Conceptual art  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Conceptual art is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Many of the works of the artist Sol LeWitt may be constructed by anyone simply by following a set of written instructions. This method was fundamental to Lewitt's definition of Conceptual art, the first to appear in print:

"In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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." – Sol LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art", Artforum, June 1967.

For the layman, this quotation highlights a key difference between a conceptualist installation and a traditional work of art - that the conceptualist's work may require little or no physical craftsmanship in its execution, whereas traditional art is distinguished by requiring physical skill and the making of aesthetic choices.

The inception of the term in the 1960s referred to a strict and focused practice of idea-based art. Through its association with the Young British Artists and the Turner Prize during the 1990s, its popular usage, particularly in the UK, developed as as synonym for all contemporary art that does not practise the traditional skills of painting and sculpture.

Contents

History

The French artist Marcel Duchamp paved the way for the conceptualists, providing them with examples of prototypically conceptual works — the readymades, for instance. The most famous of Duchamp's readymades was Fountain (1917), a standard urinal basin signed by the artist with the pseudonym "R.Mutt", and submitted for inclusion in the annual, un-juried exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York (it was rejected). In traditional terms, a commonplace object such as a urinal cannot be said to be art because it is not made by an artist or with any intention of being art, nor is it unique or hand-crafted. Duchamp's relevance and theoretical importance for future "conceptualists" was later acknowledged by US artist Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 essay, "Art after Philosophy," when he wrote: "All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually."

In 1956, recalling the infinitesimals of G.W. Leibniz, quantities which could not actually exist except conceptually, the founder of Lettrism, Isidore Isou, developed the notion of a work of art which, by its very nature, could never be created in reality, but which could nevertheless provide aesthetic rewards by being contemplated intellectually. Also called Art esthapériste ('infinite-aesthetics'). Related to this, and arising out of it, is excoördism, the current incarnation of the Isouian movement, defined as the art of the infinitely large and the infinitely small.

In 1961 the term "concept art," coined by the artist Henry Flynt in his article bearing the term as its title, appeared in a Fluxus publication. However it assumed a different meaning when employed by Joseph Kosuth and the English Art and Language group, who discarded the conventional art object in favour of a documented critical inquiry into the artist's social, philosophical and psychological status. By the mid-1970s they had produced publications, indexes, performances, texts and paintings to this end. In 1970 Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, the first dedicated conceptual art exhibition, was mounted at the New York Cultural Center.

Notable examples of conceptual art

  • 1953 : Robert Rauschenberg exhibits Erased De Kooning Drawing, a drawing by Willem De Kooning which Rauschenberg erased. It raised many questions about the fundamental nature of art, challenging the viewer to consider whether erasing another artist's work could be a creative act, as well as whether the work was only "art" because the famous Rauschenberg had done it.
  • 1956 : Isidore Isou introduces the concept of infinitesimal art in Introduction à une esthétique imaginaire (Introduction to Imaginary Aesthetics).
  • 1957: Yves Klein, Aerostatic Sculpture (Paris). This was composed of 1001 blue balloons released into the sky from Galerie Iris Clert to promote his Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch exhibition. Klein also exhibited 'One Minute Fire Painting' which was a blue panel into which 16 firecrackers were set. For his next major exhibition, The Void in 1958, Klein declared that his paintings were now invisible and to prove it he exhibited an empty room.
  • 1958: Wolf Vostell Das Theater ist auf der Straße/The theater is on the street. The first Happening in Europe.
  • 1960: Yves Klein's action called A Leap Into the Void, in which he attempts to fly by leaping out of a window. He stated: "The painter has only to create one masterpiece, himself, constantly."
  • 1960: The artist Stanley Brouwn declares that all the shoe shops in Amsterdam constitute an exhibition of his work.
  • 1961: Wolf Vostell Cityrama, in Cologne was the first Happening in Germany.
  • 1961: Piero Manzoni exhibited Artist's shit, tins purportedly containing his own feces (although since the work would be destroyed if opened, no one has been able to say for sure). He put the tins on sale for their own weight in gold. He also sold his own breath (enclosed in balloons) as Bodies of Air, and signed people's bodies, thus declaring them to be living works of art either for all time or for specified periods. (This depended on how much they are prepared to pay). Marcel Broodthaers and Primo Levi are amongst the designated 'artworks'.
  • 1962: Artist Barrie Bates rebrands himself as Billy Apple, erasing his original identity to continue his exploration of everyday life and commerce as art. By this stage, many of his works are fabricated by third parties.
  • 1962: Christo's Iron Curtain work. This consists of a barricade of oil barrels in a narrow Paris street which caused a large traffic jam. The artwork was not the barricade itself but the resulting traffic jam.
  • 1962: Yves Klein presents Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity in various ceremonies on the banks of the Seine. He offers to sell his own 'pictorial sensitivity' (whatever that was, he did not define it) in exchange for gold leaf. In these ceremonies the purchaser gave Klein the gold leaf in return for a certificate. Since Klein's sensitivity was immaterial, the purchaser was then required to burn the certificate whilst Klein threw half the gold leaf into the Seine. (There were seven purchasers.)
  • 1962: Piero Manzoni created The Base of the World, thereby exhibiting the entire planet as his artwork.
  • 1963: Henry Flynts article Concept Art is published in "An Anthology of Chance Operations"; a collection of artworks and concepts by artists and musicians that was published by Jackson Mac Low and La Monte Young (ed.). "An Anthology of Chance Operations" documented the development of Dick Higgins vision of intermedia art in the context of the ideas of John Cage and became an early Fluxus masterpiece. Flynt's "concept art" devolved from his idea of "cognitive nihilism" and from his insights about the vulnerabilities of logic and mathematics.
  • 1965: A complex conceptual art piece by John Latham called Still and Chew. He invites art students to protest against the values of Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture (much praised and taught in London's St. Martin's School of Art where Latham taught). Pages of Greenberg's book (borrowed from the college library) are chewed by the students, dissolved in acid and the resulting solution returned to the library bottled and labelled. Latham was then fired from his part-time position.
  • 1965: with Show V, immaterial sculpture the Dutch artist Marinus Boezem introduced Conceptual Art in the Netherlands. In the show various air doors are placed where people can walk through them. People have the sensory experience of warmth, air.Three invisble air doors, which arise as currents of cold and warm are blown into the room, are indicated in the space with bundles of arrows and lines. The articulation of the space which arises is the result of invisible processes which influence the conduct of persons in that space, and who are included in the system as co-performers.
  • Joseph Kosuth dates the concept of One and Three Chairs in the year 1965. The presentation of the work consists of a chair, its photo and a blow up of a definition of the word "chair". Kosuth has chosen the definition from a dictionary. Four versions with different definitions are known.
  • 1966: N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. (Iain and Ingrid Baxter of Vancouver) exhibited Bagged Place the contents of a four room apartment wrapped in plastic bags. The same year they registered as a corporation and subsequently organized their practice along corporate models, one of the first international examples of the "aesthetic of administration."
  • 1967: Sol LeWitt´s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art were published by the American art journal Artforum. The Paragraphs mark the progression from Minimal to Conceptual Art.
  • 1968: Lawrence Weiner relenquishes the physical making of his work and formulates his "Declaration of Intent," one of the most important conceptual art statements following LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art." The declaration, which underscores his subsequent practice reads: "1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership."
  • Friedrich Heubach launches the magazine Interfunktionen in Cologne, Germany, a publication that excelled in artists' projects. It originally showed a Fluxus influence, but later moved toward Conceptual art.
  • 1969: Robert Barry's Telepathic Piece at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, of which he said 'During the exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image'.
  • The first issue of "Art-Language" is published in May. It is subtitled as "The Journal of conceptual art" and edited by Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harold Hurrell. The editors are English members of the artists group Art & Language.
  • 1969: Vito Acconci creates "Following Piece," in which he follows randomly selected members of the public until they disappear into a private space. The piece is presented as photographs.
  • The English journal "Studio International" published Joseph Kosuth´s article "Art after Philosophy" in three parts (October–December). It became the most discussed article on "Conceptual Art".
  • 1970: Painter John Baldessari exhibits a film in which he sets a series of erudite statements by Sol LeWitt on the subject of conceptual art to popular tunes like 'Camptown Races' and 'Some Enchanted Evening'.
  • 1970: Douglas Huebler exhibits a series of photographs which were taken every two minutes whilst driving along a road for 24 minutes.
  • 1970: Douglas Huebler asks museum visitors to write down 'one authentic secret'. The resulting 1800 documents are compiled into a book which, by some accounts, makes for very repetitive reading as most secrets are similar.
  • 1971: Hans Haacke's 'Real Time Social System'. This piece of systems art detailed the real estate holdings of the third largest landowners in New York City. The properties were mostly in Harlem and the Lower East Side, were decrepit and poorly maintained, and represented the largest concentration of real estate in those areas under the control of a single group. The captions gave various financial details about the buildings, including recent sales between companies owned or controlled by the same family. The Guggenheim museum cancelled the exhibition, stating that the overt political implications of the work constituted "an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism". There is no evidence to suggest that the trustees of the Guggenheim were linked financially to the family which was the subject of the work.
  • 1972: Fred Forest buys an area of blank space in the newspaper Le Monde and invites readers to fill it with their own works of art.
  • General Idea launch File magazine in Toronto. The magazine functioned as something of an extended, collaborative artwork.
  • 1973: Jacek Tylicki lays out blank canvases or paper sheets in the natural environment for the nature to create art.
  • 1975-76: Three issues of the journal "The Fox" were published in New York. The editor was Joseph Kosuth. "The Fox" became an important platform for the American members of Art & Language. Karl Beveridge, Ian Burn, Sarah Charlesworth, Michael Corris, Joseph Kosuth, Andrew Menard, Mel Ramsden and Terry Smith wrote articles which thematized the context of contemporary art. These articles exemplify the development of an institutional critique within the inner circle of Conceptual Art. The criticism of the art world integrates social, political and economic reasons.
  • 1977: Walter De Maria's 'Vertical Earth Kilometer' in Kassel, Germany. This was a one kilometer brass rod which was sunk into the earth so that nothing remained visible except a few centimeters. Despite its size, therefore, this work exists mostly in the viewer's mind.
  • 1977: John Fekner creates hundreds of environmental and conceptual outdoor works consisting of stenciled words, symbols, dates and icons spray painted in New York, Sweden, Canada, England and Germany.
  • 1989: Christopher Williams' Angola to Vietnam is first exhibited. The work consists of a series of black-and-white photographs of glass botanical specimens from the Botanical Museum at Harvard University, chosen according to a list of the thirty-six countries in which political disappearances were known to have taken place during the year 1985.
  • 1990: Ashley Bickerton and Ronald Jones included in "Mind Over Matter: Concept and Object" exhibition of ”third generation Conceptual artists” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • 1991: Charles Saatchi funds Damien Hirst and the next year in the Saatchi Gallery exhibits his The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine.
  • 1992: Maurizio Bolognini starts to "seal" his Programmed Machines: hundreds of computers are programmed and left to run ad infinitum to generate inexhaustible flows of random images which nobody would see.
  • 1993: Matthieu Laurette established his artistic birth certificate by taking part in a French TV game called 'Tournez manège' (The Dating Game) where the female presenter asked him who he was, to which he replied: 'A multimedia artist'. Laurette had sent out invitations to an art audience to view the show on TV from their home, turning his staging of the artist into a performed reality.
  • 1993: Vanessa Beecroft holds her first performance in Milan, Italy, using models to act as a second audience to the display of her diary of food.
  • 1999: Tracey Emin is nominated for the Turner Prize. Part of her exhibit is My Bed, her dishevelled bed, surrounded by detritus such as condoms, blood-stained knickers, bottles and her bedroom slippers.
  • 2004: Andrea Fraser's video Untitled, a document of her sexual encounter in a hotel room with a collector (the collector having agreed to help finance the technical costs for enacting and filming the encounter) is exhibited at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery. It is accompanied by her 1993 work Don't Postpone Joy, or Collecting Can Be Fun, a 27-page transcript of an interview with a collector in which the majority of the text has been deleted.
  • 2005: Simon Starling wins the Turner Prize for Shedboatshed, a wooden shed which he had turned into a boat, floated down the Rhine and turned back into a shed again.

See also

Individual works




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