"No matter what form [the artwork] may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned."
1 of 5
"People, buying my stuff, can take it wherever they go and can rebuild it if they choose. If they keep it in their heads, that's fine too. They don't have to buy it to have it - they can just have it by knowing it."
2 of 5
Lawrence Weiner
"In order to gain some insight into the forces that elevate certain products to the level of 'works of art' it is helpful - among other investigations - to look into the economic and political underpinnings of the institutions, individuals and groups who share in the control of power."
3 of 5
Hans Haacke
"When objects are presented within the context of art (and until recently objects always have been used) they are as eligible for aesthetic consideration as are any objects in the world, and an aesthetic consideration of an object existing in the realm of art means that the object's existence or functioning in an art context is irrelevant to the aesthetic judgment."
4 of 5
Joseph Kosuth Signature
"All of the significant art of today stems from Conceptual art. This includes the art of installation, political, feminist, and socially directed art."
5 of 5
Sol LeWitt Signature

Summary of Conceptual Art

Conceptual art is a movement that prizes ideas over the formal or visual components of art works. An amalgam of various tendencies rather than a tightly cohesive movement, Conceptualism took myriad forms, such as performances, happenings, and ephemera. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s Conceptual artists produced works and writings that completely rejected standard ideas of art. Their chief claim - that the articulation of an artistic idea suffices as a work of art - implied that concerns such as aesthetics, expression, skill and marketability were all irrelevant standards by which art was usually judged. So drastically simplified, it might seem to many people that what passes for Conceptual art is not in fact "art" at all, much as Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings, or Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes (1964), seemed to contradict what previously had passed for art. But it is important to understand Conceptual art in a succession of avant-garde movements (Cubism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, etc.) that succeeded in self-consciously expanding the boundaries of art. Conceptualists put themselves at the extreme end of this avant-garde tradition. In truth, it is irrelevant whether this extremely intellectual kind of art matches one's personal views of what art should be, because the fact remains that Conceptual artists successfully redefine the concept of a work of art to the extent that their efforts are widely accepted as art by collectors, gallerists, and museum curators.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Conceptual artists link their work to a tradition of Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades had rattled the very definition of the work of art. Like Duchamp before them, they abandoned beauty, rarity, and skill as measures of art.
  • Conceptual artists recognize that all art is essentially conceptual. In order to emphasize this, many Conceptual artists reduced the material presence of the work to an absolute minimum - a tendency that some have referred to as the "dematerialization" of art.
  • Conceptual artists were influenced by the brutal simplicity of Minimalism, but they rejected Minimalism's embrace of the conventions of sculpture and painting as mainstays of artistic production. For Conceptual artists, art need not look like a traditional work of art, or even take any physical form at all.
  • The analysis of art that was pursued by many Conceptual artists encouraged them to believe that if the artist began the artwork, the museum or gallery and the audience in some way completed it. This category of Conceptual art is known as 'institutional critique,' which can be understood as part of an even greater shift away from emphasizing the object-based work of art to pointedly expressing cultural values of society at large.
  • Much Conceptual art is self-conscious or self-referential. Like Duchamp and other modernists, they created art that is about art, and pushed its limits by using minimal materials and even text.

Overview of Conceptual Art

<i>Three Triangles</i> (1994) by Sol LeWitt. Installed in Bremen, Germany

One of the main theorists of Conceptual art, Sol Lewitt said "Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical." He conceived many different pieces, some were never built, while others were ultimately given physical form.

Artworks and Artists of Conceptual Art

Progression of Art
Robert Rauschenberg: Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)

Erased de Kooning Drawing

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg

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

Artist: Joseph Kosuth

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 René 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

Artist: Walter de Maria

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



Artist: Yoko Ono

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

Artist: Ed Ruscha

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

Artist: Marcel Broodthaers

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

Artist: Hans Haacke

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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Artist: Marina Abramovic

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

Artist: Dan Graham

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 - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Beginnings of Conceptual Art

One of the most important precedents for Conceptual art was the work of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, who in the early-20th century established the idea of the "readymade" - the found object that is simply nominated or chosen by the artist to be a work of art, without adaptations to the object beyond a signature. The first and most famous true Readymade was Fountain (1917), which was nothing more than a porcelain urinal, reoriented ninety degrees, placed on a stand and signed and dated under the alias "R. Mutt." Duchamp described his Readymades as "anti-retinal," and dismissed the popular conception that works of art need demonstrate artistic skill. In the 1950s, long after several of his original Readymades had been lost, Duchamp re-issued Fountain and other Readymades for the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. These acts sparked a resurgence of interest in his work, which not only brought the emergence of Neo-Dada led by John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, but also rekindled a widespread interest in idea-based art throughout the contemporary art world.

Fluxus and Minimalism to Conceptualism

While the late 1950s witnessed modern art's progressive shift from Abstract Expressionism to Neo-Dada and Pop, the late 1960s witnessed a similar shift, only this time from Fluxus and Minimalism to Conceptualism. Fluxus began in the early sixties, and has many affinities with Dada. Embracing "flux", or change, as an essential element of life, Fluxus artists aimed to integrate art and life, using any found objects and sounds, simple activities and situations as stimuli. George Maciunas, Allan Kaprow, and composer John Cage are important Fluxus figures who impacted Conceptual art.

Adding to Conceptual art's diverse genealogy, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris and other Minimalist artists who emerged in the mid-1960s extended modernist abstraction by embracing repetition, formal simplification, and industrial fabrication of their artworks. Judd and others rejected much that was traditional in creating works that occupied space differently, often on a scale too large for a pedestal or home, and usually made of nontraditional artistic materials like bricks or sheets of steel, the production of which was outsourced. A number of burgeoning artists during this time paid close attention to the paradigm shifts inherent in Fluxus and Minimalism, seeing that a so-called work of art was not dependent upon the object/work itself, and that it could therefore exist chiefly as an idea. Most saw their works in direct defiance of the art market, with its promotion of artistic personalities and rare and original "masterpieces."

LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art"

In 1967, Sol LeWitt published "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" (considered by many to be the movement's manifesto), in which he wrote: "What the work of art looks like isn't too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned." The notion of placing concept before object, and the value of realization over any aesthetic concerns importantly contradicted the theories and writings of formalist art critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Their work rather focused chiefly on the examination of objects, materials, colors and forms - had helped to define the aesthetic criteria of the preceding generation of artists.

Wiener's "Declaration of Intent"

Conceptual art was taken to the extremes of art as idea by Lawrence Weiner in his 1968 "Declaration of Intent," which declared he would cease the practice of creating physical art, citing no need to build something when the idea behind any work of art should suffice, since the artist's intent remains the same (or should, ideally), regardless of whether the work is in physical form or merely conceptual.

The Formation of the Movement

While conceptualist artists forever remained a disparate, international group harboring a great many ideas about contemporary art, by the late 1960s it was somewhat evident that a loose movement was coalescing. In 1968 a series of Conceptual art exhibitions vigorously promoted the movement in New York, put together by the dealer and curator Seth Siegelaub. In 1969, New York's Museum of Modern Art gathered a number of artists from the movement for an exhibition titled "Information." This event was not to be taken without a grain of salt, since Conceptualism was largely critical of the institutional museum system and its market-driven interests, the system within which they exhibited.

Artist Collectives Emerge

In 1967, a collective of British artists formed the group Art & Language while teaching art in Coventry, England. Through a series of published journals the group showed an outspoken distaste for entanglement of modern art and the marketplace. Over the next several years many would join the group, whose rotating membership would reach approximately 50 artists before its dwindling in the late 1970s.

Other artist collectives were similarly political in their focus. The Canadian group General Idea had a small membership of three artists, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson, who embraced ephemeral works and installations. Active from 1967 to 1994, in the 1980s their works addressed the pharmaceutical industry and the AIDS crisis. In South America, artists found Conceptualism an effective pathway to creativity and political opposition. Conceptualism was particularly appealing there as it was not an imported style per se, but rather a means of expression with no single frame of reference, whether cultural, aesthetic, or ideological. Artist collectives provided anonymity, and thus protection from prosecution by oppressive authorities, and the opportunity to make strong social statements. The Chilean group CADA (Art Action Collective) and the Peruvian group Parenthesis exemplified this trend.

Conceptual Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Conceptual art was conceived as a movement that extended traditional boundaries, and hence it can be difficult to distinguish self-conscious Conceptualism from the various other developments in art of the 1960s. Conceptualism could take the form of tendencies such as happenings, performance art, installation, body art, and earth art. The principle that united these developments was the rejection of traditional ways of judging works of art, the opposition to art being a commodity, and the belief in the essentially conceptual nature of all works of art. Because it circumvented aesthetics, it is difficult to define conceptual art on stylistic grounds other than a delivery that seems objective and unemotional. While a conceptual work may possess no particular style, one could say that this everyday appearance and this diversity of expression are characteristics of the movement.

Art as Idea

Among the first to pursue the notion of idea-based art to its logical conclusion was Joseph Kosuth, who evolved a highly analytical model premised on the notion that art must continually question its own purpose. Advocating his ideas most famously in a three-part essay entitled "Art after Philosophy" (1969), Kosuth argued that it was necessary to abandon traditional media in order to pursue this self-criticism. He questioned the notion that art necessarily needed to be manifested in a visual form - indeed, whether it needed to be manifested in any physical form at all. Many, like Lawrence Weiner, similarly stated the need to relinquish the practice of creating physical works of art. By striving to minimize the materiality of art, artists strove to remove aesthetic criteria and the commodity status out of the artistic equation. The "dematerialization of art object," as the art critic Lucy Lippard described the tendency in the chronicle of Conceptualism (Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object), thus had a subtle political undercurrent. Conceptual art ideas often evoked dispersal (instead of formation), and voiding (instead of creation), and many of the Conceptual artistic ideas were open-ended propositions that lacked foregone conclusions. For instance, Lawrence Weiner's "Statements" of 1968 include "A field created by structured simultaneous TNT explosions" and "One standard dye marker thrown into the sea," and epitomize the open-ended and hence anti-authoritarian stance of the movement. As Wiener explained in his "Declaration of Intent" (1968-9), "Art that imposes conditions - human or otherwise - on the receiver for its appreciation in my eyes constitutes aesthetic fascism."

Language as Art

Although the use of text in art was nothing new by the 1960s - text appears alongside other visual elements in Cubist paintings, for example - artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari adopted text as the chief element of a visual work of art. Unlike their predecessors, this generation had pursued college degrees, which in part accounts for their intellectualism and the influence of recent studies in linguistics. The language used was meant to signify itself and an artistic idea. Text-based art would often use abstract formulations, often in the form of abrupt commands, ambiguous statements, or just a single word to create associations for the viewer. While first-wave conceptualists like Weiner and Baldessari remain active today, they inspired younger artists from Jenny Holzer to Tracey Emin to continue the practice of language-based art and to push the boundaries of art and its definitions.

Anti-commodification and Institutional Critique

If Conceptual art had a central tenet that united all artists under one banner, it was surely their shared discomfort with the institutionalized state of the art world, as arbiter of constituted "good" vs. "bad" art. The artistic gatekeepers had been guided largely by market concerns since the mid-nineteenth century, such that "good" art was marketable, and "bad" art was not. The beneficiaries of this system were a small group of (mostly male and white) artists, and members of an elite social class who sold and collected the work, or who participated in the administration of museums. In the 1960s, there was the sense that if art catered to this world then it will surely not strive to challenge any status quo, or be avant-garde. Conceptual artists and theorists looked closely at modern art practices and trends during the 1960s and early 1970s, seeking forms of radical theory or aesthetics, but found largely a continuation of abstract, post-abstract and minimalist motifs. "What can you expect to challenge in the real world," wrote Burn in the pages of Artforum in 1975, "with 'color', 'edge', 'process', systems, modules, etc. as your arguments? Can you be any more than a manipulated puppet if these are your 'professional' arguments?"

The late 1960s witnessed the emergence of a form of Conceptualism that has come to be known as institutional critique, practiced by artists such as Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers. Institutional critique continued the tradition of idea-based art, but usually in the form of installations that implicitly questioned the assumed function of the museum--i.e. preservation and exhibition of masterpieces - by providing a view to its greater role within society at large (eg. as arbiter of taste, as investor, as tax shelter, and gatekeeper to artistic success). The museum is not a neutral hall for the exhibition of works and education of the public. Rather, it is invested in promoting certain artists, in selecting "important" works of art, and in shaping the economic reality that benefits its trustees and the established art world. The inherent complexity of institutional critique is that it was often staged within the very institutions that artists were critiquing, as with Hans Haacke's MoMA Poll (1970). At times, the success of a particular work relied on the participation of viewers, thus demonstrating that the work, like the "art world" includes viewers as well as artists and the institutions that host them. Thus it is important to note that rather than simply negating or rejecting the institution, these artists often implicated themselves, and sought to bring awareness to complex fabric of social and institutional relations.

Challenges to Authorship

When Marcel Duchamp nominated a urinal as a work of art and reissued later editions of his Readymades, he delivered clear blows to the West's collective notion of artistic creativity. In keeping with this model, Sol LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" advocated the idea that the work need not necessarily be fully 'authored' by the artist. "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." This idea of an automated or machine-like execution of the art-idea is symptomatic of Conceptualism at large. For instance, in Vito Acconci's Following Piece (1969), the artist subjected his vision to an outside force: the random movements of strangers that he followed on the street until they disappeared into private space. The parameters of the work (the goal, the documentation method) were decided in advance by Acconci, but the resulting path traversed and subjects (the exact people, number of photographs, specific locations, etc.) occured based on the decisions made by randomly selected individuals and were thus exempt from Acconci's agency.

This denial of the artist as "master" and sole creator of the work also translates to many posthumous works with which the artist's name is associated, but where he/she is not the fabricator. LeWitt in particular, who passed away in 2007, was survived by a number of unrealized sketches for sculptural and other works of art, which to this day are often created anew by teams of fabricators and assistants, thus allowing brand new LeWitt works to be made even while the artist is dead. Such fabrication in the name of the artist echoes prior modern art practices, particularly in sculpture (the estate of Auguste Rodin is a well-known example of posthumous artistic production). While authorship is, strictly speaking, a component of LeWitt's posthumously issued works, the practice flies in the face of traditional notions of craft and mastery.


Photo-conceptualism is a persistent trend associated with Conceptualism. Conceptual artists often relied on documentation of their ideas, and photography was a convenient means to this end. Photography could be integrated into the concept or system that the artist devised, just as a diagram or a text could illustrate it. In this sense, the documentation is the work of art, and vice versa, and because of this the usual hierarchical distinction between "work" and "document" - where the former is considered more important than the latter - is undone. In counter distinction to many photographers, Conceptualists were not concerned with photographic quality, whether determined by the print, composition, lighting, or editing. Furthermore, their dryly objective approach resulted in photographs that prevent access to the artist's personality, and which prevent a strong emotional response from the viewer. Edward Ruscha's matter-of-fact photographs of "Every Building on the Sunset Strip," which he methodically produced with a camera strapped to his pickup truck exemplify this artistically anti-expressive approach to creating photo-conceptual works.

Later Developments - After Conceptual Art

Although the model of Conceptual art promoted by Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language might be seen as the epitome of the movement - others explored avenues that were arguably as influential. Conceptual art sidestepped conventions of craftsmanship and style to an extent that it could be said to place renewed emphasis on content, which had been largely banished under critical emphasis on form. Emergent during a period of major social upheaval, Conceptualism's central tenant - that the idea is paramount - found broad application by artists wishing to emphasize diverse social issues. The social issues addressed by international artists such as Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Jenny Holzer, Luis Caminzer, Alfredo Jaar, and Ai Weiwei, include labor and gender relations, museum stewardship, and poverty and censorship.

While the movement often emphasized the social construction of the work of art, Conceptualism was not populist and had limited popularity outside of the art world due to its arcane perception. Furthermore, fractures began to develop in the movement by the mid-1970s, leading to the dissolution of the movement. Yet, it eventually became inspiration to subsequent post-Conceptual artists, many of whom embraced the material basis of art and the language of visual culture, such as the Pictures Generation led by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Others continued to sidestep traditional artistic production through Performance art or installations. Thus, many of the concerns, and something of its austere style and tactics endure to this day in the works of a wide variety of artists, including Andrea Fraser, Tino Sehgal, Gabriel Orozco, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Glen Ligon, and Damien Hirst.

Useful Resources on Conceptual Art

Similar Art

Do more

Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Conceptual Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 01 Oct 2012. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]
The Art Story
TheArtStory.org - Your Guide to Modern Art
a 501(c)3 Nonprofit