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.
- 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.
- Walter de Maria is an American sculptor, composer, and multi-media artist whose best known work is The Lightning Field (1977), consisting of 400 lightning rods situated on a field in New Mexico.
- Damien Hirst is a British installation and conceptual artist, and in the 1980s was a founding member of the Young British Artists (YBAs). His best known work is Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), comprised of a dead tiger shark suspended in a vitrine of formaldehyde.
- Jenny Holzer is an American conceptual and mixed-media artist. Her work is best known for using a variety of text, propaganda imagery, sound, video and light, all of which she attempts to incorporate into public spaces, thus bringing artistic experience directly into the world.
- Joseph Kosuth is an American conceptual artist, philosopher and essayist. His most celebrated work is One and Three Chairs (1965), which doubles as a piece of commentary on Plato's Theory of Forms. He is likewise well-known for his 1969 essay "Art after Philosophy," considered a key text of postmodern art writing.
- Lawrence Weiner was one of the pioneers of text-as-art. His use of language is notable for its lyricism, its inquisitive engagement with the material world around it, and its playful visual forms.
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.
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 01 Oct 2012. Updated and modified regularly