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Conceptual Art Collage

Conceptual Art

Started: Mid 1960s

Conceptual Art Timeline

Important Art and Artists of Conceptual Art

The below artworks are the most important in Conceptual Art - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Conceptual Art. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)
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Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg visited Willem de Kooning's loft, requesting one of de Kooning's drawings to completely erase it. Rauschenberg believed that in order for this idea to become a work of art, the work had to be someone else's and not his own; if he erased one of his own drawings then the result would be nothing more than a negated drawing. Although disapproving at first, de Kooning understood the concept and reluctantly consented to hand over something that he (de Kooning) would miss and that would be a challenge to erase entirely, thus making the erasure that much more profound in the end. It took Rauschenberg a little over a month and an estimated fifteen erasers to "finish" the work. "It's not a negation," Rauschenberg once said, "it's a celebration, it's just the idea!" Of course, it also signaled a farewell to Abstract Expressionist art, and the expectation that a work of art should be expressive. The absent drawing is a Conceptual work avant la lettre, and a precursor to works like Sol Lewitt's Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value (1968), a gag piece, where LeWitt supposedly interred a simple cube in a collector's yard, and with it he buried Minimalism's object-centered approach.

Charcoal, pencil, crayon and ink drawing by Willem de Kooning, erased - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

One and Three Chairs (1965)
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One and Three Chairs (1965)

Artist: Joseph Kosuth

Artwork description & Analysis: A physical chair sits between a scale photograph of a chair and a printed definition of the word "chair." Emblematic of Conceptual art, One and Three Chairs makes people question what constitutes the "chair" - the physical object, the idea, the photograph, or a combination of all three. Joseph Kosuth once wrote, "The art I call conceptual is such because it is based on an inquiry into the nature of art. Thus, it is...a thinking out of all the implications, of all aspects of the concept 'art.'" One and Three Chairs denies the hierarchical distinction between an object and a representation, just as it implies a conceptual work of art can be object or representation in its various forms. This work harks back to and also extends the kind of inquiry into the presumed priority of object over representation that had been earlier proposed by the Surrealist Rene Magritte in his Treachery of Images (1928-9), with its image of a pipe over the inscription "Ceci n'est pas un pipe" (This is not a pipe).

Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and photographic enlargement of a dictionary definition of "chair" - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977)
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Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977)

Artist: Walter de Maria

Artwork description & Analysis: The idea underlying this piece was the creation of an actual yet invisible work of art. With the help of an industrial drill, de Maria dug a narrow hole in the ground exactly one kilometer deep, inserted a two-inch diameter brass rod of the same length, then concealed it with a sandstone plate. A small hole was cut in the plate's center to reveal a small portion of the rod, which is perfectly level with the ground. The result is a permanent work of art that people are forced to imagine but may never actually see. As a complementary piece to Vertical Earth Kilometer, de Maria created the far more visible Broken Kilometer (1979), which consisted of five hundred two-meter-long brass rods, neatly arranged on an exhibition floor space in five parallel rows of one hundred rods each. In keeping with Conceptual artists' dispensation of traditional materials and formal concerns, this work defies the marketplace: it can't be sold or entirely exhibited. Further, its simplicity and largely concealed quality makes it anti-expressive and consistent with the period's many paradoxical negations of the visual in "visual art."

One-kilometer-long brass rod, red sandstone plate - Friedrichsplatz Park, Kassel, Germany

Grapefruit (1964)
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Grapefruit (1964)

Artist: Yoko Ono

Artwork description & Analysis: Yoko Ono's extremely plain-looking and oddly titled book, Grapefruit, first released in 1964, is an important early example of Conceptual art and of the link between it and Fluxus. Although the work, technically speaking, is an object, the art extends beyond its material constraints as it contains a series of artistic "event scores" - various instructions for readers to carry out, if they so choose. Listing some 150 sets of instructions divided into five sections (Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object), Grapefruit acts as something of a user's manual in the Fluxus tradition with a perspective similar to Joseph Beuys's that "every human being is an artist." This book not only subordinates the importance of the physical object to the document or springboard for artistic practice, but also allows for execution of the works by anyone, potentially resulting in an infinite number of artworks stemming from one source. As with other Conceptual works, however, whether the instructions are in fact carried out is of little importance, as the artistic idea is paramount.

Book - First edition of 500, Wunternaum Press, Tokyo

Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)
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Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

Artist: Ed Ruscha

Artwork description & Analysis: For this photographic survey of Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, Ruscha rigged a camera to the back of a pick-up truck and drove back and forth along the strip, shooting both sides of the avenue. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. The book constituted a significant redefinition of the traditional artist's or photographer's book, expensively bound to highlight the quality reproductions inside.

Much of the history of photography was the attempt to validate photography as an art form, as exemplified by the work of Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Weston. Ruscha did not attempt to glorify the art of photography as one might expect through his abstraction of the subject matter via interesting cropping, careful editing or rich contrasts of light and dark. He does not promote his skill as a photographer. In fact, he shot at high noon under stark lighting that gave the photographs an amateurish look; and instead of artfully composing the picture he used the "strip" rather like a ready-made form to which his artistic decisions were subject. Like many of his generation, he rejects the idea that art should be an expression of a unique artistic vision or personality. Ruscha's frank or "deadpan" document is typical of the anti-expressionist attitude that is seen in much art photography from the 1960s to the present, such as that of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, and Rineke Dijkstra. A major distinction between photo-conceptualist work and many other instances of what has come to be termed as "deadpan photography" is that the photo-conceptualist approach is documentary (or seems so) and privileges the concept over the presentation of skilled photographic technique.

Photography, accordion fold book - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN

Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, Financial Section (1970-71)
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Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, Financial Section (1970-71)

Artist: Marcel Broodthaers

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1968 Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers opened his Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles as an impermanent conceptual museum that would appear as installations in "sections" at various times and locations between 1968 and 1971. In 1970-71, stressing the economic functioning of cultural institutions, Broodthaers declared the Museum's bankruptcy; he made a corresponding Financial Section through which he tried to raise funds with the sale of specially cast gold bars, or ingot. Stamped with an eagle (the symbol for power and victory, and one he had explored in a previous incarnation of his Museum), Broodthaers set the price of each gleaming bar at double the going market value of gold - thus shifting it from valuation in one market (commodities) to another (art). The bars were valued quite highly as art, which is as much an object as an investment. The gold bar's increased value demonstrated that value of gold and commodities is speculative and market-driven. As Duchamp had indicated before with his Readymades, art has no specific essence or quality other than it being chosen or nominated by an artist, and then also accepted as art by the artistic establishment, which includes the art market. Broodthaers makes this quite clear by "transforming" the gold into art by virtue of the context of his fictional museum. Through the purchase of the Broodthaers ingot, the buyer would help seal the deal that it was a valid work of art and not just gold. The artist/curator/museum director (Broodthaers) would authorize the artwork (the ingot) with a letter of authenticity issued to the buyer. Due largely to the Museum series, Broodthaers is known as an artist involved in "institutional critique," yet it is important to note that this critique is not simply a negation or dismissal of the art world. Rather, it takes the form of a consistent illumination, often through subtle parody, of the interdependency of the artist, the work of art, and the institutions that exhibit and publicize them.

Gold bar stamped with eagle - Galerie Beaumont, Luxembourg

MoMA Poll (1970)
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MoMA Poll (1970)

Artist: Hans Haacke

Artwork description & Analysis: For the Museum of Modern Art's 1970 exhibition Information, Haacke conceived of a questionnaire in which museum visitors would be invited to vote on a current sociopolitical issue and submit their answers via written ballot, and deposited in one of two transparent boxes, allowing people to approximate the quantity of submissions. The poll asked, "Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon's Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?" This question, which was not revealed to the museum before the opening of the show, drove at the heart of MoMA as an institution since Governor Rockefeller was a major donor to the museum as well as a board member. There were visibly twice as many YES ballots as NOs, making the result all the more striking given the location and context of the poll itself. Haacke's MoMA Poll is a key early example of Conceptual art's politically motivated vein of institutional critique, and should by no means be mistaken for an impartial survey. Set in motion by the artist, the work had an unforeseeable conclusion, and was only completed by the audience. In this way, Haacke emphasizes that it is not just up to the artist to make a work of art. All works of art are dependent on a consensus for their validation as works of art (a museum purchases a work and validates it, a collector collects it, a publisher makes it "art" by promoting it as such in a magazine or a book about art.) This work demonstrates the belief that artistic production is in fact a collective, not an individual, process.

On-site installation - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Imponderabilia (1977)
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Imponderabilia (1977)

Artist: Marina Abramovic

Artwork description & Analysis: For Imponderabilia, Marina Abramovic and her longtime partner Ulay face each other, completely nude, and flank the entrance of the museum, obliging visitors to turn and squeeze through the nude bodies to enter. While the piece is obviously designed to draw immediate attention to the performers' nudity, the real concept at work is the exploration of the public's reaction; to the nudity, the performers' placement, and most importantly, the way in which individual visitors choose to enter. Do they appear demure or embarrassed while entering? Do they opt to face Abramovic or Ulay while passing through? Do they choose to enter the museum at all? Abramovic and Ulay carry out their concept in the most dispassionate manner possible, thus leaving expression (commonly considered an artistic aim) to the visitors. The resulting photographs and video of the performance act as something of a study in human behavior when faced with something truly strange, even stressful. Their work demonstrates the kinship between what are usually separated out as distinct trends - Performance art and Conceptual art - but it also distinguishes itself from much Conceptual art in its constant reference to the body, to risk, and the tension between the artists' clinical disinterest and the potential for strong emotional response to the work.

Site-specific performance - Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna, Bologna, Italy (original performance)

Two Correlated Rotations (1968-69)
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Two Correlated Rotations (1968-69)

Artist: Dan Graham

Artwork description & Analysis: Dan Graham began experimenting with the moving image and 360-degree topographical orientation in the mid-1960s, and for Two Correlated Rotations, he conceived of a highly complex exercise involving two performers. This piece, according to Graham, "relate[s] perception to perceived motion and to the perception of depth/time." One performer (Graham) stood inside a designated circle or enclosed space, while another stood outside, and simultaneously each performer followed a predetermined circular path, taking continuous photographs of each other while they moved. The resulting 8-mm film Two Correlated Rotations placed viewers in the mind's eye of the photographer, all while disorienting the viewer by placing this eye in divergent 360-degree rotations. The double synchronous films, screened as a single piece, and the photographic documents call the viewers' attention to a task that took a particular form, but which produced quite different visual representations of that artistic idea. The making of the film is "mirrored" by each camera and thus carries on the modernist tradition of self-reflexivity. Conceptualism's approach is to embrace various media: the project is a film about its own making, but it clearly also relied on live performance, and various non-moving images and diagrams to reveal the artist's concept.

Still from 8 mm film, performance - Tate Modern, London



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Conceptual Art Image

Related Art and Artists

Fountain (1917)
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Fountain (1917)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Artwork description & Analysis: The most notorious of the readymades, Fountain was submitted to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. The initial R stood for Richard, French slang for "moneybags" whereas Mutt referred to JL Mott Ironworks, the New York-based company, which manufactured the porcelain urinal. After the work had been rejected by the Society on the grounds that it was immoral, critics who championed it disputed this claim, arguing that an object was invested with new significance when selected by an artist for display. Testing the limits of what constitutes a work of art, Fountain staked new grounds. What started off as an elaborate prank designed to poke fun at American avant-garde art, proved to be one of most influential artworks of the 20th century.

Urinal - Philadelphia Museum of Art

Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off (1972)
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Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off (1972)

Movement: Minimalism

Artist: Sol LeWitt

Artwork description & Analysis: LeWitt was a key intellectual of the Minimalist group and is most known for his open-air, modular structures. He once wrote that "the most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting." This comment speaks to what Minimalist artists aimed to achieve, which was to use objects in and for themselves, not as symbols or as representations of something else (as Frank Stella put it on another occasion: "What you see is what you see."). This lack of meaning is especially the case in works that remain untitled or that have purely descriptive titles, as do LeWitt's. Despite claiming the cube as uninteresting in itself, LeWitt would most often use this form as a jumping off point for his works, often employing them in a grid-like format that underscores his interest in systems and modules that could be repeated and expanded indefinitely, sometimes to the point of irrationality or visual chaos. The modularity, absence of color, and geometric starkness of his pieces all fit within the Minimalist aesthetic, as do their placement in the center of the gallery or museum space.

Enameled aluminum - Tate Gallery, London

Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me (1974)
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Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me (1974)

Movement: Performance Art

Artist: Joseph Beuys

Artwork description & Analysis: For three consecutive days in May, 1974, Beuys enclosed himself in a gallery with a wild coyote. Having previously announced that he would not enter the United States while the Vietnam War proceeded, this piece was his first and only action in America, and Beuys was ferried between the airport and the gallery in an ambulance to ensure that his feet did not have to touch American soil. Coyote centered on ideas of America wild and tamed. In an attempt to connect with an idea of wild, pre-colonial America, Beuys lived with a coyote for several days, attempting to communicate with it. He organized a sequence of interactions that would repeat for the duration of the piece, such as cloaking himself in felt and using a cane as a "lightening rod," and following the coyote around the room, bent at the waist and keeping the cane pointed at the coyote. Copies of The Wall Street Journal arrived daily, and were used as a toilet by the coyote, as if to say, "everything that claims to be a part of America is part of my territory."

- Performed at Rene Block Gallery, New York NY

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

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