Replacing the visual display with words used to convey the relationship between ideas and the images, Joseph Kosuth was one of the beginners of Conceptual art during the 1960’s, advocating the theory that art should be deprived of any trace of skill and craft in order not to interfere ideas to be revealed directly, immediately, and purely as possible. Obsessed with the equivalences between the visual and linguistic and influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas of language, Kosuth strived to comprehend the relation between words and their meanings and their direct impact on the things they describe. His work has often incorporated for him interesting quotes from literature, philosophy, psychology, and history, offering to the audience a chance to contemplate issues of poverty, racism, loneliness, isolation, the meaning of life, and personal identity.
Kosuth was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1945, where he attended the Museum School of Design since he was ten. After one-year drawing and painting studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art, he traveled abroad, throughout Europe and North Africa, and finally settled in New York City in 1965, where he studied painting at the School of Visual Arts until 1967. Already questioning the utility of imagery in conveying meanings and ideas and exploring the use of language, Kosuth decided to study anthropology and philosophy at the New School for Social Research. At the age of only 20, he started to create complex works that would announce the Conceptual art and its comprehension of art as a pure idea and meaning. Assembling the objects, the photographs of those objects and an enlarged copy of the dictionary explanation of it, his One and Three series of installations (1965) have represented a direct exploration of his strivings. His first and at the same time the most famous example of his this series, One and Three Chairs, questions what actually constitutes a chair in our thinking – the object or the word? As a piece that highlight the relation between the language, picture, and referent, it confronts the viewer with the use of words for explaining or identification, exploring how language plays an integral role in the conveying meaning of things, becoming the verbal or written equivalent for the object. First Investigations, subtitled Art as Idea as Idea (1966-68), enlarged Photostats of dictionary definitions completely deprived of objects in order to focus on meaning conveyed through pure language, were inspired by Ad Reinhardt’s comment that “art is art as art and everything else is everything else”. Often compared to his reductive abstract paintings, Kosuth admitted that theories of his colleague painter were interesting to him, especially his ideas on the moral and social importance of art. Two artists showed nothing but mutual understanding and respect, Reinhardt even exhibited a copy of Julia R. de Forest’s Short History of Art to Kosuth’s 1967 exhibition Fifteen People Submit Their Favorite Book at Lannis gallery in New York. Besides Reinhardt, other prominent artists of the contemporary New York scene gave their contribution to this show, such as Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and others. The same year, Kosuth established the Museum of Normal Art, new city exhibition space.
By the 1970’s people started to collect his Photostats (quick photographic copies of text) as souvenirs, “objectifying and fetishizing” them, as the artist thought, so he decided to publish them as advertisements in magazines, aiming of further undermining their object-like value. Late 1960’s was marked with his installations consisted of words shaped of neon light tubes and applied on different surfaces in a form of simple statements, clear and self-evident. Kosuth’s early conceptual works have been met with acceptance, praised for their innovation, which led him to the teaching position at the School of Visual Arts in 1967. Two years later, he published his first edition of Art after Philosophy, three-part essay in which he processes the theme that visual art could be used for exploration of the meaning of language, asserting Marcel Duchamp as the crucial person for directing the Modern art from visual development to ideas embodied through common, non-artistic objects. As the American represent, Kosuth became a part of the Conceptual group Art & Language based in Great Britain until 1976, when he met with disagreement with the other members about some publications and his own popularity independently of the group. During his philosophy and anthropology studies, he found the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly his 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosopicus, very useful and applicable to his own work which would be exploit later in his experiments with words, explorations of nature of meaning, language cognition, and relation between language and art, as a permanent concern in his pieces. Throughout his career, Kosuth wrote and edited numerous publications which relied on his philosophy, often mentioning Duchamp’s readymades as a foundation of his thoughts. Asserting that works of conceptual art are linguistic in character, he emphasized the idea of their defining role, making them tautological. In recent years, he received a number of commissions for numerous site-specific large-scale installations at Louvre, Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the Norman Foster renovated building in Berlin.
The artist received his first award, a Cassandra Foundation Grant in 1968, at the age of only 23, as the choice of Marcel Duchamp, who died one week later. It was followed by the Brandeis Award in 1990, Frederick Weisman Award in 1991, the Menzione d'Onore at the Venice Biennale in 1993, and the Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government the same year. Other recognition he has received from the French Republic was a 3-franc post stamp in honor of his work in Figeac. In 2003, Kosuth was awarded the Austrian Republic's highest honour for accomplishments in science and culture and in May 2012 he was inducted into the Royal Belgian Academy. Since his first teaching position in 1967 at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he has been visiting professor at numerous institutions, such as the Staatliche Akademie der Bildende Kunste in Stuttgart, Yale University, Pratt Institute, and Oxford University.
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