Originally written circa 2009 – my 18 yr old self was starting to appreciate conceptual art. I typed this from a hard copy so no footnotes (see references) and forgive any typos please – featured image is (of course) One and Three Chairs (1965) by Joseph Kosuth This post is unedited from my original, including the weird quote-within-a-quote in very first sentence *facepalm*
Conceptual Art and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs
Sol LeWitt used the name Conceptual Art in 1967, to “characterise works, like his own, ‘made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eyes or his emotions'”. The movement was an extended artistic “free-for-all” beginning during the mid-sixties, and one of the “most radical of all ‘post-Minimal’ efforts”. This essay will discuss one piece in particular, Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), and its relationship to Conceptual Art. The piece is an ideal work to illustrate key identifying aspects of Conceptual Art, such as dematerialisation and documentation.
Smith suggests that Conceptual Art represented a “coming to full bloom of ideas which were for the most part introduced by a single artist, Marcel Duchamp, as early as 1917”. She reasons that this is because Duchamp was one of the first artists who claimed to be more interested “in the ideas than in the final product”. According to Hunter, Jacobs and Wheeler, Kosuth was influenced by the work of Duchamp, feeling that his work “marked the revolutionary turning point in the history of art, which shifted significance from “appearance” to “concept”.” The art object itself was abandoned by Conceptual artists as a unique, saleable, luxury item, and replaced with an “unprecedented emphasis on ideas”. This shift in the purpose of art-making, from aesthetic to idea-based, is a key aspect of Conceptual Art, linked to Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s 1968 writings on “the dematerialisation of art”, which rendered the art object “wholly obsolete”. Morgan suggests that the “crux of the Conceptual dilemma…was to instil context into art without imitating the aesthetics of formalism”; this lead to Conceptual Artists distancing themselves from traditional aesthetics, developing new media and new methods of documenting their works. Documentation became crucial to Conceptual Artists, “since ideas could transform only if conveyed to an audience larger than that of the marginal enthusiasts willing to pursue the new radicality in its flight from mainstream venues”. LeWitt suggested “ideas may…be stated with numbers, photography, or words or any way the artist chooses, the form being unimportant”. Essentially, Conceptual Artists abandoned traditional media and forms of representation, such as painting and sculpture, which LeWitt felt connoted a “whole tradition, and [implied] a consequent acceptance of this tradition”. Documentation and dematerialisation can be explored further through Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.
One and Three Chairs consists of a “folding chair along with a full-scale photograph of it – a visual representation – and an enlarged photograph of a dictionary definition of a chair – a verbal representation”. The piece lacks the artistic value of traditional works, with the unique art object replaced by a common fold-up chair. The creativity of the artist is not visible, reinforcing Kosuth’s desire to “supplant art-for-art’s sake with art-for-ideology’s sake”, and also linking with Duchamp’s readymades which so influenced Kosuth. For Kosuth, the most efficient way to describe a chair is not necessarily a painting of a chair, but a real chair. Alongside the chari hangs a blown up dictionary of “chair”. This use of language reflects the ideas circulating within Conceptual Art, which was one of the first movements to use language not only as a means of documentation but also “as a medium for independent use in place of materials such as paint”. On the other side of the fold-up chair, hangs a life-sized photograph of it, again unaltered by the hand of the artist. Not unique to the solid chair or another chair of the same make, just a photograph of a normal, unremarkable chair, yet somewhat ironically raised to the status of art. So One and Three Chairs reflects the prominent Conceptualist idea of the dematerialisation of the art object, while also illustrating the Conceptualists’ significant emphasis on language and photography not only as a means of creativity but also documentation of ideas.
Kosuth was among the early Conceptual Artists, influencing and shaping not only the movement but also art history for generations to come. One and Three Chairs, as an early Conceptual piece reflects well the ideas circulating in the movement during the mid-sixties. However, how well does it reflect the movement as a whole? While many early pieces share the same relationship to the movement as One and Three Chairs, Conceptual Art developed further, carried on by new artists and new ideas. As the movement developed, “younger artists had gone further and embraced ideas, at the expense of palpable form, until their work scarcely existed in the physical realm other than as ‘documentation’ – numbers, words or photographs”. One and Three Chairs must now be viewed in the context of newer Conceptual works, such as Robert Barry’s 1969 Telepathic Piece – “a statement that ‘during the exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image'”, or Huebler’s New York – Boston Exchange, using maps and instructions to propose the creation of “identical hexagons (one in each city) 3,000 feet on a side, whose points would be marked by white stickers 1 inch in diameter. Even if executed, the work would have been impossible to experience as a whole, except in the viewer’s mind”. Conceptual Art also grew more performative into the 70s, with works such as Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) where he was shot in the arm by an audience member, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) where the artist masturbated under a ramp, out of sight but within earshot of the audience, and Gilbert and George’s “mannequin-like performances” such as Singing Sculpture (1969) where the two sang the words of a song along with the recording, often for hours on end. While One and Three Chairs may lack the performative and ‘impossible’ aspects of later pieces of Conceptual Art, its relationship with the movement is nevertheless important.
Conceptual Art was a radical movement, in which “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work…all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs played an important role within the movement as a whole. Even as Conceptual Art broadened and explored new media and tools of expression, the piece influenced Conceptualist documentation, use of language, and attitudes towards the unique art object. One and Three Chairs was a pioneering piece, helping to shape Conceptual Art and influencing work produced for years to come.
Hunter, S., Jacobus, J., Wheeler, D., Modern Art: Painting Sculpture Architecture Photography, New York, The Vendome Press, 2004
Morgan, R., Conceptual Art, An American Perspective, Jefferson, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1994
Romirer, A., New Art in the 60s and 70s Redefining Reality, London, Thames and Hudson, 2001
Smith, R., Conceptual Art, in ed. Nikos Stangos, Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism, London, Thames and Hudson, 2003