Joseph Kosuth (American, b. Toledo, Ohio, 1945)
White and Black(from the Art as Idea as Idea series), 1966
Enlarged negative photostats mounted on cardboard
Each: 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm)
Gift of Andy Warhol, 1974
Kosuth presents his dictionary definitions of the words "White" and "Black" in the general format of a painting: square, flat fields with light figures and black grounds, hung on a wall. Yet the work refuses the pictorial project of painting and art in general, and instead addresses the language through which art is perceived, understood, and valorized.
At twenty-one years of age, Joseph Kosuth became well known for his Art as Idea as Idea series (1966-67). These works consisted of photostats of dictionary definitions, each one enlarged, printed in negative (white words, black ground), and then mounted on four-by-four-foot boards. Highly influential works of Conceptual Art, they address the viewer as a skeptical reader of "the functions, meaning, and use of any and all (art) propositions...."1 As with all the words that Kosuth chose, "White" and "Black" are terms that are common in all discussions of art, but are particularly charged--or "packed," like baggage--in discussions of modern art. "Original," "Meaning," "Material," and "Universal," are some other terms that found their way into Art as Idea as Idea.2
White and Black's presentation of two definitions appears to be unusual for the series. It is not clear whether Kosuth originally conceived the panels as a single work. He installed and displayed the Art as Idea as Idea panels in various combinations, making the most of the inevitable diaologues between one definition and another.The Oberlin work also exemplifies the tautological chain of language critiqued in Art as Idea as Idea.3 (In "concrete" terms, the work is indeed white and black.) And while the series might generally implicate language as a structure of social consent and power, the racial implications of White and Black's word chains must have seemed especially pointed and disturbing when the panels were placed together in 1966, as they still seem now.
As works that consist entirely of text, Kosuth's Art as Art as Idea series had an immense impact on the language-based conceptual practices of the 1960s, and on a wide range of more recent practices-- often termed "post-modern"--that address the present cultural and social arena in terms of its written messages. Jenny Holzer, for example, works almost exclusively with created texts that rework familiar sayings and notions into unsettling or enigmatic statements, in unexpected formats and contexts, while Barbara Kruger juxtaposes created texts with pre-existing images from the common culture in order to magnify and estrange the "normal" meanings and functions of such imagery.
Joseph Kosuth studied at the Toledo Museum School of Design from 1955 to 1962, and simultaneously began to pursue his interest in philosophy and science. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1964, and in 1965 produced his first language-based works, presenting his ideas in glass, and in assemblages of objects, photographs and dictionary definitions (such as one and five clocks, 1965; London, The Tate Gallery). In 1966 he began the Art as Idea as Idea series, and was already (at twenty-one) writing about and discussing Conceptual Art in various public fora. In the late 1960s he became the American editor of the mostly British Art/Language, an important publication about (and of) language-based conceptual art. During this period he also founded the Museum of Normal Art, an early exhibition space for conceptual art in New York. By 1969 he was no longer producing objects of any kind, but was placing thesaurus excerpts on billboards and in the advertising section of magazines. Until the early 1980s he continued to insert anonymous messages and phrases into a variety of public spaces, the most important of which are the Text/Context billboards of 1978-79. In the early '80s his work returned to the art context of the gallery space, creating works such as the Cathexis series, which juxtapose reproductions of historic paintings with texts.
Inboden, Gudren, ed. Bedeutung von Bedeutung: Texte und Dokumentation der Investigationnen uber Kunst wit 1965 in Auswahl/ The Making of Meaning: Selected Texts and Documentation of Investigations on Art Since 1965. Exh. cat., Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1981.
Kosuth, Joseph. Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990. Edited by Gabriele Guercio. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.
Ring, Nancy. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 18. London and New York, p. 401.
With Leo Castelli Gallery, New YorkCollection Andy Warhol, by whom given in 1974
Baltimore, Fifth Regiment Armory, 1893. Exhibition of Revolutionary Relics and Fine Arts in Aid of the Maryland Revolutionary Monument Fund. Easter week. Cat. no. 13 or 14 (both noted as owned by Mrs. J. S. Gilman).
The work is comprised of two enlarged photostats (negatives), each wrapped around and mounted on rigid cardboard. The work is in good condition. In 1977 the lower right corner of White was smashed; it was treated by shaving and shaping the expanded board with scalpel and razor. Losses and indentations were filled with a mixture of Masonite fibers and PVA emulsion. Chips, flakes, and flaps of the black paper were re-adhered with wheat-starch paste, and losses were inpainted with watercolor.
1. Joseph Kosuth, "Introductory Note by the American Editor," Art/Language(February 1970); cited in Lucy R. Lippard, The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, (New York and Washington, D.C., 1973; reprinted Berkeley, Calif., 1997), p. 148.
2. On this series of works, see the interview with Kosuth by Jeanne Siegel, "Art as Idea as Idea," in Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), pp. 47-56.
3. Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Age of Dissent (New York, 1996) pp. 158-59.