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.

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.

Key Artists

  • Joseph Beuys was a German multi- and mixed-media artist best known for incorporating ideas of humanism, social philosophy and politics into his art. Beuys practiced everything from installation and performance art to traditional painting and "social sculpture." He was continually motivated by the belief of universal human creativity.
  • John Baldessari, born in 1931, is an American conceptual artist. He often combines image and languages in his art. His early works were canvas paintings that were empty except for painted statements derived from contemporary art theory. His juxtaposition of image and text is reminiscent of Rene Magritte's surrealist paintings.
  • Sol LeWitt was an American artist commonly associated with the Minimalist and Conceptual movements. He rose to prominence in the 1960s with the likes of Rauschenberg, Johns and Stella, and his work was included in the famous 1966 exhibit Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. LeWitt's art often employed simple geometric forms and archetypal symbols, and he worked in a variety of media but was most interested in the idea behind the artwork.
  • Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
  • Robert Smithson was an American artist best known for his innovations in Land and Earth Art. Smithson's large-scale projects employed earth and other natural resources to construct works that both manipulated and preserved the natural landscape. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty in Utah, constructed entirely from basalt, earth and salt.
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Do Not Miss

  • Institutional Critique is the practice of systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions and their connections to the development of art. Institutional Critique focuses on the relationships between the viewer, language, process, the consumption of art.
  • Beginning in the 1960s, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community.
  • Installation art is a genre of contemporary art-making in which two- and three-dimensional materials are used to transform a particular site into an immersive space for the visitor. Installations may include sculptural, found, sound-based, and performance elements, and can be permanent or ephemeral.

Important Art and Artists of Conceptual Art

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)

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.

One and Three Chairs (1965)

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).

Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977)

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."

Useful Resources on Conceptual Art

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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
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First published on 01 Oct 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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