains influential. He pioneered the use of words in place of visual imagery of any kind and explored the relationship between ideas and the images and words used to convey them. His series of One and Three installations (1965), in which he assembled an object, a photograph of that object, and an enlarged photographic copy of the dictionary definition of it, explored these relationships directly. His enlarged photostats of dictionary definitions in his series Art as Idea as Idea (1966-68) eliminated objects and images completely in order to focus on meaning conveyed purely with language. Since the 1970s, he has made numerous site-specific installations that continue to explore how we experience, comprehend, and respond to language.
- Kosuth believed that images and any traces of artistic skill and craft should be eliminated from art so that ideas could be conveyed as directly, immediately, and purely as possible. There should be no obstacles to conveying ideas, and so images should be eliminated since he considered them obstacles. This notion became one of the major forces that made Conceptual art a movement in the late-1960s.
- Kosuth has often explored the relationships between words and their meanings and how words relate to the objects and things they name or describe. He has been fascinated with the equivalences between the visual and the linguistic. To this extent, he was influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas on language.
- Many of Kosuth's installations and displays of words have incorporated excerpts from literature, philosophy, psychology, and history that have that have intrigued him. Consequently, he has used the presentation of language to make his audience contemplate issues of poverty, racism, loneliness, isolation, the meaning of life, and personal identity - usually without any clear, overt commentary of his own. In this, Kosuth embodies how the contemporary artist may become a philosopher and moralist.
- Since he usually relies on the writing of others in his presentations of words and texts, Kosuth's work represents how Conceptual art, like much of postmodernism, involves a lot of appropriation, in his case the sources being written and verbal as opposed to visual or art historical. His chosen texts are usually not particularly descriptive nor do they attempt to create images with words.
Biography of Joseph Kosuth
Joseph Kosuth was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1945. He studied at the Toledo Museum School of Design starting at the very early age of ten and continued there until 1962, during which time he studied with the Belgian painter Line Bloom Draper. He enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1963 and studied drawing and painting there for a year. After traveling abroad for a year, he moved to New York City in 1965 and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, where he studied painting until 1967. By this time, he was already questioning the usefulness of imagery in conveying meanings and ideas and was exploring the uses of language.
Important Art by Joseph Kosuth
This work is the first and most famous example of Kosuth's series of One and Three installations, in which he assembled an object, a photograph of that object, and an enlarged dictionary definition of the object. It questions what actually constitutes a chair in our thinking: is it the solid object we see and use or is it the word "chair" that we use to identify it and communicate it to others? Furthermore, it confronts us with how we use words to explain and define visible, tangible, ordinary things, how words represent, describe, or signify things, and how this often becomes more complex when the thing is simple, fundamental, or intangible. Thus, it explores how language plays an integral role in conveying meaning and identity. It makes us more aware of why and how words become the verbal and written equivalents for commonplace tangible, solid things and objects.
Kosuth continued this exact formula in subsequent works, employing a shovel, hammer, lamp, and even a photograph itself (including a photograph of the photograph and definition of "photograph"). This is one of the first Conceptual works of art that was intended to eliminate any sense of authorship or individual expression and creativity.
Five Words in Orange Neon is among the many language-based works Kosuth made using neon lights and a transformer, all of which were inspired by Wittgenstein's explorations of tautologies. In logic and linguistics, as established largely by Wittgenstein, a tautology is a statement of fundamental fact or truth which is unchangeable and irreversible, even if rephrased in any way possible. The meaning of the phrase is equated with how the words are visualized. In this case, they are shown with orange neon tubes shaped to form the words of the phrase. Kosuth plays with linguistic and verbal literalness by giving us a visual equivalent in the neon letters to what the text reads regardless of its form. As with his other Conceptual works of the 1960s, the idea is considered more important and fundamental than the visual or aesthetic content or expression of an artwork. It was a radical reconsideration of the importance of the visual in visual art.
After beginning his One and Three series, Kosuth wanted to further remove images and objects from his language-based Conceptual art, and this led to his Art as Idea as Idea series. In these works, he produced enlarged photostats of definitions of words that look like they came from dictionaries, which he then mounted on walls similar to how paintings, drawings, or photographs would be exhibited. He makes the viewer aware of the multiple identities and types of existence that these various things have, as solid objects and tangible things, as mechanical reproductions that are quickly made and mass-produced, and as verbal, written, and intangible equivalents. This challenges us to think of how we would define or explain simple, ordinary things that we see and use in our daily lives.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Joseph Kosuth
- Joseph KosuthBy Fiona Biggiero, Pieranna Cavalchini, Joseph Kosuth, and Anne Hawley
- Joseph Kosuth: Re-defining the Context of Art: 1968-2014By John Welchman, Gabriele Guercio, Joseph Kosuth, and Fiona Biggiero
- The Play of the Unmentionable: An Installation by Joseph Kosuth at the Brooklyn MuseumBy Joseph Kosuth and David Freedberg
- Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writing, 1966-1990Our PickBy Joseph Kosuth
- At Last I Thought I UnderstoodOur PickBy Joseph Kosuth
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Joseph KosuthBy Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Joseph Kosuth / The Brooklyn Rail / January 16, 2014
- Joseph Kosuth Gets Wordy in EnniskillenBy Jenny Cathcart / CultureNorthernIreland / August 15, 2012
- Joseph KosuthBy Arthur Ou / Artforum / September 20, 2011
- Beckett on a Heideggerian Horizon: Joseph Kosuth at Sean KellyOur PickBy Robert C. Morgan / Artcritical / May 8, 2011
- Joseph KosuthBy Fionn Meade / Artforum / February 2009
- Joseph KosuthOur PickBy Matthew L. McAlpin / The Brooklyn Rail / November 2, 2006
- Art as Idea as Idea: An Interview with Joseph KosuthBy Stuart Morgan / Frieze / May 1994
- Art Reviews: Joseph Kosuth: He Spells Everything Out for UsOur PickBy William Wilson / The Los Angeles Times / September 28, 1990
- Kosuth Takes a Turn For the PsychologicalBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / September 30, 1988