Published  09/06/2017

Joseph Kosuth: ‘I was always interested in the limits of language and there’s no better way of demonstrating that than with definitions of colours’

Joseph Kosuth: ‘I was always interested in the limits of language and there’s no better way of demonstrating that than with definitions of colours’

On the occasion of his curated installation at Mazzoleni, Joseph Kosuth, the pioneer of conceptual art, speaks to Studio International about his insistence that art must question and elicit meaning, the impoverishment of art’s critical bite under market domination, and his scepticism about art history’s objectivity


Joseph Kosuth (b1945) published his influential essay, Art after Philosophy, in Studio International in 1969, a text arguably as important to the definition and cementing of conceptual art as some of the works themselves, one that Arthur Danto suggested “may indeed itself be a work of art”.1 Kosuth’s declared interest in playing with “the relations between relations” has been articulated not only through his own work and writing, but also in an equally important practice: curated installations. In these trans-historic interventions, Kosuth orchestrates combinations of textual, visual or archival artefacts to investigate not only the history of ideas, but also the museum as container and promulgator of those ideas.

The current exhibition at Mazzoleni’s London gallery, Colour in Contextual Play: An Installation by Joseph Kosuth, is the latest of Kosuth’s plays within plays, displaying monochrome paintings by Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein alongside dictionary definitions from Kosuth’s 1968 Art as Idea as Idea series. The whole enacts an investigation of colour as form and concept, in verbal and painted form, by artists all concerned to some degree with testing the boundaries of art, in the case of the specific European works in the exhibition, without abandoning the canvas. Kosuth has also coloured the gallery walls as part of his montage that yields meaning and visual effects not only within individual elements, but also from the collision of, say, a gashed Fontana canvas, the blown-up definition of the word “red”, and a wall coloured in Benjamin Moore household paint, an industrial medium favoured by Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. The effects of the whole are startling.

Exhibition literature produces meaning as much as the artworks and their display, particularly in the anthropological vision of Kosuth. The principal text in the accompanying book is by the exhibition curator, Cornelia Lauf, who was previously married to Kosuth. While providing an overview of ways in which the artists included in the exhibition conceived of colour in relation to their various artistic approaches, Lauf steers clear of the would-be industrialised prose of much academic writing. Instead, she offers avowedly personal accounts of her evolving relationship with Kosuth, as well as a sketch portrait of her intellectual friendship with Emilio Prini, one of the more conceptually inclined artists associated with arte povera. Apropos of the pervasive concealment of the domestic in the discourse of modern art, we learn that one of Kosuth’s gifts to Lauf was the book Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture (1996).

Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: I’d like to start with a bit of a retrospective, before turning to this installation. Your influential Art after Philosophytext was published in Studio International in 1969 and insisted that being an artist “now” meant having to question the nature of art rather than painting, and reinstate meaning to art. Your reference to “now” was clearly a response to the tyranny of [Clement] Greenberg’s brand of formalist modernism, but did “now” also refer to that volatile political moment?

Joseph Kosuth: Very much so. We were obviously of a generation that had serious questions about any kind of authoritative posture. Greenberg and his artists were very much on the side of the Vietnam war. Kenneth Noland put an American flag at his studio window when we were marching against the war. So they were really rightwingers, both in art and in life, from our point of view. In the cheeky way we had in the 60s, John Chamberlain said: “Listen Joseph, there’s a party going on with these people who love you so much and I thought we could crash it.”

So we went to this party, it may have been at Noland’s studio, and Greenberg was there – I’d never met him. My text had come out in Studio International and there was frankly quite a buzz about it in the art world. When I was introduced to Greenberg and said my name a few times, he said: “Why don’t I know that name?” And there was [Jules] Olitski, Noland and some other “Greenberger”, as we called them. We were having this conversation and Greenberg was realising with every sentence that I was really not on his side. I quoted Lucy Lippard. “Lucy Lippard!”, said Greenberg, “like all female critics, her eyes are in her ass.” So misogyny was also part of the Greenbergian package. A lot of the arguments were, I think, effective against the Greenbergian thinking partly for that reason, though that hurt the bella figura of my argument. I had difficulty in grappling with certain areas that weren’t working conveniently with the structure I had put up: although influenced by Wittgenstein, the argument ended up sounding a bit like AJ Ayer.

ARC: Whom you quoted in the essay …

JK: Because it offered bite-sized, handy little weapons.

ARC: With One and Three Chairs, you devise this triptych form consisting of a dictionary definition with its designated object and an image of the object. This is a well-known aspect of your work but I’m interested in the selection process involved. There’s scope for lots of decision-making in terms of which dictionary or version of a dictionary to use, and which parts of a definition to use, all of which can affect the meanings.

JK: The definitions are edited. Not internally so much, but I don’t go all the way down to the 11th permutation.

ARC: And, of course, colour, the subject of your installation here, is indefinable through language alone – it’s something you can only experience.

JK: And they’re tortured definitions …

ARC: Exactly. Linguistically you can only give examples or describe colour in relation to other colours. Some dictionaries attempt an absolute definition more than others, but it’s interesting that your colour definition extracts don’t actually define but provide fragments of usage, or name other colours, or provide Latin etymology; they almost read like surrealist poems.

JK: Yes, they’re quite funny. And, of course, the usage of the words is socially defined and of the moment. They have some uncomfortable racial references which really give away the politics of the moment, and particularly the colour definitions can’t avoid that. In the present context, it’s somewhat jarring. I was always interested in the limits of language and, of course, there’s no better way of demonstrating that than with definitions of colours.

I found this a great opportunity to approach these artists that I have all kinds of different regard for. Certainly Klein and Manzoni were artists I was always interested in and I became more interested in Fontana as a result of this show.

I did a retrospective of my Spanish works at the Miró foundation in Mallorca. I’ll be honest, I’d always detested Miró and considered him the essence of institutional modernism, à la MoMA. I would say to people, look what Miró’s work permitted Spain’s tourist board to do with it: they turned it into a logo. You could never have done that with Duchamp, and that’s the important difference between the two artists. But then I read about Miró and saw that he was something totally different.

ARC: From the start, part of your anthropological approach consisted in producing installations, in which you combine your work with that of other artists. An early setting for these was the wonderfully named Museum of Normal Art in which, among other examples, you had 15 people submit their favourite book. Did you envisage that a project like that, presumably produced on a shoestring, would become part of art history?

JK: One’s thoughts in that direction take a bit of a romantic form when you’re young. I actually got the idea for the show when I had a studio visit from Ad Reinhardt. He saw a dictionary on my studio desk which was lying there full of holes where I’d cut out definitions. He laughed and said: “I have a book like that.” It was A Short History of Art, which he used to get the illustrations for his cartoons; he would cut them out and paste them. That gave me the idea of inviting others along with him for the show. It was interesting – Robert Morris submitted the Yellow Pages.

ARC: You did cartoons, too, a form that I don’t think most people would readily associate you with.

JK: Yes, early on. There was a prize for high-school journalists and the editor would get to hang out with the editor of the New York Times. I won high-school cartoonist of the year and they put me with a guy named Bud Sagendorf, the creator of Popeye. So I ended up bombing around the campus in a red MG TD sports car that everyone was completely jealous of. His present to me at the end was a drawing of me at 12, shaking the hand of Popeye. My mother had it, but I don’t know where it is – I hope to find it one day.

ARC: Some later curated installations were The Play of the Unmentionable (1990), The Play of the Unsayable: Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Art of the 20th Century (1990) and Sigmund Freud and the Play on the Burden of Representation (2014). The “play” these titles refer to presumably took those institutional contexts into consideration as well as taking on some of the titans of intellectual history: how affected were you by the more authoritative settings of those interventions – were they intimidating?

JK: There’s a package of elements. The weight of the architecture is part and parcel of the institutional presence of, say, the Brooklyn Museum. My gallery shows were always rather strange because there was usually not much for sale, so nobody quite understood why the gallery was doing it. But enough did that they weren’t able to silence me completely. All these elements, all the nuanced implications of the architecture, provide a syntax that you use, with some aspects used more obviously than others.

ARC: In the Brooklyn exhibition (The Play of the Unmentionable), it seems as if you were playing up that portentous, institutional look reminiscent of, say, the Metropolitan Museum?

JK: It was the straight man. I needed to throw that up to play against it. I was recently in the Brooklyn Museum and it’s changed beyond recognition – I would have a hard time doing it now.

ARC: Turning now to this sui generis installation: an additional layer here consists of the fact that you inherited a selection made by another artist, Emilio Prini. He, too, used text, and so-called Visualised Thought Processes that questioned what could be considered art. How did his presence, at a remove, affect the work here, given that you had some shared approaches?

JK: The artists here were heroes, certainly Fontana, and Castellani also, to a slightly lesser extent.

ARC: Looking at some of the respective positions of the artists here, Fontana was literally testing the limits of painting – which, following your definition, perhaps wouldn’t qualify as questioning the nature of art – though he did define art’s “new dimension” beyond the cuts as being a “body of ideas”.

JK: He’s saying with every painting that that’s the nature of art. It’s interesting that these works here, theirs and mine, are all from the same time.

ARC: I see Manzoni as arguably having an approach that came closest to your own in terms of questioning, provocatively, what could be considered art, viewing ideas and intents as more important than the object.

JK: Manzoni was perhaps the most extreme, but Klein came close.

ARC: Those conceptual drives were developing both in America and Europe around the same period, but at the time, as an avant-gardist, were you aware of these artists?

JK: Yes, I was aware of perhaps not all their works but certainly of their existence as artists and what their practice was.

ARC: Is there any conflict with the fact that you've expressed a certain hostility to form and colour, aspects that these artists were still contending with – though not exclusively – to varying degrees?

JK: No, it’s hegemony I have objections to. You can use anything in the production of meaning as an artist, including forms and colours. But the biblical-like scripture that that was art was the thing I found oppressive and fought against as a young artist.

ARC: Yours are by no means group shows in the usual sense, but one could ask the same question of them that comes to mind with collective exhibitions. Does this model undermine each artist’s individual identity or in fact reinforce and even renew it?

JK: This, of course, was the debate that came out with my Wittgenstein show. There was only one artist who withdrew from the show and that was Carl Andre. He said: “If you’re doing it, it’s conceptual art and I don’t want anything to do with that.” But that was a policy statement more than an objection. Basically, the artists were very supportive of having their works used because it bared the device of the faux objectivity of art historians with this autobahn of art history that they try to invisibly construct, really playing God with culture. Every practising artist knows what a sham that is, that is to say the subjectivity of art historians’ choices is rampant, depending on who they’re having dinner with, which gallerists they’re cosy with. Even those with a holier-than-thou point of view are as bad as you can get in that area. They worked to change art history to benefit the pals they had dinner with. I wasn’t one of them, clearly. So much for the objectivity of art historians.

ARC: Do you think that ultimately that tabula rasa brought about by postmodernism, the consequences of the idea that “if someone says it’s art, it’s art”, has always been a force for the good? Do you think, say, that the prowling dobermans at the current Venice Biennale are indeed art simply because they’re presented as such?

JK: That work is no worse than bad painting. And that bares the device of that. Painting can get away with it because of the conservatives of the art market and the fact that external aspects are saying “this is art” – it’s not the artist who’s saying “this is art”. The market is the most conservative dynamic. The painting by a 21-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat can sell for more than $100m, sell for more than a Warhol, someone who had a massive impact on art history, when Jean-Michel virtually had none – it’s only within the context of millionaire collectors that he has a cultural life.

We have to face the fact that we had art history: who did what, when; who had an impact on the history of ideas in art, and so on. Then, around 20 years ago, we had a competing art history which was a history of the art market, with mostly derivative artists, but they do it on canvas and that’s appropriate for what they’re trying to do. And as long as it’s on canvas and they can call it a painting, it can be in the billionaire trophy competition. It’s not really very serious; the money’s serious – but the people aren’t.

These are all questions that Duchamp raised at the Armory show all those years ago.

ARC: With and since Art after Philosophy, you pit painting against art, with “art” understood as a producer of meaning, a part of the history of ideas. But is it necessarily the case that paint is exclusively visual and devoid of philosophical value? Sean Scully said of conceptual art:  “Since we are asked to accept that the idea of something defines its reality and its status (Duchamp), it is necessary, it is fair to demand that the painted surface be received as a cultural value, not simply as an appearance. It is the idea of the painted surface that is potent. It is too often subversively and dishonestly relegated to the purely visual – to the realm of painted visual effects that can, it is erroneously argued, be replaced by other techniques. This is not true. If it is good enough for the concept artists to expect this idea to be cooperated with, then it is reasonable, merely equivalent, for painters to demand that the idea, the philosophical value of a hand-painted surface, be recognised as an idea of decision – and not, as erroneously imagined, as a leftover from history to be suspended by newer, more appropriate techniques.”2

JK: Let me respond like this: Didier Ottinger, the curator of the Centre Pompidou, who does incredible shows of Magritte, was invited to do a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. He invited about six artists to do interventions in a kind of pot-boiler exhibition that would permit the public to actually see art by living artists. I’m a great fan of Magritte, don’t get me wrong, and I thought it was a great thing for Didier to do. He gave me a big room with all the paintings by Magritte in which he had used words. I had a really good time doing it but at the same time it’s a retrospective and you have to respect the work of another artist. From [Michel] Foucault’s essay on Magritte I took certain key concepts, which made it even more convoluted – deliciously so – and did these Magritte-esque cloud-like forms. It then went to the museum in Dusseldorf [Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen]. We were in the middle of installing the show, and a rather full-of-himself writer came to interview me. As we walked around – and this was in the heyday of [Georg] Baselitz – he said: “Well, Magritte wasn’t really a very good painter, was he?” I said: “You may very well be right. Unlike Baselitz, who was a very good painter but not a very good artist, Magritte was a great artist.”

ARC: Confounding his expectations …

JK: He couldn’t distinguish between art and painting.

ARC: Your mentioning Baselitz reminds me of the series you did, Cathexis (1981), in which you juxtaposed inverted photographs of old master paintings with texts from Freud, though I imagine you capsized the images for radically different reasons.

JK: I didn’t know of Baselitz at the time. I did it because there was a return to painting, which in a way is a kind of absurdity. The market was beating its chest saying, “We want things for over the sofa!”, so I did it with irony. The students at Karlsruhe, which was the nest of these people, voted a replacement for Baselitz and they voted me – I was teaching in Stuttgart. Apparently Baselitz was so upset by the idea that he left his position in Berlin and came back. So Professor Baselitz knows who the enemy is.

Colour in Contextual Play: an installation by Joseph Kosuth, curated by Cornelia Lauf, is at Mazzoleni, London until 28 July 2017

1. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History by Arthur C Danto, published by Princeton University Press, 1997.
2. Cited in K Grovier. In: Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully, published by Hatje Cantz, 2016, page 90.

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