Joseph Kosuth was one of the originators of Conceptual Art in the mid-1960s, which became a major movement that thrived into the 1970s and remains influential. He pioneered the use of words in place of visual imagery of any kind and explored the relationship between ideas and the images and words used to convey them. His series of One and Three installations (1965), in which he assembled an object, a photograph of that object, and an enlarged photographic copy of the dictionary definition of it, explored these relationships directly. His enlarged photostats of dictionary definitions in his series Art as Idea as Idea (1966-68) eliminated objects and images completely in order to focus on meaning conveyed purely with language. Since the 1970s, he has made numerous site-specific installations that continue to explore how we experience, comprehend, and respond to language.
Kosuth believed that images and any traces of artistic skill and craft should be eliminated from art so that ideas could be conveyed as directly, immediately, and purely as possible. There should be no obstacles to conveying ideas, and so images should be eliminated since he considered them obstacles. This notion became one of the major forces that made Conceptual art a movement in the late-1960s.Kosuth has often explored the relationships between words and their meanings and how words relate to the objects and things they name or describe. He has been fascinated with the equivalences between the visual and the linguistic. To this extent, he was influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas on language.Many of Kosuth’s installations and displays of words have incorporated excerpts from literature, philosophy, psychology, and history that have that have intrigued him. Consequently, he has used the presentation of language to make his audience contemplate issues of poverty, racism, loneliness, isolation, the meaning of life, and personal identity – usually without any clear, overt commentary of his own. In this, Kosuth embodies how the contemporary artist may become a philosopher and moralist.Since he usually relies on the writing of others in his presentations of words and texts, Kosuth’s work represents how Conceptual art, like much of postmodernism, involves a lot of appropriation, in his case the sources being written and verbal as opposed to visual or art historical. His chosen texts are usually not particularly descriptive nor do they attempt to create images with words.
The idiosyncratic Joseph Kosuth approaches art with conceptual and intellectual reasoning rather than artistic intuition. Like Marcel Duchamp, he is primarily concerned with the definition and meaning behind an object. The creative process is achieved through his method of conceptualization and is highlighted by his critical questioning of visual representation and perception.
The present work of art, One and three hammers, 1965, is a prime example of Kosuth’s adoption of words and language as his artistic tools. Devoid of everything aside from the mechanically printed words, the work can be seen as both a visual and a verbal code, one that invites the viewer to engage with the dialectical relationship between the idea of art and the realized object. Kosuth’s preoccupation with language, meaning, relationships and the interpretation of visual information is fundamentally an enquiry into the very nature of any artwork.