Joseph Kosuth’s ‘Five Fives (to Donald Judd)’, 1965 is a neon work that consists of the numbers one through twenty-five written out and divided into five lines, each composed of five words. Kosuth created seven versions of this work, each one in a different color: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, and white.
This spring several New York institutions launched projects dedicated to the work of Donald Judd, including the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective, the release of a volume of Donald Judd's interviews published by David Zwirner Books and the Judd Foundation, and Gagosian Gallery's installation of the monumental Untitled, 1980, a work first exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery, 142 Greene Street, in September 1981.
On this occasion, the gallery has asked Joseph Kosuth to reflect on ‘Five Fives (to Donald Judd)’ and on the impact that Judd’s work had on his development as a young artist. Kosuth provided the following responses to the gallery's questions via email, which are presented unedited.
'Five Fives (to Donald Judd)’ is an unusual work for several reasons. The first is that you make a direct reference to someone in the title: Donald Judd. Usually your titles are more abstract. What is the reason for this title?
Well, for me Judd was important because his work, and by ‘work’ I refer to his ideas about art in general—what he made of course, but also what he wrote, what he said—really cleared the way for work like mine. What doesn’t seem to me to be sufficiently considered any more is how, in the face of a rather repressive Greenbergian late Modernism, he broke down the taxonomy of the rigid painting/sculpture dichotomy which had been oppressing practicing artists for a very long time. For me, as a young artist, it was liberating to find an artist with a developed, mature body of work which the artist claimed to be neither painting nor sculpture, just art. This fit well theoretically with what I learned and found so useful from the unassisted ‘readymades’ of Duchamp. It was a liberation to escape the formalist basis of late Modernism —which I saw as a trap— which painting and sculpture imposed. Judd’s message that ‘if someone calls it art, it is art’ was the kind of empowerment a young artist like myself needed to make work which could no longer to be seen as part of that. Of course, this had support in the work of other artists as well then, like the work of Morris, or in Rauschenberg’s ‘combines’, or Johns’s painted objects, and the work of several others, but Judd really cleared the space for a post-modernist practice. So this is why it was mystifying to me that Judd’s supporters permitted the market to present his work as ‘sculpture’. This was a denial of its history and his historical importance. Anyway, to return to ‘Five Fives (to Donald Judd)’, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could ‘do a Judd’ in words. So, I merely counted to twenty-five in a logical setting out of five lines of five in which each line got successively longer because of word size, and in this way, I thought, gave the work a shape which was not based on design but determined by the internal necessities of the word’s content. So the ‘interior’ content of the work formed the ‘exterior’ shape of the work. This also satisfied the problematic I was working with as an artist in all of my work then, which was to do works which were tautologies, and were thus self-defined. Also, not unlike Judd, the colors were simply the arbitrary ones, the basic primary colors that neon came in, so choice of colors that were ‘natural’ to the materials. Thus the quantity of works in the series is limited to these neon colors, with each being unique as a work.
Did you know Judd personally? If so, how did you meet him? What was your relationship with him?
Yes, I knew Judd very well. We maintained a dialogue for some time. As I said before, he was a point of reference for me, like Ad Reinhardt and Marcel Duchamp, as well as Robert Morris, and to that extent he was influential on my work. His statement that ‘whatever painting and sculpture has, my work hasn’t’, was important to show that one could make art that wasn’t either. Essentially his whole theoretical position as demonstrated in his various writings, and coupled with his work as a demonstration in practice, showed me what one had to do. Or, maybe more precisely, what one no longer could do. Although neither artist would be content, I could embrace both Judd and Morris for the same reasons I could embrace both Reinhardt and Duchamp, this being the vantage point of my view of art history, what one might call that perspective my age permitted me in my view of Modernism itself. Flavin was important to me too. His use of the readymade of florescent lighting, and his introduction of certificates which ended in prioritizing the concept of his work over the object, taught me a great deal.
Unfortunately, to my disappointment, he later permitted the art market to present his work as sculpture, which I really never forgave him for. He was so precise in his position in the beginning years, then he permitted his work to become sculpture. Really he set standards, like Ad Reinhardt, and then, after writing Specific Objects, he made furniture. So, as a young artist I was rather unforgiving. I probably will never be for permitting his work to be framed as sculpture, artists have to fight the market’s desire to usurp the meaning-making of the artist, but the furniture? Well, artists like to play. In this he was just exercising his creative rights I suppose. But his work, after all, was the way he resolved his painting problems begun years before, really nothing to do with making sculpture.
I probably shouldn’t say it, given the history of what happened later between Judd and Panza, but this was a period in which Giuseppe Panza would call me and ask my opinion about art and artists while he was making decisions on his collection. I believe I was very persuasive in convincing him that he had to have Judd in his collection, particularly if he had me (he had some twenty-three, I believe, works of mine by then.) It also made sense in relation to the scope of the larger collection. Panza is certainly one of the greatest collectors of the modern/post-modern period. He was serious, would think a lot about art and about what he bought. I was rather spoiled, I was twenty-four years old and my dealers were Gian Enzo Sperone in Europe and Leo Castelli in America and my biggest collector was Giuseppe Panza. This was a difficult standard to maintain obviously as the years went on! Nonetheless, I’ve tried. But artists had much less interference from the market at that time. And, possibly, artists often had more integrity then.
Beyond the rigor of his thought, what specifically inspired you about Judd's method of making art? Did this have any direct impact on your own creative methods?
Judd showed that he had internal principles that the work stood for and stood on, that is, his choice of ‘form’ was meaningful, based on a personal philosophy, was not arbitrary nor simply expressive. His choices weren’t based on esthetic or decorative reasons either. They were intentional.
You describe ‘Five Fives’ as making a Judd in your own terms, that is, according to your own working methods, could you describe the criteria that guided this translation? Would you call it a translation?
I suppose it was, a translation from object-form to text. ‘Five Fives’, my work, not unlike his, took the form of the length of each line of text, so the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ were the same. My work, based on Judd, was self-defined, and this was also in keeping with the principles of my work at the time as well.
I guess I would be remiss not to mention that fairly early, in my history not his, Judd and I traded works. What he gave me was a piece in galvanized tin, similar to the work he had at the historical ‘10 x 10’ show at Dwan. What he received from me was ‘One and Three Tables’. Years later when Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn, some of my co-editors at The Fox, wanted to criticize me, or anyway my art historical legitimacy (the main thing they felt that I had over them) they did it with a piece on “Don Judd” which they published in the The Fox. Following the lead of Chinese Communist politics, they didn’t criticize me directly, but in the Chinese Communist Party way: one would criticize Zhou Enlai by criticizing Confucius. When this article came out Judd was furious and said that since everyone knew The Fox was founded and edited by me, then it came from me. So he didn’t speak to me for some years and immediately sold my work to the Art Gallery of Ontario. He got his revenge at some point in the 1980s, when he wrote an article criticizing my work, and Conceptual art in general, in a piece, I believe, he wrote in Artforum. We finally made peace many years later, thankfully before he died, when we ran into each other while shopping one afternoon at Dean & Deluca.
Judd's former assistant Jamie Dearing has said that color, material, and space are the three main themes Judd dealt with in his work. These themes also seem to have relevance for ‘Five Fives’ (the green color, the neon material, and the way it illuminates the space it occupies)—do you agree with this? As a Conceptual artist how do these physical dimensions of art enter into your work? How do you negotiate between the invisible idea and its visible manifestation?
Well, I’ll be frank and say that these were clichés to my mind by the time I came along. They were part of a way of thinking, a mind-set, really inherited from Abstract Expressionism, if not Cubism, essentially, as part of the ‘toolkit’ that it was presumed all artists had to grapple with. So for me it was used up, it was too intrinsically linked with Modernism. But, of course, for Judd who was historically still part of Modernism, even if its end, it was something he naturalized even as he pared it down to its basic elements. Of course these three things are there because they are always there, and everywhere, as part of life’s visual, experiential world. But what my activity brought to the thinking about art didn’t utilize them as primary concerns because these presume a formal basis for art-making, as late Modernism, as conceived by Greenberg et al, had been reduced to a formal concern, even for Judd who pushed against it. I was more concerned with an unpacking of the elements which constructed the signifying dimension of art-making and those couldn’t have been approached simply in formal terms. Citing formal concerns, like color, material and space, brings with it a whole philosophy which simply wasn’t mine, nor, I maintain, that of my time, nor at that point did it interest me much. This thinking presumes that art was concerned strictly with how, but I felt it was more concerned with why. The heritage of art originating as it did to a great degree with craft, had interiorized how as basic to it, and Modernism was the final repository of this presumption. But play is basic to an artist’s activity, so how will presumably in some way I suppose always be part it.
Judd's work is also about how it makes you (the viewer) think. I was wondering how you think about viewers' experience of your own work. Of course it is about articulating an idea, but that articulation ultimately becomes an experience for the viewer—something encountered first on a visceral level. What are your thoughts on the relationship between concept and sensation (this is somewhat similar to the question about the invisible and the visible)? Do you think about the viewer's reception of your work or is it all about expressing, as precisely as possible, the idea in your head?
I disagree about the audience, for me the audience’s experience is important because they complete the concept, really the work, with the knowledge in their head they bring to it. Thus, there is a degree to which everyone’s experience of any artwork is different because of the part the viewer brings to the work. That collection of individual perceptions and concepts is the discourse which forms the meaning of a work for a community. Real creative work by an artist is an intervention which alters those concepts and thus perceptions.
Both you and Judd are known for your writing almost as much as for your art. How does writing function in tandem with your art? Is there a distinction between the ideas you develop in writing and those you express as works of art. Have you ever had an idea for a work of art that you later decided would be better expressed in writing, or vice versa? Were you influenced at all by Judd's writings?
Ah, remember, I admitted to being influenced by Judd’s writing at the beginning of our interview. His writing really laid the groundwork, cleared the rubble and made space for someone like me. But you can’t separate his writing from his work. Writing by an artist on art is more profound than one by a critic or art historian because it is more than just a secondary text, it has feet, it is concretized as part of a practice. When an artist writes, he or she articulates their thinking in a way which also articulates their work. Until you get your ideas out of your head, externalized, to be critically assessed by you, you can’t be self-critical, really you can’t grow and learn. Your own writing about your work lets you see it, finally.