Portraits of Artists 69

Conversation with Joseph Kosuth

Martin Prinzhorn: Since you are one of the founders of Conceptual Art, it seems to me a natural starting point to begin with a historical question, asking you to describe how this whole project started and how you would draw the difference between the approach to Conceptual Art and to Minimalistic Art. 

Joseph Kosuth: There is of course the traditional approach to viewing and the emergence of art forms; so there are perhaps two ways one would take to approach it. I would say the development of an ideo space began with Art & Language in England and with my work in the United States. That would be the development of a more theoretical understanding of a departure from the presumptions about the practice of making art. Then of course, there were others, work that went on simultaneously and which I then brought into the ideo space – On Kawara would be one clear example. Certain things that had gone on simultaneously were added later; Dan Graham for example did poems, and was trying to get them into poetry journals etc. In fact, there's a tape of an argument we had at the School of Visual Arts in which I was sort of browbeating him for calling them poems, because I said, "In that case, this is another kind of traditional framing of the activity," and I objected very strongly to it. He insisted that they were poems and not Conceptual Art. In the early seventies, after the art movement was validated, he changed his mind and decided they were Conceptual artworks after all. So, he's got the date on them but he didn't fight for the meaning of the work at that time. The same with his articles which were done really as articles, not as artworks and the photographs. It was very much, pointedly, leaving it out of that context. Interesting work, but his video work was primarily what made Dan an interesting artist for me. There was also Henry Flynt who wrote a text which preceded all this. However, it was very much part of Fluxus, and it was really quite unknown until the early seventies when, I think, Germano Celant made a reference to it. In other words, it became interesting or relevant because of what we did afterwards, because it gave it a context to be more interesting. I've always had a problem with Henry Flynt, because I said it is like someone may have been painting enormous paintings in 1936 that look just like Jackson Pollock in a barn in Kansas – it really doesn't matter, you know, that he preceded him. It's because of the New York School in the late forties and fifties that would make it interesting. So, the Conceptual creative work should be taken into account. So there's that work.
How it started for me personally was that I was doing the work I did, and it was getting some attention, people were coming to my studio to see my work in the New York tradition of visiting artists' studios who didn't have galleries. Actually Roy Lichtenstein and his wife Dorothy were helpful in sending people, and there was a variety of other artists who were interested in what I was doing and some critics. But I began to get attention as some kind of eccentric person within a kind of expressionist, monographic tradition. There was a big article in Newsweek called "The New Art" in which I was treated in those terms. This upset me in a way, because I didn't want to be reduced to some personal style. So when that happened, I decided the only way these ideas would be taken seriously was if I went out and essentially put together an art movement which is what I proceeded to do. I was a kind of horrible person from what I understand – very proselytizing, browbeating a lot of artists to give up painting and sculpture in the traditional way and go in another direction which I was outlining for them. Several artists whom I still know, I certainly brought in this way. When I first started working with Seth Siegelaub, Lawrence Weiner was doing paintings, colour-field paintings, very muted, shaped canvases, and Doug Huebler was doing Formica sculpture, Robert Barry was doing some minimalist painting – he was in the systemic painting show – and so I certainly worked on them. Lawrence in particular because he was a friend – we'd drink together and stuff – I would continue to work on. And eventually, he began to do things which were much more in an Arte Povera context. I introduced him to Morris, and I tried to get him some attention in that context. It didn't work out, to put it simply. Lawrence then began to write instructions for his spray paint, in sympathy to what I had been saying to him. So eventually he began to do the work for which he is known today. But his work was always about materials and it always seemed to me really a very serious internal contradiction to the work, which still, I think, plagues it so much to this day. Nonetheless, Lawrence is very much what I would call post-Minimalist and like Daniel Buren I would see him also as part of post-Minimalism rather than Conceptual Art.

MP: Many people compare you to Lawrence Weiner which I find bizarre, because for me there is a basic difference in the use of language. That is to say that I have the feeling – and that is why I also find your paper on Minimalism so interesting – that people like Weiner very often use language in a poetic, a romantic way, whereas in your work you use language in a purely formal way. Maybe you could tell me what your relation with language actually is. I remember when we first met, and when you learned that I'm a linguist, you immediately said to me "I've nothing to do with semantics" which I found very crucial to understand your works.

JK: Yeah, yeah. Well, I agree with your point about Lawrence and Bob. Bob was very much into the abstract art tradition of reduction – though it still was material, it was just past the point of visibility in the sixties period. After that it became more poetic but it was certainly always very far away from my concerns. And the same with Lawrence; they're very much enigmas in the way that abstract painting can be an enigma. And during the eighties when there was this big return to painting, Lawrence did some in graffiti style, he had the show in Dijon, I think – which I thought was much more appropriate to the work which is always, in the very modernist tradition, immediately identifiable. I found this very particular aspect of Minimalism which was all right as a gesture in the sixties – be it André's plates on the floor or Judd's boxes or Flavin's fluorescent lights or Buren's stripes – those were interventions in the sixties and once they were repeated became identifiable as a style; they had a market identity, a very strong one. And this empowered it in a certain way, culturally, like the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle. It's important for products to always be identifiable, for artists to play – which is something I have tried to keep in my work, so that I can hold to my problematic as an artist in the interior but on the exterior the work continually changes and takes a variety of strategies. Certainly, I have that problematic in – it includes the use of language but along with language goes context and other aspects, you know which are also equally consistent. However, the only other artist I know who engages in that kind of play is Nauman who doesn't worry so much about the immediate identification of one work to the next. Which is strange, late modernist mutation of the idea of style, I think. And it's a very strange idea, somehow, to have a Conceptual Art style – it's rather a contradiction. It's not the same as saying that one is consistent – there's somewhat of a difference.

MP: But the problem seems to me that it just happens to some people that they do a piece and they repeat it, and after some time it becomes a style and acquires something of a life of its own.

JK: Signature.

MP: Yeah, signature. So, how would you see your strategy to avoid this in your work?

JK: Well, first of all, I've avoided having one way of working – that is to say, there are some works I do which float. A great deal of my work is very context-dependent. It's very much connected to a particular cultural context, a particular linguistic, architectural, psychological etc. context. And these elements are really part of the work. And it's very hard for me to anchor it to a particular social and political existence, a work which floats freely on the market has a more difficult time, I think. It also gives me a richer realm of elements to work with. But to get back to your question, there are different things. I always wanted to avoid the idea of the total work – that is the kind of work which has a totalizing aspect. So, the example I always like to give is the one someone used in a discussion of Lévi-Strauss' concept of myths, an updated way of expressing it would be: you're on one side of the autobahn and somebody's on the other; they're trying to say something to you, and they're making hand signals. They're saying that they want to buy a pack of cigarettes, so they're making all these kinds of gestures. And somehow, in all the overlaps, the message gets through, right? And so I don't try in every work to deal with all the things I'm interested in. Different works usually deal with one aspect. So, if you look over the whole body of my work you can see certainly the whole thing comes together in a way. But I don't expect one work to answer all of my problems as an artist. So I like that kind of division, that kind of fragmentation. And fragmentation is in fact a constructive element within my work – I always worked with fragments and I always worked with ready-mades. Everyone anyway in the 20th century, post-Duchamp, works with a ready-made – whether you buy a tube of paint in the art supply store and buy a pre-made canvas which is a ready-made that you inherited as an artist to begin with. You're going to have a ready-made. We're using, right now, language which we come to a ready-made which then we transform after our own use in a certain way – which you'd be more of an expert to talk about than me. So that for me is less controversial. It's like picking a colour or a shape in the usual artistic tradition when working with the texts, not just any text but a text by a particular person, writer, thinker, so that it is incredibly richer as a "colour" in terms of meaning. Because what I'm making, I'm producing meaning. And that is what artists do. It's a signifying activity. We make meaning. And even if the meaning is made through the cancellation or erasure of prior meaning, it's still the production of meaning. So, as an artist I think, all right, what are the best materials to produce meaning with? Certainly not shapes and colours. Right? Certainly, whatever you do is going to be in the world and to function on a level of communication and will have some physical presence. Even now, the noises I'm making are affecting your middle ear. So it's also a physical thing – this conversation. So you can't avoid it and there's no reason why we should. It was always for me the big problem with Minimalism and post-Minimalism that it was still prioritizing the object and the material. Even as a negative presence. Even as an absence. But it was still the idea of a reduction to invisibility or a physical presence in some other way. So when you make the shift to art being about a signifying activity, then you would look at a lot of works that are now called conceptual and realize it's a misapplication. 

MP: Right. So, in connection with this, in the eighties and nineties a lot of work emerged that people called near-conceptual work. The point there for me is that it's always about political critique or institutional critique, and so on. How do you deal in your work with this kind of political moments? And maybe you could also comment on the misunderstandings by Buchloh and others who really saw the approach of Conceptual Art as political in a very shallow way.

JK: Yeah. Well, I think this could be a very long discussion. I don't know, certain serious people take it seriously, so I'm obliged to, for that reason. However, I do think what you once saw; I have a very hard time not seeing Buchloh's theories independent of a career agenda. So, I don't give them the kind of seriousness – they don't really stand up. I can say that from a very personal point of view, many of the things that he's discussed – my work would probably be the best example. But because I'm not part of a certain network that he's constructed, because I don't want a critic to speak for me – I do my own talking – I'm excluded from that circuitry. And then of course I had to become the nominated enemy, because in any kind of patriotic thinking which this very much is you need an outside enemy in order to have an internal organization. It's a typical right-wing strategy. And certainly the social practice of the group around October is extremely right-wing, and their behaviour really has to be seen in those terms. So that's the social reality of their professional life. It's the big lie, it's the half-truth – they use all of the techniques that they've inherited – we've all inherited, and some of us prefer not to use. I've argued this out, a lot of the problems with Buchloh and the general October point of view, in my text that came out in the Art Bulletin this month, called "Intentions" where I just distinguish between art historical intentions and intentions of artists. And so I would refer you to that. Save us the time today. But there was one other thing I was trying to remember that was pending, and I wanted to address, but I can't

MP: How do you relate to the art of – I think Jenny Holzer was a student of yours?

JK: No, she wasn't. She was a young artist whom I supported, and I brought her into my class at the School of Visual Arts to speak to my students, one of whom was Keith Haring. Clegg and Gutmann were two of the other students in my class. Keith – they had to do a class project for me, and two weeks after Jenny left, Keith came to me with his very first little figure drawing – the most famous one – and said, "I'm going to do these on the street." He took me to St. Mark's Place to show me the things he had been doing. We did a walk together for his class project, and I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, "Keith, it's interesting working on the street, but be careful, this is too commercial." That was my critique. And so, over the years of course, I would always, whenever I'd see him, say "I told you so!" And he got a little unhappy with that, eventually. But Jenny I found quite interesting. You know, I've found the work she's done, post-institutionalization, less interesting. But I certainly haven't given up on her.

MP: But in general, how do you relate to the kind of work that uses language but in a more direct, political way to deal with, I don't know, feminist agendas or such?

JK: Well, I'd say what's interesting, part of the idea of Neo-Conceptualism. I mean art, you know, as the cliché goes, comes out of art. And so what you essentially have are people living in the eighties or nineties, when this work emerged, who are indexing their work – in some sense also a practice we initiated. However, they're living 1980's or 1990's lives and they're within another – to transform the discourse, all those ideas of Conceptual Art have been internalized, internalized in fact so profoundly that there was a return to painting at the end of the seventies as a result of it. There was a collective sigh of relief by dealers all over the world. They no longer had to put pushpins and videotapes and little books and such things in their galleries, and they had a nice painting to go over the couch again. So this was part of, I think, the entropic spin down of an idea of art that was painting and sculpture – an idea of high art and low art, an idea of modernism and all that came with it. And the eighties was . those big phallocentric paintings by Schnabel and Lüpertz and Baselitz and all the rest are going to be most probably – even though a lot of money has been invested in it – the art that will be most likely forgotten. What will, I think, remain will be works like Cindy Sherman's, works like Jenny's, there's a whole list, Richard Prince'. It's big paintings by men, small photos by women, interestingly.

MP: What I find interesting about your work is that in recent years – obviously you didn't start to paint – you have cartoons and things showing up in your work. Why?

JK: Within the spirit of the quotes, in a certain sense everything is possible, theoretically. I have never added, I've never used colour if it wasn't for a functional reason, a meaningful reason. That means I never add the colours just because "Mhm – wouldn't that be nice in pink," you know. It has a role, a signifying role to play within the work, otherwise it's achromatic. And that's been the standard now for 30 years. Certainly, I realize that there is a certain look for neutrality. You look at the work I did in the sixties and others did in the sixties which has a certain look which we thought – and it was in fact – at that time neutral. That is, it had the least amount of art associations with it. Now you look at it – it's high sixties style, right? So there is that distance which gives a style to work, insofar as it expresses some kind of taste factor. But the point is that if taste is irrelevant, then it's irrelevant in both directions. And I don't concern myself with it beyond its effect on experience and its signifying aspect. OK?

MP: So it's not a strategy to avoid the emergence of a style?

JK: It's inescapable, in a way. So I'm making choices. It organizes a certain kind of psychological approach; it has certain kinds of paintings associated with it. So, my choice of type is not arbitrary but it has to do with the work I'm doing. And it's not to have a signature in the old paintings tradition like my colleagues choose typefaces.

MP: And this is in earlier work that you used only texts by Wittgenstein, Freud and so on; what occurs to me now is that in newer works you also expanded the choice of texts.

JK: Yes. Well, I began with cutting dictionaries, definitions. They were always stolen texts from the very beginning. In fact, the very first definitions were literally stolen texts, because I had absolutely no money, and I would find libraries in New York, little branch libraries that had blind corners, and I would take a cardboard and a straight razor blade, and I'd go and I'd get the dictionary, and I would steal the definition out of it and put the dictionary back on the shelf. That's how all that work was done. And years later, I tried to give back one that I had stolen, because I'd been selling for enough money that I could probably replace all the dictionaries in the New York City library system with just giving back one, you know. But there was no real way in which I could return it. Feeling bad, of course, that I had screwed up all those books – how awful it is if you're working and you go to get a dictionary, and how bizarre as well, and there is a definition missing. I was 20 years old, so that's my excuse.

MP: So, another thing which I would like to discuss is your activity as a curator. In Vienna you did this show at the Secession, the Wittgenstein show. What was .

JK: Can I make one little correction? I mean, when David Smith is welding, is he a welder or is he an artist welding? My point is that I'm not, I've never been a curator. As an artist I use curating as one strategy of making a work.

MP: So, how would you describe the Wittgenstein work, then?

JK: Well, for me that was an installation of mine in which I used writing by others, by Wittgenstein and other artists in this century. And of course the works within their frames had certain meanings that were the provenance of the artist. But, of course there was a deliberate gesture – I would like to say an agitprop gesture – agitation, provocation – gesture toward curating in general. That is, the group show in which individual artists are put into a theoretical framework provided by an art historian or a critic functioning as a curator in which the total meaning, the collective, the surplus meaning, is that of that curator. Now, when the curator does it – and this of course is changing – the suggestion has always been that it's done under the guise of some objective criterion and that artists are put as the better or worse cars on the big autobahn of art history. And somehow those who are organizing this relay race are invisible, god-like presences. And I wanted to show that this production of consciousness is in fact a subjective activity, the difference being that the artist takes responsibility for the subjective activity and for its subjectivity. That's how it's connected, that's what's anchored in a socio-political space. Whereas this presumed objectivity and invisibility – as traditionally defined – is false. Curators need their own careers, they have their relationships with artists, etc. So I guess it was a sly way to reveal the device. And by really taking the works and by really producing a surplus meaning – that I took responsibility for out front as an artist. It made one look at the whole process of curating and the construction of group shows and historical survey shows, all of it, in another way. From all the things that were told to me since I did that, I think it was very successful at showing that.

MP: What was funny for me was, now that you're comparing professional curators and your activity, what you accomplished somehow with the Wittgenstein show; you really came up with a transparent geography of the production of meaning in 20th century art which normal art historians and curators always fail to do. Do you think this is only possible if it's an artistic activity?

JK: That's a good question. I think there is a qualitative difference. There is a difference between just nominating a conversation and an artwork and having a conversation, right? Curiously, that is a fact. And the fact that I dealt with it that way, I think, is interesting and needs to be looked at. I'm not certain of what I would say about that. I do know that one can see what happens to your work in a group show very clearly. It's interesting that a lot of people got upset, by the way, and particularly in Brussels where the show went after Vienna. And a lot of the people getting upset were art historians and curators and they just said "You can't do that."

MP: Right, right

JK: And that also happened when I did the next show in Brooklyn. But the artists didn't object. I had only two artists object. One was Carl André who wrote me some very humorous postcards which said "If you did it, it's Conceptual Art, and I don't want anything to do with it." But done with humour and I respected his withdrawal. The other one was from a younger artist who was so full of himself, you know, one of those `twenty minute wonders,' who believed his press releases, and so he withdrew. Since I'm being unkind, I won't say who it was. But otherwise, all the artists that were in it loved it. They came to the opening, they were happy to be there. 

MP: You've curated a show in Brooklyn called "The Play of the Unmentionable", which basically dealt with, right?

JK: Right.

MP: Which would be, at first sight, the kind of boring topic an art historian would choose. What made you choose it ?

JK: It was again the context. I was invited by the Brooklyn Museum – which, by the way, is an interesting museum. It was an ethnographic museum at the turn of the century. They essentially changed the labels and what had been specimens of science became specimens of art. So its collection is a little of a cross between the Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian. And they have everything, going back to the beginning of culture. It's a great museum. They only exhibit a small part of their holdings. They have an enormous lobby which is where the contemporary exhibitions are held, it's the first room as you go into the museum. And I had asked them if I could really have the entire lobby – all the walls and everything – and they said "yeah, no problem." Quite often it's simply a big sculpture or something is put in the middle of it. Then it turned out that my funding was from the National Endowment for the Arts. And at that time, that was quite loaded; because of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition and because of the funding of a lot of artists, many right-wing Senators said "We're paying taxpayer dollars to support" – you know, they had a social-political agenda – they were against not only the art being made but the people who were doing it. So they passed laws which were ridiculous. And so, I went into the museum and pulled out things from the collection which were, in some sense, against the new law. Things from various civilizations, from various periods. Bauhaus furniture – I was surprised that the Bauhaus was suppressed by the Nazis – to racist teapots from the 19th century, to Shunga prints from 19th century Japan – which would appear to be pornographic today – to paintings by artists from the Armory Show. And with them were texts from anthropologists, art historians, such as journalists writing at the time of the Armory Show, texts that sounded exactly like what was being said by the Senators today, except then it was against Matisse and Picasso, saying it was corrupting our children, amazing things. And, interestingly, all these things, be it the Matisse or the Bauhaus furniture, any good Republican would want in their living room or office today. So it's quite interesting to see all these things that were either sexually, politically, socially, whatever, problematic at one time – were what gave them the stature to be collected. So, in other words, problematicity in some sense was part of that scar tissue of the moment; it was what gave it a quality that it needed in order to be preserved and gave it the aura of a masterpiece later, its ability to make such ruptures. I thought this was an interesting way of looking at art history. So I essentially filled walls, painted them gray, made it look like a very conservative, normal show, like you would have in the Metropolitan Museum, and hung up the works, a little like in the Wittgenstein show – in relation to the texts between works. This was an incredibly successful show. It broke attendance records of the museum. It was written about – I had two big articles on it in the New York Times and in newspapers all across the country. I was interviewed on CNN for two days, etc. The media thing happened. And it's credited as being one of two things which got the law changed. So for me it was an art exhibition that was uncompromised but had a real social effect. For the first time they had lines of people from the neighbourhood of the Brooklyn Museum which is primarily a black ghetto, who came to see the show. They had never been in the museum and had grown up next door. And so it opened the doors in lots of ways. People started to go to the museum who'd never been there before, although it was a major institution. So I felt quite good about that. And for me it was the kind of work one likes to do. I was just now at an opening in Slowakia, in Gelinia, where the collaboration I did with Ilya Kabakov travelled; the Soros Open Society Foundation supported it to go there. And I was alerted by you to what was going on there politically – and so was on the lookout for it. And the Soros Foundation told me how serious the situation was getting there. Really amazing statements, such as, only things of Slowakian culture should be considered and supported. And so, in radio interviews I pointed out that this means you don't want cars, airplanes, computers, refrigerators, air conditioners, and I just went on and on and on. And that they would need to eliminate all those things because they certainly weren't invented in Slowakia.

JK: So, the director of the museum was putting her career on the line and she was very strong about it. The director of the Soros Foundation, which was already under pressure from the government because it was supporting the Hungarian minority, upped the ante for himself, as well by supporting it – the show was packed. They said it was the biggest opening that they'd ever had in the museum there. And my contact with the public was great – really great conversations, and I'm sorry that Ilya unfortunately couldn't be there, it would have been great for him, too to have experienced that. It's not always like that. I can't have that effect in every work I do. I don't want to do that for a living. I know one or two other artists, that's what they do. I think that one can have various degrees of success with it, but I think if you make a living doing it, it somehow becomes problematic. So we like it when it happens; it's appropriate to some works but you can't accomplish everything you want in art by focussing on it, because in the end you simply become the carrier of the message; what happens is that the message may be politically correct but the carrier that is really producing the culture, becomes pragmatic. And in certain ways becomes conservative, which is, where the problem lies in the case of Hans Haacke. I agree with his politics one hundred percent, most of the time; but in a certain way, it's like a virus within forms, developed by others at first and without any real reflectivity about what meaning the form takes, not just the message. And so what he is suggesting is a very conservative model of art. He's saying that art is a transcendent category, an empty envelope waiting to be filled with the right content. And I strongly disagree with that conception of art. But he is a man of great integrity, and I respect him very much.

(Vienna, October 1996)