Lauded for his groundbreaking and highly influential work, Joseph Kosuth emerged in the mid-1960s as a key member of the Conceptual art movement. Claiming that formal concerns were of lesser importance than the immaterial ideas underpinning an artwork, the artist challenged existing definitions of the value and construction of art. Over the years, Kosuth has created a heralded body of self-referential work that addresses how art produces meaning, and examines verbal assumptions and definitions with a disconcerting literalness. Like his peers On Kawara and Lawrence Weiner, Kosuth especially favored language as a tool for artistic exploration, and his works frequently consist of tautological statements announcing what they are, as seen in such compelling and iconic works as One and Three Chairs. “When you describe art, you are also describing how meaning is produced, and subjectivity is formed,” Kosuth has said about his interest in language. “In other words, you are describing reality” (J. Kosuth, quoted in N. Spector (ed.), Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York, 2004, p. 180).
Embodying the artist’s interest in language, conceptual frameworks and the production of art, the present work Purloined is an actual novel created by Kosuth, and its title refers to both its “mystery novel” genre, and the way that Kosuth has produced it: by appropriating pages from other books. Borrowing from a variety of sources and authors, Kosuth has shuffled and reassembled these pages—and the stories within—to form a new text. Each page has been reproduced exactly as it appeared in the original source, meaning that fonts, characters and storylines change from one page to the next, frustrating legibility and challenging the reader’s engagement with the work, as expectations for what will happen on the next page are knocked down again and again. Defying the conventions of narrative customarily employed by novels to create such an ambiguous “plot,” Kosuth ultimately leaves it up to the reader to extract what storyline they will. Ultimately, however, Purloined suggests that narrative is not the ultimate goal of art. In a dazzling conceptual turn, Kosuth instead gives new meaning to the source texts that he dissects and weaves back together, as he presents these words in new contexts and as pieces of new stories, prompting the reader to imagine what the original book would have been. Purloined, in other words, unravels the usually hidden mechanics of meaning in art, making the present work exemplary of Kosuth’s overarching artistic strategies. As the artist later stated, “Aesthetics are conceptually irrelevant to art. Art ‘lives’ through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas” (J. Kosuth, quoted in “Art After Philosophy,” in P. Osbourne, Conceptual Art, London, 2002, p. 232).
Kosuth, Joseph (b. 1945). Purloined. Cologne: Verlag, Published in 2000 and Executed in 2014. 9 x 5 1Ž2 in. embossed fly-leaf in printed book, signed and inscribed ‘Joseph Kosuth 21-11-2014’ (on the inside fly-leaf).