Joseph Kosuth was born in 1945 in Toledo, Ohio. He attended the Toledo Museum School of Design from 1955 to 1962 and studied privately under the Belgian painter Line Bloom Draper. In 1963, Kosuth enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He spent the following year in Paris and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. He moved to New York in 1965 and attended the School of Visual Arts there until 1967. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others, influenced the development of his art from 1965 to 1974. During this period, he explored the idea that language possesses meaning only in relationship to itself, as in the series One and Eight—A Description (1965), in which eight words in neon signify only the elements that compose the work; for example, Neon Electrical Light English Glass Letters Red Eight. Kosuth founded the Museum of Normal Art in New York in 1967 and his first solo show took place there that year.
In 1969, the artist organized an exhibition of his work, Fifteen Locations, which took place simultaneously at fifteen museums and galleries worldwide; he also participated in the seminal exhibition of Conceptual art, January 5–31, 1969, at the Seth Siegelaub Gallery, New York. Between 1970 to 1974, he presented a number of solo shows consisting of classroom environments in which participants were accommodated at desks, given documents to read, and presented with texts or diagrams on the walls. In 1973, the Kunstmuseum Luzern presented a major retrospective of his art that traveled in Europe.
Kosuth was coeditor of The Fox magazine in 1975–76 and art editor of Marxist Perspectives in 1977–78. In the series Text/Context (1978–79), the artist posted statements about art and language and their sociocultural contexts on billboards. In 1981, he began using the theories of Sigmund Freud in series such as Cathexis, which is composed of text and inverted photographs of Old Master paintings marked with colored Xs. Also in 1981, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and the Kunsthalle Bielefeld organized a major Kosuth retrospective. In his Zero and Not (1986), words were mechanically printed on paper and then partially obscured by tape. For A Grammatical Remark (1989–93), Kosuth applied white script on black walls; neon light was employed not only to grammatically punctuate the sentences, but also to visually punctuate the dark halls of the installation space. In 1993, the artist received the Menzione d’Onore at the Venice Biennale and was named Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2003, Kosuth created three installations in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, employing text, archival material, and objects from the museum’s collection to comment on the politics and philosophy behind museum collections. Kosuth’s distinguished teaching career has included professorships at the School of Visual Arts in New York (1967–85), Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg (1988–90), Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Stuttgart (1991–97), and Kunstakademie in Munich (2001–6); he is currently a professor at Instituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia. Kosuth lives in New York and Rome.