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Analyzing Art

In the spirit of Magritte and Duchamp, Joseph Kosuth probes Western artistic traditions
Paola Morsiani, Curator of Contemporary Art
October 1, 2009
One and Three Photographs [Ety.], 1965. Joseph Kosuth (American, 1945-). 2009.1

Since Conceptual Art (originally also called Idea Art, Post-Object Art, Dematerialized Art) came to the fore in the 1960s, Joseph Kosuth has spent his career questioning how art acquires meaning. He was just twenty years old when he began his “investigations” into the function of art. Simultaneously thought provoking and poetic, One and Three Photographs [Ety.] is from the “One and Three” series, conceived in 1965. Each work in the series has three parts—a functional object (a chair, a clock, a frame), a life-size photograph of that object, and an enlarged reproduction of the definition of the object from a dictionary. Simply by presenting three different “views” of an object, without commentary, Kosuth asks viewers to think about the idea of representation itself.

In 1965 Kosuth had just transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York after a year studying painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art (he was born in Toledo), but already he was formulating the core notions that distinguish his oeuvre: conceptualizing art as a cultural product and looking at the nature of its specific language. These lines of inquiry were first pursued at the beginning of the 20th century by the Surrealists and Dadaists, especially René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp. Magritte’s philosophical paintings of airtight landscapes and Duchamp’s innovative sculptures made with altered ready-made objects probed tradition in the art of the West. Often including written commentaries within an image or object, their works sidestepped the subjective, and in Duchamp’s case even the handmade, in order to show that artistic creation is based on arbitrary conventions and that a work of art should be considered for its intellectual rigor as well as its aesthetic qualities.

Kosuth followed Duchamp’s break from traditional media with an equally radical decision to make language his focal point. He considers each piece an analytical “proposition.” One and Three Photographs [Ety.] is visually and materially low-tech, with its three components hung flush to the wall with thick L-shaped hooks. The object here is a photograph by California photographer Carleton Watkins, who worked at the turn of the 20th century. Within the “One and Three” series, One and Three Photographs [Ety.] is unusual because it features an artistic medium—photography—as well as a complex definition that includes the etymology of the word. The adjective “photic,” in the triptych’s dictionary panel, comes from the Greek root phot or “light,” and means “penetrated by or receiving light.” A photograph is exactly that, an image formed by the action of light on paper that has been chemically prepared to react to light. By extension, “photic” refers to “seeing” and thus to “art.” In a more didactic way than his other works, One and Three Photographs [Ety.] illustrates the concept that every work of art contributes to defining what art is, and that from looking at a work of art we can learn about the creative process in general.

Photography became a key feature of much contemporary art in the early 1960s and continues to be important in what is being created today. The central panel of One and Three Photographs [Ety.] is a photograph made by another artist; the side panels employ photography purely as a means of reproduction. The work was included in the influential exhibition Image World: Art and Media Culture (1989) at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which introduced the so-called Pictures Generation artists, a group that includes the now well-known Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer, among others. Interpreting images from advertising, television, and the movie industry, these artists asserted that our understanding of art is influenced by our everyday exposure to a mass-media world.

One and Three Photographs [Ety.] currently hangs next to Wall Drawing #4 (1969) by Sol LeWitt in the contemporary gallery. A welcome addition to the collection, this recent acquisition not only refers back to Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, who embraced photographic reproduction, but also begins a focus on works from the 1980s by American artists such as Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger.


Cleveland Art, October 2009