What’s the Deal With That Neon on the Side of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium?

Nighttime view of Joseph Kosuth's 'W.F.T. (San Francisco)' on the side of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

Tonight, the San Francisco Arts Commission will flip the switch on a large-scale neon artwork covering the western side of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. For anyone passing by Polk Street between Hayes and Grove, what was once a blank brick facade (interrupted by two utilitarian exterior stairways) now features Joseph Kosuth’s W.F.T. (San Francisco), a glowing map of the words “civic,” “auditorium,” and their etymological origins.

Ever at your service, let me answer some of your basic burning questions about this new bit of public art.

Who is this Joseph Kosuth guy?

Joseph Kosuth is an American-born conceptual artist who currently splits his time between Rome and New York City. He rose to prominence in the New York scene of the 1960s, first as a student at the School of Visual Arts, then as a faculty member at the age of 22. And while his career has only grown since then (he’s participated in four different documenta exhibitions and three different Venice Biennales), he is perhaps best known for his early forays into the relationship between language and meaning.

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The Kosuth piece everyone and their cousin learns about in Contemporary Art History 101 is called One and Three Chairs, a presentation of one chair three different ways: actual chair, a photograph of the chair and a copy of the dictionary entry for the word “chair.” Object, image and language.

Trust me, when you’re a 20-year-old art student (the same age Kosuth was when he put this piece together), One and Three Chairs blows your mind.

Fast forward to 2019 and Kosuth is 74, still producing work—including plenty of public art—that addresses the basic concerns he raised in his college years. How does art create meaning? And how does language shape the world?

Cool, but what does it mean?

First off, W.F.T. is not, as my brain keeps telling me, a typo of W.T.F.

It stands for “Word Family Tree,” a style of mapping words and their etymologies that Kosuth has used for a number of years. Tracing the word “civic” back to its roots, we learn it comes from civicus, Latin for “of the community.” But it is also related to an Old English word for “family” and an Old High German word for “married couple.”

Detail of Joseph Kosuth's 'W.F.T. (San Francisco).'
Detail of Joseph Kosuth's 'W.F.T. (San Francisco).' (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

Here, the SFAC would like to point to Civic Center (specifically City Hall) as a site pivotal to the history of same-sex marriage. Also: a Latin word for “civil” is another another “civic” precursor.

Whether or not audiences take the extra leap to connect W.F.T. to San Francisco’s LGBT and Civil Rights movements is debatable, but Kosuth isn’t averse to a historical reading. “The basis of this project is language itself,” he says. “It is a work that is both a reflection on its own construction as well as on the history and culture of its own location.”

On the “auditorium” side of things, there’s a Latin word for that: auditorium. It means, “place for hearing,” but it’s also linked to a Greek word for “perceive” and a Proto-Indo-European word for “make clear.”

But don't take my word for it, all of this is spelled out, literally, in white neon.

Why is this art here, now?

The installation is a product of the Public Art Trust, an initiative launched by the SFAC in 2012 that provides an alternative destination for downtown developers’ 1%-for-art funds. Developers can either place artwork on-site (provided it’s publicly accessible), or they can deposit their requirement into the Public Art Trust, where it can be used to commission temporary art projects, fund capital improvements for nonprofit arts organizations, pay for restorations within the Civic Art Collection, or, in the case of Kosuth’s neon, pay for a new piece of permanent public art on a city-owned site.

This is the very first piece of public art to come out of the Public Art Trust endeavor.

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So who paid for it?

The developer footing the bill is Emerald Fund, a San Francisco-based company. Emerald Fund is responsible for two nearby residential buildings, The Civic (tagline: “The City at Your Doorstep”) and 150 Van Ness (“Experience it all”), both of which contain units with views of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium’s western side.

And before you ask, the total project budget was $1,200,000.

Daytime view of Joseph Kosuth's 'W.F.T. (San Francisco).'
Daytime view of Joseph Kosuth's 'W.F.T. (San Francisco).' (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

Whoa. Neon!

Right? We're all in the wrong business. The tubes were fabricated by a venerable company named Neonlauro just outside of Venice, Italy. Kosuth has worked with them before on a number of gallery and public art projects.

And this sucker is big—bigger actually, than the whole block. The SFAC says as far as they know, this is largest public display of neon in the city (someone might be hoarding a huge private cache of neon somewhere, but I’m feeling good about our chances on this one).

Bonus info, for those who (rightfully) care about this kind of thing: The tubes are attached through the mortar to prevent damage to the auditorium's historic brick cladding. (The Historic Preservation Commission signed off on the project, never fear.)

When can I see it?

After the March 13, 6pm lighting ceremony, the neon will be on from 6am to 11pm every day of the gosh darn week.

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