Paul Kos

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Paul Kos (American, b. December 23, 1942) is a conceptual artist and one of the founders of the Bay Area Conceptual Art movement in California. In the late 1960s and 70s, this area was already known for cultural change and political activism. It was a natural consequence that revolutionary art and ideas would develop right there. The Bay Area was a motherland of new forms of video, performance and installation art. Paul Kos (together with his contemporaries Vito Acconci, Howard Fried, and Bruce Nauman) was one of the first artists to incorporate video, sound and interactivity into his sculptural installations.[1] Kos is drawn to the integrity of materials, and in finding a place where material, play, chance and meaning can magically come together.[2] For Kos, manipulation and participation are fundamental to art.

Short biography[edit]

The Sound of the Ice Melting, 1970

Paul Kos moved from Wyoming to San Francisco where he received both his B.F.A and M.F.A from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967, where he later taught in the New Genres department. When he moved, cultural curiosity, exploration and political activism had already set the ground basis for future artistic practice. Kos was interested in finding the best means of expressing contemporary ideas about the culture in which he lived and therefore abandoned traditional artistic media such as painting, drawing, and sculpting. Over the years, his interest in video and sculptural installations has grown. His art was influenced by Earth Art and Arte Povera and that influence shows in his pieces The Sound of Ice Melting (1970) and Sand Piece (1971). In the mid-1960s he worked on abstract fiberglass sculptures, but he then turned away from those to more site-specific art that was meaningful both through the process and because of the final product. The first major retrospective of his work “Everything Matters” was held at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. A second major survey of the artist's work was held at di Rosa in 2016.[3] Today Kos lives and works in San Francisco. He has exhibited widely on both the West and East coasts and has received numerous prestigious awards, including five National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and the Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. His work can be found in the collections of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, di Rosa,[4] the Museum of Modern Art (New York), and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.[5]

Kos has received numerous grants and awards [6] including, Dodd Chair at the University of Georgia, a Eureka Fellowship, a Flintridge, a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller, a Tiffany and six NEA Fellowships. Besides his studio practice, Kos has made large scale public art installations including:Poetry Sculpture Garden with Poet Laureate, Bob Hass, at 199 Fremont, San Francisco and “Every thing matters” for the Bishop Collection at the new UCSF Campus .[7]


The major influences in Paul Kos’s art come from his own life, thoughts and memory. His interests are nature, the world around him, teaching, traveling, and concern for humanity. Czech poet and president at the time Václav Havel said: “In the West everything works and nothing matters, while in the East nothing works and everything matters.[1] In his father’s medical library, Paul Kos found a book containing the color vision charts developed by Japanese ophthalmologist Shinobu Ishihara in 1918. He adapted these classic vision tests to the phrase "every thing matters", attributed to Václav Havel. He created a small watercolor drawing. Then, years later, on entering the lobby of the newly completed Diller Cancer Research Building, the idea of these color vision tests came back in a completely different form and material. matters.[8]

Another characteristic of Kos’s work is a sense of play. His art can either be either organized around ideas that come from games such as petanque, pool, or chess;[9] or the work itself can be engaging and playful. It catches viewer’s attention and very often demands some sort of physical or intellectual participation from his audience. Symbols and metaphors are common in his work because he uses them to integrate form and content into provocative and humorous body of work.

Paul Kos’s sound bites from the Spark interview [10][edit]

  1. "An artist goes in and out of shape ... when you're in shape, ideas are coming faster than you have time to make them."
  2. "My feeling is, if an artist develops fairly rigorous formalism in their education ... after that, one should be able to move from craft to craft."
  3. All art should have good craft—that's just an assumption. But good craft is not art. Art is that magic that happens somewhere between the viewer, the object and the artist. The artist initiating it, but the viewer being that receiver of that triangle."
  4. "In new genres, the craft is thinking on one's feet. And being able to use a material based on a site, maybe the site determines what the material is. It tells you everything."
  5. "Often I think a conceptual artist, unlike the painter or sculptor begins with a concept. And then finds the material that best suits that concept, that somehow the concept has some indigenous qualities to it that tell the artist what to use."
  6. "I respect painting probably the most because they are to the arts like philosophy is to the humanities."
  7. "When I was young I really loved magic tricks. I loved the idea of doing ... a piece could have an element in it which is a surprise."
  8. "When everything matters, essentially, every detail counts."
  9. "Work should not necessarily be read like language is -- left to right top to bottom. Instead, the work has its own language system."
  10. "I'm trying to pare down and pare down -- use less adjectives and less adverbs, trust the verb and some nouns."

Selected work[edit]

The Sound of the Ice Melting (1970)[1][edit]

10 boom microphones plugged into an active sound system recorded the sound of 25 pound blocks of ice melting in a metal pan on the floor.

Chartres Bleu (1982- 1986) [2][edit]

This is Paul Kos’s most famous piece that represents a full-scale recreation of a stained-glass stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral. Twenty seven vertically stalked monitors show glass panels of the famous church over a period of twenty four hours, condensed into twelve minutes. Readability of represented narrative scenes changes, depending on the changes of the light. The work is permanently on view at di Rosa.[4]

Sand Piece (1971) [3][edit]

Two story gallery was transformed in an hourglass. A tone of sand that was placed on the upper floor was sifting through a minute hole to the lower level, in the shape of a perfect cone.

rEvolution: Notes for the Invasion: mar mar march (1972- 73) [4][edit]

Viewer must walk around narrow planks of wood to see a monitor that shows a small figure marching above typewriter keys that spell mar mar march. Interesting correlation between the fiction and the reality and mechanical regularity of little man’s steps and disposition of wooden planks. It was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl film.

Tower of Babel (1989) [5][edit]

Tower of Babel is an installation from 1989. that criticizes divisions between different cultures and advocates international understanding. Tower of Babel is a Vladimir Tatlin–inspired metal ramp with twenty video monitors featuring seventy-six people speaking fifty different languages.[11] Cacophony seems indecipherable, unless a viewer comes closer to individual monitors. The richness and variety of those words become absurd in the middle of the spiral and languages become meaningless. This piece is inspired by a Biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which people used to speak only one language before they became too ambitious and tried to build a tower to the heavens. God made them speak different languages so that they could not understand each other.

Pawn (1991) [6][edit]

Image of a red pawn that is made with 25, 000 magnetic chess pieces. These pieces don’t mimic pawn’s symmetry but the illusion of light and shadow in bright red and white. A red pawn presents an obvious metaphor for life under Communism.[12]

Everything matters (2011) [7][edit]

Public collections[edit]

See also[edit]

Selected Publications[edit]

Online articles[edit]

  • Earnest, Jarrett. “Ice Makes Fire,[13]" The Brooklyn Rail, Apr, 2012.
  • Camhi, Leslie. “Human Comedy,[14]" Village Voice, Sep, 30, 2003.
  • Haber, John. “Us and them Comedy,[15]" Dec, 6, 2003
  • Baker, Kenneth. “Exhibitions evoke signs of ruin, scars of war,[16]" San Francisco Chronicle Jan, 19, 2008.
  • Gilmore, Johntan. “Art in America,[17]" April 2004.
  • Kimmelmann, Michael. “Wry Faith That’s a Bit Slapstick,[18]" New York Times. Sept 12, 2003.
  • Geer, Suvan. “ART REVIEWS : Paul Kos: Manipulation by Participation,[19]” Los Angeles Times. May 25, 1990.


  • Lewallen, Constance. Everything matters: Paul Kos, a Retrospective. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, 2003. Amazon ISBN 0971939721
  • Phillips, Glenn. California video: Artists and Histories. Getty Research Institute. May 20, 2008. Amazon ISBN 0892369221


  1. ^ a b "Everything Matters: Paul Kos, A Retrospective". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  2. ^ "Paul Kos". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c "The Collection". Retrieved 2016-11-03. 
  5. ^ "SPARKed, Spark in education, educator guide" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  6. ^ Gallery Paul Eanglim "SPARKed, Spark in education, educator guide" Check |url= value (help) (PDF). Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  7. ^ San Francisco Art Institute "San Francisco Art Institute guide" Check |url= value (help). Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  8. ^ "University of California, San Francisco". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  9. ^ "Contemporary Arts Center, Everything matters, Paul Kos, A Retrospective". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  10. ^ "Spark interview". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  11. ^ "Paul Kos: Tower of Babel". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  12. ^ "John Haber: Us and Them". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  13. ^ "Ice Makes Fire". Retrieved 2012-04-04. 
  14. ^ "Village Voice". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  15. ^ "John Haber". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  16. ^ "San Francisco Chronicle". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  17. ^ "Art in America". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  18. ^ "New York Times". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 
  19. ^ "Los Angeles Times". Retrieved 2012-03-18. 

External links[edit]