In 1966, 21 yr. old artist Joseph Kosuth completed the world’s first Conceptual Art Cycle which began with Plato approximately 2,346 years earlier. Think about that. Noone had heard of Jesus, King Arthur was still a molecule waiting to happen and the atrocities that would later visit the world, the plague, Hitler, nuclear weapons and any other joke that comes to mind were inconceivable when Plato first postulated the following:
Forms (ideas) and not the material world known to us through stimulation, possesses the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. These Forms are the only true objects of study that can provide us with genuine knowledge.
Brother, that’s some badass conceptual art! It’s philosophy, granted, but when the guts of an art movement seek to refine itself to the it’s own essential DNA, like Pollock and Rothko finding the furthest reaches of Abstract Expressionism, then you’re a lucky little fellow to have a clear progenitor and not just some whimsical bit of hooey meant to lend credence to what you later hope is an ever-expanding bank account. In this case, Plato kicked the tires on subjective reality, said it was bullshit, did the math and invented the Forms. Later, Marcel Duchamp got crazy drunk on Absinthe, hallucinated Plato’s ghost and invented the Readymade – a physical extension of Plato’s original thinking.
Ok, most of that isn’t true, but you get the point. Later in the century future art master Kosuth melded Duchamp and Plato to produce One and Three Chairs (1965). Kosuth presented a chair, a photo of the chair and a text definition of “Chair,” presenting all 3 in a single piece.
Idea, object and 2D representation of object. Kosuth was getting at the idea of an idea, but hadn’t quite nailed it. The work was famously artsy and a revelation in the artworld, but still a damn artsy thing to do and it didn’t quite satisfy Kosuth. So in 1966, unlike Jasper Johns’ inability to follow through on his numerical ideations, Kosuth went all the way, stripped art of ‘art content’ and produced a piece called Idea.
Thus, Kosuth took the Platonic idea of Ideas and created a work called Idea that was the execution of an idea about the nature of Idea. That folks is about as smart as it gets, and a bridge that loops back on itself from which, lovely stroll that it is, there’s nowhere else to go, which oddly enough isn’t any kind of problem. Plato started this, Duchamp gave it form and Kosuth stripped the form to made it whole. Having completed Plato’s conceptual journey into modern art, Kosuth like any other artist was free to move forward in reclaiming language as a personal or political means of artistic exploration. Not that anyone needed to be aware of the execution of the work at the time, but it was done and life could move on.
Kosuth spent his entire career exploring the nature of art, language and meaning. In fact, in 1969 he became the American editor of Art & Language (which I’ll get to soon enough) and in 2011 did a major series celebrating the work of Charles Darwin. Once you’re rolling dice with Plato, taking on Darwin seems a fairly natural progression, hey?
Next up: Ray Johnson, Tom Phillips, Byron Gyson, William S. Burroughs, Hanne Darboven and Carl Andre.