Art Through Time: A Global View
Writing Art: One and Three Chairs
American artist Joseph Kosuth is one of the primary figures associated with the 1960s movement known as Conceptual Art.
Along with Sol Lewitt, Lawrence Weiner, and other conceptual artists, Kosuth approached art-making from a radical new perspective. For them, the totality of an artwork was the idea behind it. Taking the position that actual art objects, such as paintings or sculptures, for example, were beside the point, unnecessary, or old-fashioned, these artists made words and the explanation of concepts their central focus. Kosuth’s writings were especially important to laying out the philosophy behind conceptual art. Deliberately provocative in tone, his articles for art magazines rejected many of the traditional criteria for assessing art, including tastefulness and aesthetics.
One and Three Chairs is essentially an argument posing as an artwork. Kosuth places an actual chair against a wall. To its left hangs a dry, documentary-like photograph of that chair, and to its right, he has placed a blown up photocopied text panel. In the original version of this work, the text was the basic dictionary definition of “chair.” Kosuth’s artwork has proven quite flexible. The version seen here, created for an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris, uses a list of translations for “chair” from an English-French dictionary.
One and Three Chairs is not meant to be beautiful or to demonstrate any technical artistic skill. No one has painted a picture of the chair, for example; Kosuth uses only photographic mechanical reproduction. His approach to his subject is highly intellectual and self-referential. He thinks the job of an artist was to investigate and question the nature of art. Here, Kosuth is interested in the play of three distinct ways (objects, pictures, and words) of representing the basic, banal fact of the chair. He forces the viewer to think about how these three modes communicate information. Moreover, the viewer must consider whether the differences among these types of representation are important or whether it is even possible to articulate those differences. One and Three Chairs is an artwork that challenges its viewers to consider how artworks engage their audiences.
Sylvia Wolf, Director of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle
“In the 1960s artists were challenging the hierarchy of information and what was in, what made visual art art, and including words, for example, or everyday objects. And I’m thinking about Kosuth, for example, and his piece One and Three Chairs [ETY], from 1965. Equal weight is given to the physical object of a chair, to the photographic reproduction of a chair, and to the dictionary definition of a chair—all of which are on view as part of the piece—two pieces on the wall and the chair sitting in front of it. Which is the correct chair? Which is the chair that we value, which is the one that is the most important, or are they all equally symbolic and significant of chair, meaningful, communicative? The ambiguity that the work suggests is a provocation and therein lies the art as far as I’m concerned.”
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon, 1998.
Kosuth, Joseph. Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966–1990. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.
Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
The Museum of Modern Art Web site. http://www.moma.org.
Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon, 2002.
Phillips, Lisa. The American Century: Art & Culture 1950–2000. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W.W. Norton, 1999.