Contemporary artworks take many forms, at times even disappearing altogether. In 1969 cows grazing in a Napa Valley pasture licked away Lot’s Wife, a salt-block sculpture by Paul Kos. Existing today only in the form of photo-documentation, this work displays the ephemerality, metamorphosis, and use of everyday materials that have since come to be recognized as hallmarks of Conceptual Art, which Kos helped pioneer.
Born in Wyoming, Kos arrived in Northern California—a hotbed of artistic innovation and one of the cradles of the Conceptual Art movement—in 1962. Enrolling at the San Francisco Art Institute, he earned an M.F.A. and later joined the faculty. Kos’s early experiments were in sync with those of fellow Bay Area artists David Ireland, Terry Fox, and Tom Marioni—for whose Museum of Conceptual Art (one of the first alternative spaces) Kos devised a visual conundrum resembling a Buddhist koan, or illogical tautology. Titled The Sound of Ice Melting (1970), it consisted of eleven state-of-the-art boom microphones trained on two large blocks of ice. The absurd premise spurred viewers to ponder the nature of time, of aural perception, even the act of contemplation itself—while poking fun at positivists’ limitless belief in the power of technology.
Along with Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, Kos was among the first to incorporate video and sound into sculptural installations. Many of his works, such as rEVOLUTION: Notes for the Invasion: mar mar march (1972–73) and Guadalupe Bell (1989), invite our active participation. Although Kos’s art is not polemical, he sometimes addresses political issues, questioning rigid national divisions that give rise to conflict and indirectly advocating for human understanding. Other times Kos explores paradoxes of religious belief. He frequently draws upon the rituals and imagery of the Catholic Church, and the bell is a favorite metaphor. In Chartres Bleu (1983–86)— perhaps Kos’s best-known work—he wryly marries medieval stained glass and modern video. This sense of play is a defining characteristic of Kos’s art—as underscored in his works devoted to chess, pool, and pétanque, a French outdoor bowling game.
Calling himself a “materials-based” conceptual artist, Kos chooses whatever he needs to produce a desired effect. Enigmatic, humorous, and serious all at the same time, his multifaceted works draw us in, sometimes requiring our physical involvement and always sparking us to rethink our assumptions and perceptions. Seeing the world anew, Kos asserts that “everything matters,” but not always in the ways we presume.