Created in 1965, One and Three Coats is a landmark installation by the pioneering Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth. One of his first works to investigate language, it was carried out when Kosuth was just twenty years old, forming part of his seminal series of Protoinvestigations including One and Three Chairs housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In One and Three Coats, the piece consists of a solitary, conventional raincoat, presented across three different registers.
From left to right, Kosuth invites the viewer to consider the coat as photograph, the coat as object and the coat as text, reproduced and enlarged from a standard French-English dictionary definition.
In doing so, he opens up to examination the dialectical relationship between object and word, signifier and signified. For Kosuth, art is a fundamentally linguistic concept rather than a visual or sensory category. As such, he privileges the 'idea' over all else, including the realized artwork. As he elaborates in his renowned text, Art After Philosophy (1969), 'aesthetics are conceptually irrelevant to art. Art 'lives' through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist's ideas' (J. Kosuth, 'Art After Philosophy 1969, reproduced in P. Osbourne, Conceptual Art, London, 2002, p. 232). In One and Three Coats, Kosuth intends the work to transform with time, the coat itself being an arbitrary element, exchangeable and replaceable. For each presentation of the work, he expects a new photograph to be taken and displayed alongside the stable text definition. In doing so, he seeks to illuminate our practice of perception, rendering the 'societal structures of meaning transparent' (R. Damsch- Wiehager, No thing, no self, no form, no principle (was certain), Stuttgart, 1993, p. 11).
For Kosuth one of his earliest influences and the foil for his own newly elaborated vernacular was the work of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp's radical urinal Fountain (1917) began the process of inquiry by subverting the stable notion of a work of 'art', at the same time unsettling the viewer's own established understanding of visual form and language. Through time however, the 'non-art object' itself became a legitimate 'aesthetic' work, inducted into the institution of the museum and losing its powers of provocation. With this in mind, Kosuth radically reinvigorated Duchamp's concept, taking the ready-made to a new level of investigation. InOne and Three Coats Kosuth conceives of a perennially transformative work, one that could never be entirely stable and for which the object could never supersede the idea:
'I like that the work itself was something other than simply what you saw. By changing the location, the object, the photograph and still having it remain the same work was very interesting. It meant you could have an artwork, which was that idea of an artwork, and its formal components weren't important. I felt I had found a way to make art without formal components being confused for an expressionist composition. The expression was in the idea, not the form - the forms were only a device in the service of the idea' (J. Kosuth, interview with J. Siegel, WBAI, April 7, 1970, reproduced in ed. J. Siegel, Artwords: Discourse on the 60s and 70s, Ann Arbour, 1985, p. 225).
In this respect, Kosuth was integrating into art the recent developments in Western philosophy and particularly those associated with the 'linguistic turn'. The whole theoretical model of language was in the process of change during the 1960s, prompted by a new general theory of signs or 'semiotics' elaborated by the French structural theorist Ferdinand de Saussure, which questioned semantics or the link between signs and the objects to which they refer.
As Lucy Lippard and John Chandler wrote in 1968, the 'dematerialization' of the art object was happening in conjunction with a new level of intellectual debate amongst artists such as Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler and Lawrence Weiner: 'the studio [was] again becoming a study' (L. R. Lippard & J. Chandler, 'The Dematerialzation of Art' 1968, reproduced in P. Osbourne, Conceptual Art, London, 2002, p. 218). Kosuth himself was fascinated by the theories put forward by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In One and Three Coats, Kosuth investigates a number of Wittgenstein's key considerations including 'the relation of word to thing and of meaning to context, the limits of logic, and the fluidity of conceptual boundaries' (J. Prinz, 'Text and Context: Reading Kosuth's Art', Art Discourse/Discourse in Art, New Brunswick, 1991, p. 49).
In particular, Kosuth was interested in the model of connection between language and reality as elaborated in the philosopher's picture theory, the Tractatus. In One and Three Coats Kosuth critically challenges the 'equivalence' of word, object, and image, undermining the apparently stable connecting principle between each. Whilst 'previously it seemed as though the object was at the centre of the work and the words served merely to repeat (in different symbolic form) the same meaning now we are faced with (at least) two separate and irreconcilable kinds of [coat], two different meanings that do not relate at all except in the arbitrary coincidence of their sounds' (J. Prinz, 'Text and Context: Reading Kosuth's Art', Art Discourse/Discourse in Art, New Brunswick, 1991, p. 58). In this respect, the artist stripped bare the verbal assumptions integral to the work of art, revealing with disconcerting literalness the process of the construction of meaning and the practice of signification.