by Lawrence Gipe
In 1967 conceptual art was percolating. The notion of object-free art was summed up by Sol Lewitt that year: “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product”. That fresh position freed many artists, including Paul Kos, who was just graduating from SFAI. Abandoning painting, but not object-making, Kos and other kindred artists in San Francisco created a distinct branch of concept-based art. A glimpse of his contribution is on view at the di Rosa Gatehouse Gallery in Equilibrium, a mini-survey co-organized by Amy Owen, curator at di Rosa, and Tanya Zimbardo, guest curator and the assistant curator of media arts at SFMOMA. It features video, objects, photographs, drawings and a big, bubbling science project called Condensation of Yellowstone Park into 64 Square Feet.
From the beginning, Bay Area conceptualists approached their work in a more genteel fashion than those operating elsewhere. In 1971, for example, the year Kos had himself filmed trying to lasso a mountain for Roping Boar’s Tusk, a one-minute video loop, Chris Burden was getting himself shot and Vito Acconci was
masturbating under a ramp. Kos’ works, which surfaced alongside those of fellow Neo-Dadaists David Ireland and Tom Marioni, seem, in retrospect, to have fostered a more thoughtful, more poetic legacy. In video pieces that involve Kos, he never confronts the viewer. Instead, he occupies a middle ground with his back to the camera or even off-frame entirely, sidestepping the cult of personality that infects some vintage performance art.
Consider as a case in point his unique, non-obtrusive relationship to nature. In this realm his work stands as a kind of an outdoorsy answer to Marcel Duchamp, positing natural forces such as ice, fire and lightening as unpredictable catalysts that invoke the powers of chance and inevitability. In Ice Makes Fire (1974/2004), a video sequence set in the Wyoming wilderness, Kos creates a rudimentary lens out of a chunk of ice, spinning it with gloved hands on his mother’s old cooking pot lid. By focusing the sun’s rays through this primitive magnifying glass, he ignites a fire in a pile of kindling. Just as the flames begin to take hold, he drops the ice/lens on top and the blaze sputters out. The action appears to carry an almost biblical implication: the instrument of creation can also extinguish without mercy.
Ice also figures in an art-prank Kos pulled in 1982 called Container for an Icicle (or Mind Over Matter). Kos was asked to contribute to an auction (a ritual of charity, but potential humiliation, that artists participate in) and decided to submit a non-traditional object. Fashioning a slender, triangular box out of incense cedar, he lined it with wood shavings and sealed into it an icicle. By the time he’d driven from his cabin in the Sierras to the auction floor in San Francisco, the work was complete: the ice had melted into a puddle. A wise collector bought the empty box.
Bound to Kos’ idea of Nature is the definition of space/land itself. While fellow earth artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria and James Turrell were manipulating large tracts of land to enact their visions of conceptual art, Kos took a lower-key approach; his idea of big terrain is the pétanque court – two of which he had built on the di Rosa property as part of his permanent installation, Zizi Va. It makes sense that one of his largest outdoor pieces be dedicated to a sociable game, one that is simultaneously a sculpture and an interactive arena involving communication, friendly competition and, of course, chance outcomes.
In other works, Kos uses the epic space of the West metaphorically, without inhabiting or disturbing actual land. In these the ostensible subject is distance. To wit: There are miles between him and the mountain in Roping Boar’s Tusk (1971); miles between his wife, Marlene, and the ominous lightening in the background of Border
Crossing (Wyoming/Colorado) (1968); miles between his Sierra Nevada home and the San Francisco auction house where the aforementioned Container for an Icicle arrived wet and empty; and miles of pasture walked by cows for a taste of his first conceptual piece, Lot’s Wife (1968), a column of salt licks. Often, the concept of duration is linked to these distances, and while it sounds like a cliché to say the works are about time and space, they simply are, and in the most thoughtful sense.
Overall, Equilibrium reflects Kos’ intellectual restlessness. He never repeats himself, and that alone constitutes a feat of market subversion. When we regard the rest of the Conceptual Class of ’67, most of the survivors have found a way to brand themselves, including the above-mentioned Sol Lewitt, who, having promoted the “not made visual” ethos, occupies a lot of SFMOMA real estate. One could argue that Kos caught a lucky break associating with Rene di Rosa, the landowner/collector who commissioned and supported his non-commercial output for decades. Still, Kos never seems to take more than he gives. In the end, we are the lucky recipients.
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“Equilibrium: A Paul Kos Survey” @ di Rosa through October 2, 2016.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.