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Conceptual art

The term Conceptual art gained currency after “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” by the Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt appeared in the summer 1967 issue of Artforum. (Similar ideas had been articulated earlier in writings by the artists Henry Flint and Edward Kienholz.) Conceptual art’s chief synonym is Idea art. In Conceptual art the idea, rather than the object, is paramount. Conceptual artists reacted against the increasingly commercialized art world of the 1960s and the formalism of postwar art—especially the impersonality of then-contemporary Minimalism. To circumvent what they saw as the too-narrow limits of art, Conceptualists used aspects of semiotics, feminism, and popular culture to create works that barely resembled traditional art objects. What the viewer of Conceptual art saw in the gallery was simply a document of the artist’s thinking, especially in the case of linguistic works that assumed the form of words on a wall. Conceptualism soon became an umbrella term used to describe other art forms that were neither painting nor sculpture, such as performance and video art, and forms that most viewers saw only in drawings or photographs, such as Earth art.

The movement can trace its roots back to the early-twentieth-century readymades by the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, which emphasized the artist’s thinking over his manipulation of materials; to the later philosophically oriented actions of Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni; and to the painted conundrums of Jasper Johns—all of which asked “What is an artwork?” Due in part to the widespread dissemination of Fluxus ideas through Mail art and other artist-controlled means of distribution, Conceptual art quickly became an international phenomenon. By the end of the 1960s, informal associations of Conceptual artists spanned the globe, from Yugoslavia (the OHO group) to Australia (the Inhibodress group). Conceptual art first reached a general audience through two major New York exhibitions in 1970: the Museum of Modern Art’s “Information” (curated by Kynaston McShine) and the Jewish Museum’s “Software” (curated by Jack Burnham).

The range of Conceptual art thinking is remarkably broad. It encompasses Morgan O’Hara’s obsessive documentation of how she spends each waking moment, Robert Morris’s construction of a box with the recorded sounds of its own making inside, and John Baldessari’s documentation of the letters C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A, which he placed on the physical locations throughout the state that corresponded to the printed position of each letter on his map. Examples of more socially engaged Conceptualism include Hans Haacke’s polling museum visitors for their views of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s support of the Vietnam War, Les Levine’s operation of a Canadian-kosher restaurant in New York as an artwork (unbeknownst to its patrons), and Tom Marioni’s organization of salon-style gatherings and exhibitions at the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco, which he founded in 1970.

Conceptual art’s emphasis on the artist’s thinking made any activity or thought a potential work of art, without the necessity of translating it into pictorial or sculptural form. This jettisoning of art objects aroused widespread controversy among artists, viewers, and critics. The artist and theorist Allan Kaprow championed Conceptualism as an interactive form of communication, especially in the wake of visual competition from spectacular, non-art events like the American landing of men on the moon. The critics Robert Hughes (who writes for Time) and Hilton Kramer (who wrote for the New York Times) looked at Conceptual art and saw an emperor without clothes.

Although the revival of traditional-format painting and sculpture in the late 1970s seems visually far removed from Conceptual art, in fact it absorbed from the earlier movement an interest in storytelling, in politics, and in images from art history and popular culture. The term Neo-Conceptualist is most often employed in connection with installations and other works in nontraditional formats.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.