"I do not make art," Paul Kos proclaimed in 1969 on the occasion of his first solo show. "I build half of a potential kinetic situation / You must supply the other half / I, YOU, and the OBJECT are irrelevant, but our / combination is art."
Visitors to the show at the Richmond (Calif.) Art Center engaged with Kos' work right at the front door, which he had blocked with a 5-foot-high, 7,000-pound wall of ice. They had to enter through a side door to see the rest of the exhibition, which included documentation of the artist's other works, including "Lot's Wife," a pillar of salt blocks erected on a field and licked away by cattle. The ice barrier, titled "Richmond Glacier," met a hastier demise. The local fire department deemed it a fire hazard and demolished it the next day.
In Kos' work, natural elements succumb to natural processes and external forces, artistic or otherwise. His art is rarely static; it transpires. Over time, he has embraced higher-tech materials, but he continues to stage encounters that don't just invite participation but require it.
"A lot of my work -- and even good painting -- is interactive," he says. "It does require the viewer's presence and consciousness. It's like being offered a glass of wine. It isn't there just to be there. You have to drink it."
A trim, intent man of 61, Kos flew from his home in San Francisco for the installation and opening of his show, "Everything Matters: Paul Kos, A Retrospective," at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown space. The exhibition, organized by Constance Lewallen for the UC Berkeley Art Museum, where it opened last year, surveys Kos' pioneering work in installation, video and performance.
"Tower of Babel" (1989) dominates the museum's upstairs gallery. The spiraling metal scaffold holds 20 video monitors, rising from waist level to several feet overhead. Faces appear on the screens, each speaking or singing in a different language. Their voices blend into a rich, rumbling cacophony.
"Equilibre IV" (1992) is far quieter and simpler but no less provocative. It consists of a broom standing upright on its bristles. On the tip of its handle rests a gently arched length of coat hanger wire, perfectly balanced by a small bell hanging from one end and a short white candle perched on the other.
Looking at the work in the show, it's far from obvious that Kos originally studied to be a painter.
He earned a master of fine arts degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967. He became a good disciple, he says, of such luminaries as Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown and Frank Lobdell. Once he finished his schooling, he veered away from paint and canvas toward a more conceptual approach to making art. He enacted performances like "rEVOLUTION" (1971), in which he shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition into a plywood panel hanging from a tree. In form, he deviated radically from the work of his teachers, but in spirit, his work shared their passion for process and improvisation.
"In a way, a good Abstract Expressionist painting is like looking at geology," he explains, his blue eyes sharp but his voice slightly muffled from a recent cold. "You can see which layer came first and which was probably the last stroke put on the canvas, just as sedimentary rock would line up. It's a noun that we're looking at, but it's the verb that's being examined. The painters showed product at the end of their verb. The early performance work showed the verb action. The residue was not as important."
Kos left the Art Institute as a painter but returned 10 years later as a teacher in the newly created department of performance video. The intervening decade was pivotal for him, as it was for the culture at large and the community of young Bay Area artists in which he played a central role. Art was making the shift, as he puts it, from noun to verb, from its traditional position above daily life to a new role actively ensconced within it.
Conceptual artists challenged the conventional definition of art as a static object, often by creating ephemeral works centered on ideas and actions. For Kos, this wasn't an either/or proposition. He defined himself as a "material-based Conceptual artist."
"I'm very interested in materiality, the way it can speak and be both the content and form of a piece," he says.
Natural materials dominated in Kos' early work, the influence of both his rural Wyoming childhood and his exposure to Arte Povera, a European movement embracing the raw and the humble, and exploring, as Kos describes it, "how materials like air, fire and water can behave, almost in performance."