Joseph Kosuth is one of the most representative artists and theorists of Conceptual Art, which is certainly the first attempt ever made to think about the practice of art as a semiotic project: Art as Idea as Idea, significantly states one of the artist’s most celebrated aphorisms.
In the essay Art After Philosophy (1969), Kosuth starts from the assumption that art “is analogous to analytic propositions” and therefore tautological. Adopting this theoretical approach, the artist goes beyond the idea, current in those years, of the “dematerialization of art” and approaches the rigor of the philosophies of language and logic. Viewed in these terms, art is distanced from aesthetics understood as aisthesis (“sensation”) to become a questioning of the “nature of art,” regardless of the medium used. By freeing himself from aesthetics, Kosuth also broke the link with criticism: “This art both annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary,” becoming, radically, both a critical practice and reflection on art. A significant work in terms of this theoretical assumption is The Eighth Investigation (A.A.I.A.I), which in 1971 inaugurated the activity of the Lia Rumma gallery in Naples and also the artist’s long connection with the city.
In 1975 Kosuth published Artist as Anthropologist and, again at the Lia Rumma gallery, exhibited Praxis, a work specifically designed for the city of Naples and for this reason presented bilingually, in Italian and Neapolitan. This is another emblematic work by the artist, because it embodies a rethinking of his earlier approaches in favor of a Marxian anthropology and the thought of the philosopher Habermas. In these years Kosuth began to reconsider the structure and function of art in relation to the context and role of the public, since the artist “is the model of the anthropologist engaged,” who “is operating within the same socio-cultural context from which he evolved.”
Subsequently, the complex system of his references was extended to the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations as well as the thought of Nietzsche and Freud. Nietzsche helped him deconstruct the myths of modernity, while Freud enabled the artist to “untangle the skein” of his own experience. The parabola of this strategy can be read in works such as Fort! Da! (1985) – the title refers to a famous passage in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle – and It was It #1 (1986), exhibited in 1986 in Castel dell’Ovo, Naples, at the exhibition “Rooted Rhetoric: a Tradition in American Art,” curated by Gabriele Guercio. The work belongs to a series in which writing and the device of quotation with a Freudian matrix are accompanied by neon, another characteristic element of Kosuth’s sculptural vocabulary since the mid-sixties.
“I wanted to preserve a subtle relationship with the idea of advertising in mass culture,” says Kosuth. “Someone has said that conceptual art is a cross between Pop Art and Minimal Art. I find this argument quite amusing. When I work with neon I use fonts that are not found in advertising, so people have only a trace of the advertising element.” In this way neon and writing become complementary elements, capable of indicating visually the complexity of propositions and cultural codes that actively involve the viewer in understanding the content, meaning and suspended relations between verbal and iconic representation, and judging which of these media best express the essence of the object. “As artists,” says Kosuth, “our task is clear though not simple. Truly creative work depends on the ability to change the significance of what we see: a process impossible without an understanding of those structures that constitute it.”