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Joseph Kosuth

American Conceptual Artist and Theoretician

Movement: Conceptual Art

Born: January 31, 1945 - Toledo, Ohio

Joseph Kosuth Timeline

Important Art by Joseph Kosuth

The below artworks are the most important by Joseph Kosuth - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

One and Three Chairs (1965)
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One and Three Chairs (1965)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Chair, photograph of same chair (to scale), enlarged printed definition of the word "chair" - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Five Words in Orange Neon (1965)
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Five Words in Orange Neon (1965)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Neon and transformer - Private collection

Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word "Definition" (1966-68)
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Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word "Definition" (1966-68)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "definition" - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Rosetta Stone (1991)
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Rosetta Stone (1991)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Rosetta Stone is an ancient artifact that has been on display at the British Museum since 1802 and is considered by historians and anthropologists to be essential to understanding the language of ancient Egypt. Since it presents virtually the same text, a decree issued by Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script, and Ancient Greek, it is a historical artifact that shows how three different languages express the same message. Thus, it was perfectly suited to Kosuth's interest in the equivalents among languages and between things as well as in the ways language is used to identify, explain, and describe objects. The Rosetta Stone is a historical precedent to Kosuth's work, such as his One and Three series, since the same statement is presented three times in the Egyptian artifact and the same thing is presented as words, an object, and a photographic reproduction in the artist's series. In the late 1980s, Kosuth began fabricating, with the help of many assistants, a giant copy of the face of the Rosetta Stone placed flat on the sidewalk as a public installation in the town of Figeac right near the home of Jean-François Champollion, an Egyptologist who was involved with the original translation.

Stone tablet - Place des ecritures, Figeac, France

Double Reading #3, from the series Double Reading: An Allegory of Limits (1993)
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Double Reading #3, from the series Double Reading: An Allegory of Limits (1993)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1993, Kosuth created Double Reading, a series of about twenty silkscreen prints on laminated glass that were illuminated from behind with neon lights. In each of these works, a cartoon from a newspaper or magazine with dialogue and captions is juxtaposed with a quote from a famous philosopher, theologian, political leader, and so on. Some of these works use cartoons with lots of text and long quotes while others are quite brief. In this work, a cartoon of a man in a large office filled with rectangular furniture, lighting, windows, and doors uses his intercom to ask his secretary to bring him a "round object." This cartoon is accompanied by a short quote from St. Augustine: "Dogmas are fences around the mystery." The viewer is encouraged to contemplate the situation illustrated humorously in the illustration by comparing it to the more serious and rather theoretical text from an earlier and different time in history and culture. The multiple, complex, and variable meanings of the profound quote are made noticeable in ways that are quite gradual and subtle. In this example, St. Augustine's quote could mean that religious dogma provides the means for understanding life and the Divine or it could be suggesting the control and constraint of thinking. If it is the latter, is this ambiguity or contradiction intended by St. Augustine, has it been accidently created by him, or is it a conclusion that Kosuth has reached and is attempting to demonstrate for the viewer?

Silkscreen on laminated glass with neon light behind - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Á Propos (2004)
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Á Propos (2004)

Artwork description & Analysis: Kosuth's neon works have typically employed only single words or short tautological phrases that could be viewed in their entirety at a glance. Á Propos, however, is a work in the Jewish Museum's 2004 installation of 86 quotations of various lengths from dozens of philosophers. Kosuth uses longer texts for this neon installation and highlights many of his most important intellectual and philosophical influences. The quotations were arranged in horizontal and vertical patterns that have little rhyme or reason with regard to their placement but are designed as a compilation of multiple philosophical perspectives. This text by Claude Levi-Strauss reads "Marx's and Freud's combined lesson: they have taught us that man has meaning only on the condition that he view himself as meaningful." The central goal of the entire installation was to demonstrate how philosophy is very much about dialogues and arguments among philosophers from different eras and places. This is an important example of Kosuth's interest in literature, philosophy, history, and in the exploration of important writings that facilitate our understanding of and connection to the ideas of important historical figures and movements.

Frosted glass, vinyl letter, neon, and transformers - The Jewish Museum, New York



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Joseph Kosuth Photo

Related Art and Artists

Fountain (1917)
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Fountain (1917)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Artwork description & Analysis: The most notorious of the readymades, Fountain was submitted to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. The initial R stood for Richard, French slang for "moneybags" whereas Mutt referred to JL Mott Ironworks, the New York-based company, which manufactured the porcelain urinal. After the work had been rejected by the Society on the grounds that it was immoral, critics who championed it disputed this claim, arguing that an object was invested with new significance when selected by an artist for display. Testing the limits of what constitutes a work of art, Fountain staked new grounds. What started off as an elaborate prank designed to poke fun at American avant-garde art, proved to be one of most influential artworks of the 20th century.

Urinal - Philadelphia Museum of Art

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)
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How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)

Artist: Joseph Beuys

Artwork description & Analysis: In this performance piece, Beuys could be viewed - his head and face covered in honey and gold leaf - through a gallery's windows, a slab of iron tied to one boot, a felt pad to the other, as the artist cradled a dead hare. As though carrying out a strange music (if not some macabre bedtime story), Beuys frequently whispered things to the animal carcass about his own drawings hanging on the walls around him. Beuys would periodically vary the bleak rhythm of this scenario by walking around the cramped space, one footstep muffled by the felt, the other amplified by the iron. Every item in the room - a wilting fir tree, the honey, the felt, and the fifty-dollars-worth of gold leaf - was chosen specifically for both its symbolic potential as well as its literal significance: honey for life, gold for wealth, hare as death, metal as conductor of invisible energies, felt as protection, and so forth. As for most of his subsequent installations and performance work, Beuys had created a new visual syntax not only for himself, but for all conceptual art that might follow him.

Gold leaf, honey, dead hare, felt pad, iron, fir tree, miscellaneous drawings and clothing items - Galerie Schmela, Dresden, Germany

Le Vide (1958)
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Le Vide (1958)

Artist: Yves Klein

Artwork description & Analysis: To further his artistic vision of the immaterial, Klein created Le Vide (The Void), removing everything from the Iris Clert Gallery except for an empty cabinet. Klein also created a dramatic entrance for the opening ceremony, in which visitors were welcomed into the empty room. Regarding the work Klein stated, "My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner..." Although the stunt might be read as part of Klein's ongoing interest in mysticism and "the void," like much of his work it might also be read in a slightly contradictory manner, as a political attack on the traditional art object and the gallery system that supports it.

Installation with cabinet - Displayed at the Iris Clert Gallery, Paris

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