Joseph Kosuth, Five Words in Green Neon, 1965. Neon tubing, 62 1/8 × 80 5/8 × 6 in. (157.8 × 204.8 × 15.2 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Leonard A. Lauder 93.42a-c
ADAMWEINBERG: Five Words in Green Neon is just that: five words in green neon. When we look at a neon sign blinking at night, we fall under its spell, almost believing that it floats miraculously in midair. Artist Joseph Kosuth exposes the trick behind the neon sign’s magic. Here we see dark sections of the phosphorescent tubes that connect the letters, and the electrical cord plugged unceremoniously into the outlet against the wall of the museum.
Kosuth believed that most of us are under a similar spell when we look at a painting. We can sometimes forget that, like the neon sign, there are mixtures of color, tricks of light and shade and perspective that combine to make a painting resemble a bowl of fruit or a naked figure. By 1965, when Kosuth had his neon sign manufactured, he felt it was time to move beyond the conventions of painting that existed for centuries. As one of the original Conceptual artists, and like many of his peers in that movement, he made art that provoked questions regarding the nature of art itself. An oil painting on canvas represents other worlds within a frame, whether it’s a landscape or an abstraction. Kosuth’s neon sign attempts to move away from pictorial illusion and into the realm of ideas.