The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 257
A chair sits alongside a photograph of a chair and a dictionary definition of the word chair. Perhaps all three are chairs, or codes for one: a visual code, a verbal code, and a code in the language of objects, that is, a chair of wood. But isn't this last chair simply . . . a chair? Or, as Marcel Duchamp asked in his Bicycle Wheel of 1913, does the inclusion of an object in an artwork somehow change it? If both photograph and words describe a chair, how is their functioning different from that of the real chair, and what is Kosuth's artwork doing by adding these functions together? Prodded to ask such questions, the viewer embarks on the basic processes demanded by Conceptual art.
"The art I call conceptual is such because it is based on an inquiry into the nature of art," Kosuth has written. "Thus, it is . . . a working out, a thinking out, of all the implications of all aspects of the concept 'art,' . . . Fundamental to this idea of art is the understanding of the linguistic nature of all art propositions, be they past or present, and regardless of the elements used in their construction." Chasing a chair through three different registers, Kosuth asks us to try to decipher the subliminal sentences in which we phrase our experience of art.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Joseph Kosuth: The piece that The Museum of Modern Art owns the One and Three Chairs I did when I was 20. The Museum didn't know I was 20 when they bought it, of course. I never told anyone my age until I was 28—a deliberate strategy on my part to appear as old as I could and be taken seriously. I really worked very hard painting and all that until I was 20. It was very difficult for me to quit painting, but on the other hand, I felt there was this other thing that art could do.
Curator, Ann Temkin: Kosuth's work is part of the very beginning of what we call today conceptual art. Kosuth has studied philosophy and especially thinkers like Wittgenstein, who were so concerned with what makes knowing knowing. And Kosuth extended that to what makes art art. And he wanted to explore that, in early works such as this one, where its not about something beautiful to look at, but, instead, art that makes you think. And the way that this art makes you think, of course, is very simple: you have three ways of being a chair. You can be a photo of a chair, you can be the wood chair, or you can be a dictionary definition of a chair, which is words.
So for Kosuth, drawing that to our attention was his work of art. There was nothing about this particular chair that he thought was artistic or precious. There is absolutely nothing artistically valuable about this particular photograph. The pleasure that you get from this work is not one of aesthetics, but the pleasure of your own thinking. And I think that does bring a smile.