Often described as the father of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945, Toledo, USA) engages with art as an idea and explores the relationship between objects and the words that attempt to define them. In his seminal essay ‘Art After Philosophy’ (1969), Kosuth calls for artists to use their practices to question what art means and what it means to make art. In his own practice, Kosuth does this by engaging directly with pure distillations of concepts, prioritising critical discourse over aesthetics (recognising though, of course, the latter will never fully dematerialise). In this way, Kosuth questions the methods with which one may present concepts in language, and the role of language and meaning in art.
Kosuth began his practice as a painter before turning away from traditional styles and structures of creation. He came to consider such media to be inherently taking for granted the notion of ‘art’ as a stable concept, thus unable to act in revolutionary ways. Later in his life, he would say that just as one may go to an art store and buy tubes of readymade paint, so too may he mine materials from the history of philosophical thought and create his art with them: ‘A shift from “how” to “why”’.
Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965)—made when he was only twenty years old—is perhaps one of his most well-known works. It was part of his ‘One and Three’ series, in which he would present installations of three items: an object, a photograph of the object, and an image of the dictionary passage that defines the word for that object. In One and Three Chairs, a chair is presented alongside a 1:1 scale photograph of the same chair and the definition of the word ‘chair’.
One and Three Chairs illustrates three ways of being a chair, each equally valid to the other. In doing so, it questions how we come to understand the object, the object’s containment in the word, and the word’s containment in the object. In works such as this, the objects themselves are not special; Kosuth prioritises conceptual skill over physical skill and does not attempt to elevate the craft of any one element.
Another strain of Kosuth’s practice exists within a structure of ‘curatorial installations’. In this method, Kosuth brings together other artists’ works to make his own. A well-known example of this is his 1967 exhibition, Fifteen People Submit Their Favorite Book, at Lannis Gallery, with contributions from artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson and Ad Reinhardt.
In Kosuth’s series ‘First Investigations’, displayed works are accompanied by certificates for sale that state the work may be made and remade for various exhibitions. This action attempts to locate the art in its idea rather than its physical manifestation. ‘First Investigations’ distilled the actions of the ‘One and Three’ series to focus on the containment of meaning in words. For the series, Kosuth would present the dictionary definition of a word (for example, water) on the gallery wall. In doing so, he removed the art object entirely in favour of words and the essential provocation.
Kosuth initially took his inspiration from thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud. He was interested in how Freud changed humanity’s ideas of personal and social identity within Western paradigms, and in Wittgenstein’s analyses of language. In 1993, Kosuth received not only the Menzione d'Onore at the Venice Biennale, but also the Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government. He first taught in 1967 at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and has since acted as visiting professor for several institutions including the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, Yale University, Pratt Institute in New York, and Oxford University.