Paul Kos is a conceptual artist who has helped create the vocabulary for video, performance, and conceptual art in the San Francisco Bay Area since the late 1960s. Currently his work is featured in the landmark exhibition State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, which opened at the Orange County Museum of Art as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative and is presently on exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum. On view at Nyehaus in New York is Allegories and Metaphors, 1969 – 2012 (March 3 – April 21). Kos walked with Jarrett Earnest through the three floors of the Nyehaus exhibition and talked about the evolution of his art.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Let’s begin with the first work in the show, “Sand Piece”(1971),which is a cone of fine white sand, slowly growing by way of a continual stream of sand trickling down from the ceiling. In the gallery directly above it, where the piece begins, is another much larger pile, one ton of sand, which transforms the two galleries of Nyehaus into an hourglass of sorts. How did this work come about?
Paul Kos: I went to Death Valley in 1970, where the sand dunes are a natural phenomenon. I brought some sand back with me and put it on my coffee table. There happened to be a tiny pinhole in the table top where I placed the sand and I saw what you are seeing in the gallery now—an exciting accident. The sand fell from the table to the floor! Around that same time I was offered a show at Reese Palley gallery, which was in the Morris Building, built by Frank Lloyd Wright in San Francisco on Maiden Lane. It was a three-story baby Guggenheim with a ramp, and they gave me two floors. So within two months of going to Death Valley I was able to recreate the discovery of the sand on my coffee table as a piece in 1971. At Reese Palley you would have seen it opposite from the way you see it here; that is, the viewer saw the upper volcanic shape first, not noticing that the piece was kinetic. Only on viewing the downstairs gallery did the viewer realize that the stream of sand falling from the ceiling was forming micro avalanches in the same volcanic shape as above. At a certain point everything stopped (in about 11 days).
Rail: At Nyehaus, will all the sand wind up on the lower floor?
Kos: No, no, there will still be sand on the upper floor. Just like in an aerial view of Mount Rainier there will be a giant crater because no more sand can fall down the hole once it has reached its equilibrium with gravity. So that is how it ends. There are two things involved here: one is site-specificity—it needs two floors. I learned how to take advantage of architecture. The other thing is the accident that happened on my coffee table. I trust accidents more than ideas I can come up with sitting at my desk. I gather materials and I gather concepts, but I wait for some little click to make it coalesce into the actual piece, which is often an accident. This was a pivotal work for me.
Rail: I’m curious about your works “Emboss I,” “II,” and “III” (1995), which are three large, full-length photographs of a nude woman standing next to three different chairs, the impression of which remains on her body. Because they are installed across from “Sand Piece,” can you explain how they originated, and speak to their relationship to accident and observation?
Kos: I often don’t work with concept first. My wife Isabelle and I were in Paris and we went to a gallery called Jousse Seguin which showed 1940s and ’50s furniture. This particular exhibition combined furniture with art, like a Lawrence Weiner statement over a 1950s couch. Later that day Isabelle was waiting in a long line at the Pompidou, and I can’t stand long lines so I sat at a cafe. It was a tourist cafe with black-and-white postcards of Man Ray and other early 20th century photographers. Women were wearing miniskirts and men wearing shorts and I noticed they all walked away with the print of the chair they had sat on for two hours on the back of their legs. So this work is three different chairs, three different prints; I’m trying to make a little fun of printmaking here. These are embossed prints. Art should not be functional, furniture should be, so I thought, “What if we play that little edge which is a balance between the two?”
Rail: Would you talk a bit about the piece “Tent (in the Wind)” (1982), which shows the word “tent” written repeatedly in cursive with a sound element coming from it. I’m very interested in both your writing and sound pieces, and this has both!
Kos: You know how when you are in a tent and the wind is blowing, it bothers you all night? Well, this is me writing “T” “E” “N” “T” over and over. Listen closely and you’ll hear me crossing the “T”s. I recorded the sound of writing it, which is an onomatopoeia of the sound of wind blowing across your campsite, shaking your tent so you can’t sleep.
Rail: Something that really interests me, especially looking at early pieces, is your relationship to Arte Povera.
Kos: For sure. Material, material, material. Not language-based conceptual work, but material-based. Poor materials: air, earth, fire, water, sand, ice. Exactly!
Rail: So when did you first encounter Arte Povera work?
Kos: I had Germano Celant’s Arte Povera book right when it came out, which I believe was 1969, but I was probably more introduced to it through Terry Fox. He had been to Europe a lot and knew Joseph Beuys well, as well as Marcel Broodthaers and others. He introduced me to these people before Celant’s book reached the U.S., before anyone really knew who Beuys was.
Rail: I was surprised to learn that you were showing with Castelli in the 1970s. How did that come about?
Kos: It came through video, not sculpture. I was brought in as a video artist. His director, Joyce Neraux, had seen some of my work. I did Tokyo Rose (1976), which was a video installation in the gallery, but Castelli lost interest in video per se. Then they had this thing called Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films for a couple of years. He didn’t keep me because he thought I was solely a video artist. I had two installations there of which Tokyo Rose was the large one. It is now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Rail: I would also like to talk about “Lot’s Wife” (1969) represented here by three framed photographs showing a pillar of salt blocks surrounded by cattle in the Napa Valley countryside. This was a breakthrough work for you.
Kos: In many ways this is my first piece. I have to tell you, before this I was making L.A. Finish Fetish fiberglass and resin sculptures and I looked more like L.A. than myself. I was a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) for six years and my work looked more like Richard Diebenkorn’s and Eric Bischoff’s and Joan Brown’s than my own. So finally I was on this ranch working with this Barbizon view, wearing a mask and gloves and dealing with toxic material, which suddenly didn’t make sense. I asked Rene di Rosa, the great supporter and collector of Bay Area art and founder of the di Rosa Art Preserve, who I was making commissioned sculptures for, if I could make one more piece for his cattle. So that is what I did. That’s “Lot’s Wife”; we did two of them. They are salt blocks stacked on a steel pole that slide down as the cows lick the lower blocks away. There are three colors: red, yellow, and white (iron, sulfur, and iodine salt).
Rail: You also grew up on a ranch, didn’t you?
Kos: Well, in ranch country, in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I worked on a sheep ranch and we did have horses. We even had sheep in our yard and unfortunately you would fall in love with them and no one could butcher them, so we had to quit doing that because if you want to eat lamb you can’t have them as pets.
Rail: While you were making “Lot’s Wife” did you ever lick those salt blocks out of curiosity? Because I did as a child and they don’t taste as good as you would think. [Laughs.] I grew up on a ranch and one of the reasons I like this piece so much is because of my childhood associations with these salt blocks, and because the material—the dense, dark red block with a slight sparkle—is actually quite elegant.
Kos: I don’t think I did lick them, because I can’t remember it and I think I would. I do remember ruining the drill press that we used to drill the hole through the blocks because the salt powder, humidity, and rain in Napa Valley rusted it in about three days.
Rail: In your work the materials have their own logic: they make sense and are multivalent as stuff. The meaning is in the stuff. But this piece, for instance, I know through photographs in a book, and now they are photographs on a wall. So what is the relationship between the actual ephemeral thing and the photograph or document or text for you?
Kos: This kind of work relies entirely on either photo, video, or film to be seen again, or it can be recreated.
Rail: Which is also why you make drawings as plans for work. Several of your drawings remind me of Happenings, like Kaprow’s beautiful “Fluids” (1967). Were you interested in Happenings?
Kos: Well, I had never seen one. I was not so involved or interested in what was going in New York as what was going on with Arte Povera in Europe. One of my favorite artists was Michelangelo Pistoletto in terms of work, sculpture, and action, but there were others, too. Not so much Hermann Nitsch. Although I do respect the way he was orchestrating it all, but the high drama was not my thing.
Another part about all of this I wanted to mention is that my studio became the drive from California to Wyoming. Every year for many years I’d take this 1,200 mile drive in a Volkswagen bus with a head wind so it would take hours and hours and it would become my studio space. In the beginning, I was still working with the resins, but the minute I started taking the drive as the studio space, salt became one of the first materials I worked with, along with ice. A year later I was invited by Tom Marioni to do a sculpture piece for a show called Sound Sculpture As.
Rail: Was that the first show in Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art?
Kos: If it wasn’t, it was one of the first. It was 1970. I was working with ice and driving and he invited me to be in the show a month later. So I came up with the “Sound of Ice Melting” (1970). I was always trying to find indigenous elements in the environment. Like with “Lot’s Wife” it was the cattle that led me to the salt, the salt didn’t lead me to the cattle. For the “Sound of Ice Melting” I got help from a sound engineer Richard Beggs because I didn’t want to just illustrate it: an illustration would have been one microphone with a block of ice. Instead I used eight claustrophobic microphones. It takes this many microphones to give credibility to the idea.
Rail: One thing I’ve always found very moving about this piece is that there is a strain inside technological development that is metaphysical. Coming down through the Enlightenment there is a sense of developing microscopes or telescopes in order to return to a prelapsarian state, to gain greater access to God. So embedded within these apparatuses of heightened perception beyond anything humans could actually do there is a metaphysical desire, which seems so beautifully embedded in this work, with its sweet absurdity.
My technical question is involved with this issue of re-staging. You recently re-installed this notably in Orange County, and now Berkeley as part of State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 curated by Constance Lewallen and Karen Moss. But it was also seen in the center of the rotunda at the Guggenheim’s exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989 (2009). When this work was made in 1970 these were state-of-the-art microphones and obviously they are not still state-of-the-art today, so in the re-staging how do you deal with getting the same type of equipment?
Kos: The analog mixer/amp is an important component. Digital equipment filters out all white noise. Analog allows me to turn up the volume, add a little treble, and white noise will be coming out of the speakers. So all the recreations so far have these 1970s analog mixers. When people come up and lay on the floor by the speakers, they are listening to what they think is the sound of ice melting of course, and it is, but its mostly just the background noise of the world.
Rail: Around 1989 you began to make a number of works that relate to Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union. What nationality is “Kos”?
Kos: It’s Slovenian. Slovenia is a country right below Austria at the northern part of the old Yugoslavia. It is at the westernmost edge of the old Eastern Bloc.
Rail: On that note, will you explain the piece “Border Crossing” (1990) to me? Because when I think of Bay Area conceptual artists I think of beer because of Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970), which is obviously just the formal recognition of a social experience. But these are nationally coded beers, and they are obviously still bubbly after being opened and resealed in 1990!
Kos: Well, “Border Crossing” is a bottle of East German and a bottle of West German beer of which I poured out half of each beer. I took a piece of industrial hose to connect both bottles and heated it. If you wanted to taste what it was like in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, this is it!
Rail: One of my favorite things that you’ve done, which is not here, is your cedar box called “Container for an Icicle (or, Mind over Matter)” (1982), a beautiful triangular casket filled with cedar shavings to help preserve the ice and then absorb the liquid.
Kos: Yes, I wish I had it. Just hours before an art auction at SFAI, I broke off an icicle hanging from the roof of my cabin in the Sierras and placed it in an icicle-shaped box that I had pre-made out of cedar. I rushed it down to the city for the auction and two bidders went back and forth until Austin Conkey finally won. This is the epitome of collecting conceptual art; he, of course still has the box, but even before he got home, the ice had melted. What remains is the shape of the icicle and the romantic scent of the cedar as one would find in a keepsake.
Rail: This video “Ice Makes Fire” is also one of my favorite things. It’s a recreation of an earlier video you did called “Pilot Light/Pilot Butte (or the Alchemy of Ice).” The video shows you going up to this unusual volcanic land mass, Pilot Butte, and cutting about a six-inch piece of ice from a block that you spin in the top of a cooking pot to create a convex lens. Then you hold it over a group of sticks to catch the sun until it sets the kindling on fire.
Kos: In 1974 I made it for the first time and recorded it in black-and-white video. I made it again in 2004 for a color video. And I was much better. I was able to make the lens much faster, even though it was winter and when I did it in ’74 it was summer. I only have about three minutes before the lens is ruined and if I get it right I have flames!
Rail: Will you talk to me for a minute about the video called “I Can’t Get it Right No Matter Where I Go: A Study in Light and Dark”(2009), which shows you walking up a mountain to a snowfield, and walking into an abandoned train tunnel and playing an accordion duet with yourself? When did you start learning how to play the accordion?
Kos: My mother died in 2000 and each of my siblings and I decided we would learn how to do one thing Slovenian. My sister and brother both took on a cooking recipe. The big thing in Slovenia is the Polka, so I bought an accordion and took lessons and tried to make this piece. Now I’m much better. For me one of the interesting aspects in this piece is the site; the acoustics are so opposite. One echoes and one doesn’t.
Rail: This engagement with your ancestral identity seems even more directly addressed by your piece “Not Whole”(2001), which is a tiny video monitor embedded in a removed knot hole in a panel of wooden wall. The video is you wearing a traditional mountaineering outfit.
Kos: This is a part of the wall of our cabin cut out and the video was also filmed in our cabin. I’m learning how to yodel, and you can hear how bad it is. And I’m coiling a mountaineering rope.
Rail: When did you get into mountain climbing?
Kos: I was young, 15 or 16. I wanted to climb, and scaled the Grand Teton in Wyoming and then later took a course from Royal Robbins in 1974. He was one of the first to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite.
Rail: Was the first major exhibition of kinetic art, organized by Peter Selz at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1966, an influence?
Kos: Of course. Something I liked about that show was the German artist who came over with his piece, but stopped over in Las Vegas along the way and then wouldn’t let his work be included in the show because he said there was no better piece of kinetic art than a slot machine. They might have brought in a slot machine to the exhibition. How much better participation can you get than a slot machine?
Rail: Let’s alk about your drawings for a moment. I think they are so utterly beautiful, between schematic plans and documentation that is very poetic.
Kos: I did a series of horizontal/vertical drawing proposals for ice sculptures, like this one with a block of ice and a glass tank the same size stacked one on top of the other. Eventually the ice just melts and fills the glass box. Another drawing shows a block of salt in a fresh water stream that melts away. They are very simple conversations between two elements. I love phenomena and experience. That is one of the main differences between East and West coast conceptual art, too. If you think of Weiner and Kosuth, it’s language, but with West Coasters like Robert Irwin or Terry Fox, phenomenology was a very interesting thing.
Rail: But you’ve also done a lot of work with text.
Kos: Well, it’s not about the language but about the material: ink and graphite. I did a piece about the relationship between a pencil and a pen: “The pen is darker than the pencil, but the pen runs out of ink along the way.” And as I write the pencil is harder to see but eventually it’s all you see.
Rail: Your work is not about language as an abstraction, but as a physical fact—concerned with the sound of writing or the stuff of writing. It’s language as material in a way that artists like Weiner are never interested in embodying in the same way.
Another thing that is remarkable about your work, which the selection for this show emphasizes, is the continuity and interconnectedness of materials and themes. Even where we began, with the cone of sand sifting through a hole in the floor, animated by “mini avalanches”; this connects to the avalanche drawings and mountain pieces.
Just to shift the conversation a little bit. You went to college at Georgetown?
Kos: For one year, in foreign service and languages. Then I realized that I wasn’t going to be a spy or a diplomat.
Rail: What brought you to San Francisco?
Kos: I realized that what I really wanted was to go to art school. I had been drawing all my life and had never been discouraged from art but never thought about it seriously. When I was at Georgetown I went to the theater, stage pieces, but never really went around to galleries. I ended up in California because I loved the photograph of the courtyard of the SFAI that was on the brochure. It could have been a lesser school and I wouldn’t have known better. I didn’t know what art was. I thought: “If you draw like it looks, that’s art.” I won ribbons in county fairs for landscapes and horse drawings when I was 5 and 6—the Sweetwater County Fair—because the drawings looked like they were expected to look. The first day I went to SFAI I brought in a little wooden case with 78 Grumbacher oil colors, each the size of a finger, and a tiny little brush with about five hairs. The teacher looked at me and said, “You go down to Bay City and buy yourself some house painting brushes and no smaller than pints of paint.” It was of course the core period of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism then. I had Diebenkorn, Bischoff, and Joan Brown as teachers. And so I became a painter for six years.
Rail: So after your year at Georgetown you ended up getting your B.F.A. and M.F.A. at SFAI. When did you start doing sculptures?
Kos: Right after graduate school. I wanted to switch to sculpture and they threatened to flunk me if I didn’t keep painting until I graduated. The minute I got out I started doing this Finish Fetish stuff and met Rene di Rosa, who made me a great offer. He said, “I would like you to make a piece to float on my lake and I’d like it to be a happy piece.” I made a floating piece that is like a fiberglass Judy Garland rainbow, slightly colored. And then I made another piece, a 30-foot flag pole with a spring in the center. It would bend in the wind. When I noticed the cattle I asked him if I could do one more piece. And that was “Lot’s Wife.”
Rail: How did you start teaching back at the SFAI?
Kos: Well, first I was teaching at the University of Santa Clara and they didn’t give me tenure.
Rail: Didn’t you start teaching a conceptual art class at University of Santa Clara very early? What year was that?
Kos: I believe, the earliest conceptual art class in the country—1970.
Rail: Something that I think about a lot is how to explain and teach conceptual art to young artists and the public, and one of the reasons I love SFAI so much is the model that you helped forge for thinking about conceptual art. How did you begin teaching it?
Kos: At Santa Clara I started team teaching with the mechanical engineering department. I didn’t love the art faculty, but mechanical engineering was so interesting. They had a hydraulic laboratory with pits they could flood like a swimming pool in about a minute and a half. So we would team teach some courses. I remember one day, as an example of a really good student piece, I brought in a photograph I had seen in National Geographic of two giant pythons that had accidentally grabbed the same baby gazelle. They were swallowing towards each other, their teeth couldn’t retract, they couldn’t vomit. And one must have looked at the other and realized that it had to swallow both the gazelle and the other snake, or be swallowed. So I gave it as an assignment. One particular student went to Goodwill and bought two vacuum cleaners and taped them together and turned them on. You could see two thrashing hoses trying to kill one another, and of course one killed the motor of the other, and won.
Rail: You gave the image as an assignment?
Kos: Yes, as the possibility of an assignment. Another assignment I would give at the beginning class was “Introduce yourself: break the ice.” But you had to use 25 pounds of ice to do it. People would come in and carve their portrait and talk about their life. Once I was being interviewed to be hired as the chair of the art department at University of California at Berkeley. So I made the final round and there were two of us going for it. Then the search committee asked me: “What was the best student piece you ever saw in your class—how do you teach?” I told them about this ice assignment as a good example. I had one student make the most incredible piece of all. First, he doubly met the assignment because he brought in 50 pounds of ice—two 25 pound blocks! In the corner of the studio he placed a chair and on it a block of ice. In another corner he put another chair and another block of ice, and then placed a cocktail olive on it. He then came to the center of the room. He had a starched white shirt and khakis on, very preppy looking. He dropped his pants to his ankles and started to shuffle over to one of the blocks of ice and jumped up on it. He squirmed around and we were all feeling so sorry because it must have been so cold on his bare ass. Then he hopped off and shuffled over to the other block and jumped up on it and left the olive there. He had moved it from one block to the other with no hands. [Laughs.] I obviously didn’t get the job!
Rail: You taught at SFAI for 30 years. When you started teaching in 1978 you were teaching Performance/Video, which I believe was the earliest department devoted to that in the country. Who else was teaching in it?
Kos: Only Howard Fried. We were the only full-time people, later we brought in Doug Hall, Sharon Grace, and still later Tony Labat, who had been our student. The part-time people who taught were Marina Abramovic, Mary Lucier, Vito Acconci, Charlemagne Palestine, Gerhard Johann Lischka (a very interesting scholar from Switzerland), and Terry Fox. It was really an active and lively place.
Rail: Your work fully aligns with what makes sense to me as conceptual art. The conventional explanation that conceptual art is only concerned with idea instead of form seems to be both uninteresting and untrue. That idea still has to be communicated through a physical thing, an experience, object, or text, and those are all subject to aesthetic decisions. I like how you have talked about materials performing “double duty.”
Kos: Right—materials can be both form and content.
Rail: That seems like the most straightforward way to start dealing with conceptual art, as something that is immensely interesting and pleasurable.
Kos: I try to require material to serve double duty. An example would be my “Coal/Canary (Weight of a Song) (2007).” Two pieces of coal combined weigh 500 pounds; it’s different than if it was a nugget. A nugget is enough to signify “coal” but not enough to make it formally or aesthetically communicate—it doesn’t have presence.
Rail: So many of the people who are what we might call first generation performance or conceptual artists come from training as formal object makers and have a very deep understanding of aesthetics, which don’t seem to me to be rejected or disavowed but expanded and complicated. Whether it’s Mary Kelly, or Carolee Schneemann insisting that she got to her performance work as a painting through Cèzanne.
Kos: I do believe this: it doesn’t matter what craft you learn it in, but an artist must learn the formal discipline of art. Once you learn it, as I did it in painting, one could apply that knowledge to any art making with that same understanding.
Rail: I’d like to talk about one of your most famous works that isn’t in this exhibition, “Chartres Bleu”(1983–1986), which is a 27 channel video piece that condenses the experience of 12 hours of light passing through a window at Chartres Cathedral into 12 minutes. I saw it installed in its chapel at the di Rosa Art Preserve when I was a freshman at SFAI and it was one of the first important encounters I had in art school. A perfect example of this “double duty” of material and content, which also reminds me of Freud’s “dream work” as a kind of condensation where things are collapsed through an associative logic. So to combine this famous stained glass window, which is light passing through glass, with the reality of what a television is as a material—essentially colored light passing through glass—is very elegant. Both so simple and complicated.
Kos: One of the things that’s nice about that Chartres piece was that Isabelle was my collaborator on the site, the tunnel and the chapel. In the 45-foot underground tunnel to the chapel we installed timbers, much as you would find in a mine shaft. And they formed Roman numerals, I-XIV becoming the 14 stations of the cross. The piece is comprised of 27 TV monitors proportioned 3:4 which was the same as each panel of that window. But so much about the process was about accident. Once I found the right window at Chartres Cathedral I went to ask permission from Musèe des arts et Mètiers and they said, “We’ll give you an answer in six months.” I said, “I don’t have six months, I’m in Paris two more weeks!” So I went back to my apartment and talked to the proprietaire of the building, and told him my story in my poor French. He understood me enough and made a telephone call. Then we jumped on the mètro right then, and he told me not to say anything and let him do the talking. We arrived at the office of the Préfet des arts et Mètiers, the head minister of all culture in France, who subsequently called the head architect and said, “I give permission for Paul Kos to put a scaffold in front of a window in Chartres Cathedral.” Which is amazing because I later found out that the head architect just denied MGM’s request to film in Chartres the week before. I had decided which window I wanted because of the 3:4 proportions like a television, but when I went back to videotape the piece, they had moved the scaffold to a more famous window, the astrological window, which is made of squares, thinking that as an American I had chosen a lesser window. When I asked them to move the scaffold they said, “maybe in a week or two, as we are very busy.” At lunchtime I noticed that the workers were playing pétanque outside. So I went up to them and said, “If I beat you at pétanque you move the scaffold after lunch, if I lose I’ll pay you in American dollars.” At the time, the dollar was high, at about 10 francs to one dollar. I lost in pétanque, but they were so impressed that an American knew how to play their game that they moved the scaffold after lunch.
Rail: Your work seems to me to be about finding things wonderful, as in full of wonder, unexpectedly. In art galleries one is prepared to have a particular type of experience, which is often trying to bowl you over, visually or more recently, in a tactile way, which produces its own kind of anesthesia. It made sense when we were talking about how you respected Hermann Nitsch but his work wasn’t really related to what you were doing because it’s the opposite end of the spectrum—it’s all pain and opera and spectacle. It seems like all the spectacle has evaporated out of your work, and there is a kind of quiet that cuts through to delight. And like the video in which you make an ice lens to start a fire in real time, there is also a kind of magic.
Kos: I try to work under some of the following self-imposed precepts: reveal slowly; prove metaphor is more; heed site or be shortsighted; respect simple humble materials; prefer art that is, to art that is about; strive for equilibrium in message and messenger; and finally, opt for, but never expect, “partly cloudy, becoming mostly sunny.”