Paragraphs On Conceptual Art Analysis Essay

What is Conceptual Art?

By Mick Wilson

"Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings. It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way it questions what art is. In particular, Conceptual art challenges the traditional status of the art object as unique, collectable and/or saleable. […] This art can take a variety of forms: everyday objects, photographs, maps, videos, charts and especially language itself. Often there will be a combination of such forms. […] Conceptual art has had a determining effect on the thinking of most artists."1 - Tony Godfrey, 1998

"I will refer to the kind of art which I am involved in as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. […] The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. […] Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. […] The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple."2 - Sol LeWitt, 1967

"Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/ or "dematerialized." […] This has not kept commentators over the years from calling virtually anything in unconventional mediums "Conceptual art." […] There has been a lot of bickering about what Conceptual art is/was; who began it; who did what when with it; what its goals, philosophy, and politics were and might have been. I was there, but I don't trust my memory. I don't trust anyone else's either. And I trust even less the authoritative overviews by those who were not there."3 - Lucy Lippard, 1972

"Concept art is first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of e.g. music is sound. Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language."4 - Henry Flynt, 1961

"I chose to work with inert gas because there was not the constant presence of a small object or device that produced the art. Inert gas is a material that is imperceivable - it does not combine with any other element […] That is what gas does. When released, it returns to the atmosphere from where it came. It continues to expand forever in the atmosphere, constantly changing and it does all of this without anybody being able to see it."5 - Robert Barry, 1969


The quotations which begin this essay establish most of the key themes in discussing conceptual art: the priority given to ideas; the ambiguous role of actual objects and materials; the need to rethink the mechanisms of 'display' and distribution of art; the increasingly important role for language; and the tendency to trouble core definitions both of 'art' in general and of 'conceptual art' itself in particular. This repeated play with definitions – 'What is the limit of what can be included under the heading "art"?' 'What is the most reduced and concise way in which a conceptual artwork can be "given" for the audience to "experience"?' – makes answering the question 'What is conceptual art?' a little tricky, but also very worthwhile.

Perhaps the easiest way to introduce conceptual art is to consider some examples of work typically described as 'conceptual'. Robert Rauschenberg sends a telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert which says: 'This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so' as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits in the gallery, (1961).6 Stanley Brouwn asks passers-by in Amsterdam to show him the way to a particular spot in the city using pen and paper, (This way Brouwn, 1961).7 John Baldessari instructs a sign painter to paint the following words on a canvas: 'Study the composition of paintings. Ask yourself questions when standing in front of a well-composed picture. What format is used? What is the proportion of width to height?', (Composing on a Canvas, 1966-8).8 Cildo Meireles screen-prints subversive messages onto Coca-Cola glass bottles and re-circulates these so that they are re-used for selling Coca-Cola (Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project, 1970).9 Joseph Kosuth exhibits a series of blackand- white photostats of dictionary definitions for words such as 'meaning' and 'universal', (Art as ideas as idea, 1966). Adrian Piper exhibits a short text saying: 'The work originally intended for this space has been withdrawn. […] I submit its absence as evidence of the inability of art expression to have a meaningful existence under conditions other than those of peace, equality, truth, trust and freedom,' (1970).10

Less the medium, more the message

This term 'conceptual art' has become the most widely used name for works such as these, which form a broad spectrum of experimental artworks and practices that developed from the 1960s onwards. These new art practices no longer necessarily depend on the production of discrete one-off physical objects; nor necessarily use traditional media and techniques like picturemaking with paint or modelling with clay or casting with bronze or assembling with metal and wood; nor even demonstrate a specifically pronounced 'visual' or 'hand made' aspect. Typically, though not without important exceptions, art making prior to this development had been a matter of working directly within relatively familiar art forms and media – painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking – to produce discrete objects. Conceptual art can make use of these forms on occasion, but it no longer requires these forms in order to produce something that claims an audience's attention as an artwork – the emphasis is generally not placed on a specific material artefact nor on hand-crafting or technical-making processes as such, nor even on the 'expressive' personality of the artist, but rather on a range of concerns that emphasise the role of 'ideas'. However, such generalisations are really only rough approximations – in many ways the list of works provided above could be used as counterexamples: for example, Robert Barry's work with inert gases is centrally based on a material process, the diffusion of the gases into the atmosphere; however, this process is not available to perception in the usual terms of art viewing. This play off between percept (what is given in the experience) and concept (what is proposed as organising the experience meaningfully) is a recurrent feature of much conceptual art which makes use of the ambiguous interplay of language, perceptual experience and the conceptual organisation of experience.

When was Conceptual Art?

Most commentators identify the period from 1966 to 1972 as the key phase of development: a period that concludes with the canonisation of conceptualism in the controversial international survey exhibition Documenta V in Germany organised by Harald Szeeman,11 and the first publication of Lucy Lippard's often cited book that maps conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, in the US.12 However, this neat packaging of cultural practices in such crisply delimited movements and periods, with clear beginnings and endings, is always, to a greater or lesser degree, misleading, although such periodisations are sometimes useful in summarily introducing complex cultural historical material.

The key problem presented by mapping conceptual art is the degree to which it has come to reorient the entire field of modern art, so that producing an account of conceptual art opens up a whole range of unresolved issues that continue to vex participants in contemporary art debate.

A rough answer to the question

So as a first rough attempt at an answer to the question 'What is conceptual art?', we could propose something like: conceptual art, is the name for a broad tendency to shift the priorities for making, describing, thinking about, giving value to, and distributing works of art, toward questions of idea rather than technique. This is a tendency that is strongly evident since the 1960s. This is a shift from questions of craft process, material artefact, medium, tradition and virtuosity as primary, to questions of intention, meaning, idea and information as foremost in importance. This broad shift in emphasis is evident internationally in the work of artists from many countries including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States, from the 1960s onwards. While some have identified conceptual art primarily with New York and North America, and thus with an English-speaking cultural context, others have worked hard to overcome this bias by exploring the rich and culturally diverse examples of conceptualism globally.13

Problems with this answer

But one of the problems with this answer is that it seems to isolate conceptual art from a broader set of developments in post World-War II culture, such as pop art and minimalism, as well as wider developments in literature, poetry, theatre, performance and mass media. Part of the problem here is the way in which the academic discipline of art history, especially in its popularised form in glossy publications and television programmes, likes to talk of 'styles' and 'movements' and to anchor these notions by describing the visual appearance of, and techniques used in producing artefacts such as paintings and sculptures. Clearly, when artists begin to prioritise ideas and begin to use ideas from a wide range of sources – science, philosophy, sociology, literary theory, media and communications studies, cybernetics, ecological activism, and counter cultural politics for example – the old art historical conventions of 'movements' and 'styles' potentially become obstacles to establishing a broad and rich sense of a wide-ranging re-orientation of the global art system. (Of course another problem of academic art history can often be its preoccupation with being 'correct' and exact in its use of terms, which can lead to a lot of hair-splitting and angels dancing on the heads of pins, so let's not lose too much sleep over our rough answer to the question 'What is conceptual art?')

One important dimension of conceptual art (which it is difficult to address in an answer like the one given above), is its relationship with counter-cultural tendencies and with various forms of international cultural politics such as feminism, the anti-war movements, and various forms of activism and dissent. A key work of the 1970s and critically important for the development of feminist cultural practice and debate is Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document, which is in part a reworking of conceptual art approaches to the exhibition as 'system' and a use of the archive as a medium of display (presenting images, diagrams, documents, artefacts in a systematic manner).14 The exhibition as 'system', refers to the use of cybernetics and systems thinking in various conceptual art projects and in the rethinking of the function and role of exhibition and display.15 This is not to say that all conceptual art manifested a countercultural tendency: this was not the case.16 This is to make a claim for the broadening effects of conceptual art in terms of themes and methods in art making which enabled (not caused) the emergence of new cultural practices and debates which foregrounded questions of identity, gender, and class.17

Conceptual art and the knowledge economy

Another dimension of conceptual art, which is not fully addressed in this definition, is the ambiguous and complex relationships between conceptual art and changes in the contemporary art market. Some commentators like Lippard emphasise conceptual art's 'dematerialisation' of the art object and identify this with attempts to resist the commercial logic of the art market. Other commentators foreground the role of conceptual art in reshaping the dynamics of the art market and the nature of what can feasibly be bought and sold. Seth Siegelaub, a key New York gallerist and curator since the 1960s, has written: 'The economic aspect of conceptual art is perhaps most interesting. From the moment when ownership of the work did not give its owner the great advantage of control of the work acquired, this art was implicated in turning back on the question of the value of its private appropriation. How can a collector possess an idea?'18 Of course this talk of a new economy of ideas has a familiar ring for contemporary ears, and indeed some writers have identified a connection between such 1960s radical art ideas and twenty-first-century notions of 'knowledge economy' and 'cognitive capitalism.'

In the 1990s, French sociologists argued that there is a relationship between the kind of creative and imaginative idea-based work proclaimed by 1960s artists and activists as progressive and transformative for society, and the kinds of 'flexible' 'creative' 'idea-generating' and 'immaterial labour' proclaimed by more recent champions of information capitalism and 'flexibilisation' as economically progressive and transformative.19 This is a very controversial matter, suggesting as it does that in some way work that sought to be socially, politically and culturally progressive in the 1960s has become taken-over as economically instrumental thinking by a new form of capitalism that seeks to exploit ever more totally our creative and social being.20 Others go right back to the 1960s and identify a connection between the new art ideas of conceptualism and the new marketing cultures of corporations. Alexander Alberro has argued that: 'The infusion of corporate funds was a major element in the expansion of the art market during the mid-1960s. […] Many in corporate practice […] imagined new, innovative art as a symbolic ally in the pursuit of entrepreneurship.'21 This is just one way in which conceptual art continues as a live controversy for contemporary art practice and cultural debate.

Conceptual art now

For some commentators the rise of conceptual art has been nothing less than the betrayal of the visual arts by overly literary and anti-visual cultural practices.22 For other commentators conceptual art has generated the basis on which current practice proceeds and, for them, it has established the basic problems and themes with which artists must continue to work. Arguably, conceptual art continues to be the key background for a number of important debates in contemporary art: the role of the curator; the functions and limits of art institutions (galleries, museums, exhibitions); art as exemplary economy of the 'dematerialised'; the meaning of 'public'-ness in art; the appropriate role and limits of mediation, publicity and explication in contemporary art; the inclusions and exclusions that operate in the circuits of global culture; and the relationship between art practice and knowledge.

In the most simple and everyday terms conceptual art has given rise to a new criterion in judgements on art. Encountering a work of art, instead of the question 'Is it beautiful?' or 'Is it moving?' we now find ourselves more often than not, first asking ourselves, 'Is it interesting?'

© Mich Wilson, 2011

  1. Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, Phaidon, 1998.
  2. Sol LeWitt, 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', Artforum, June 1967.
  3. Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, U niversity of California Press, 1997. [Orig. 1973].
  4. Henry Flynt, 'Essay: Concept Art.' in An Anthology of Chance Operations, La Monte Young and Marion Zazeela (eds.), 1963. See [ AnAnthologyOfChanceOperations.pdf].
  5. Robert Barry in Meyer, 'Conversation with Robert Barry', 12 October 1969. See [www.].
  6. See Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. University of California Press, 1995, p. 804.
  7. Susanna Heman, Jurrie Poot, and Hripsime Visser (eds.), Conceptual art in the Netherlands and Belgium 1965-1975. Amsterdam: NAi Publishers/Stedelijk Museum, 2002, p. 124.
  8. See [ Composing-on-a-Canvas].
  9. See Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999, p. 59.
  10. See Lucy Lippard.
  11. From 1961 to 1969, Harald Szeemann was Curator of the Kunsthalle Bern, where in 1968 he famously gave Christo and Jeanne-Claude the opportunity to wrap the entire museum building in an emblematic work of the period. Szeemann's important 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, at the Kunsthalle, introduced European audiences to artists like Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner. It is often cited as a key moment in the emergence of the modern figure of the 'curator' as indeed has Szeemann's practice in general. See Hans-Joachim Muller, Harald Szeemann: The Exhibition Maker, Hatje Cantz, 2006. Documenta V took place in 1972 as the fifth in the series of major survey shows of international art, which began in 1955. Curated by Szeemann, it provided a broad representation of European and North American conceptual art and sparked controversy because of the strong authorial input of Szeemann into the project. Documenta V has become a key reference in debates about the nature of the curator's function in contemporary art.
  12. L ippard's book prioritises New York and emphasises the 'dematerialisation' of the artwork. This is a matter of some contest and debate. Jon Bird and Michael Newman have argued: 'Lippard's term implies a logic of subtraction as the materiality of the art object is systematically reduced or redefined, and the concept 'art' and the context increasingly carry the burden of meaning. No single term can adequately describe the various formal and theoretical investigations pursued by artists during this period.' S ee their 'Introduction' in Rewriting Conceptual Art, Reaktion, 1999, p. 4. See also Michael Corris's 'An Invisible College in an Anglo-American World', the introduction to his edited anthology on Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice, Cambridge U niversity Press, 2004. Corris cites Art & Language's disparaging perspective on this position, whereby they asserted that 'most of the 'dematerialisations' of the time were absurd reifications of discursivity, perfectly formed for co-option' (p. 1).
  13. L uis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s. Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999. But this has by no means become the dominant approach. There is a notable preference still to prioritise east coast American artists and their associates from Europe in accounts of conceptual art.
  14. S ee Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, University of California Press, 1999. The work was first exhibited in 1976 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where she showed three of the six 'Documents' from this extended project. The book version was first published in London in 1983.
  15. Michael Corris notes that: 'The concept of a 'system' which became part of the lingua franca of the 1960s, was not destined to remain the exclusive property of a technologically minded elite of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. In the hands of intellectuals, artists, and political activists, it would become an essential ideological compnent of the 'cultural revolution'. Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 189. For an online version see [http:// mation-Knowledge-and-Technology].
  16. Indeed, Gregory Battcock specifically critiqued an important New York show of conceptual art, 'Information' at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, precisely because it lacked political vitality. See Gregory Battcock , 'Informative Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art', Arts Magazine, Vol. 44, No. 8, 1970, p. 27.
  17. Adrian Piper's trajectory is interesting in this regard. See her Out of Order. Out of Sight. Vol. 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art: 1968-1992, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
  18. Seth Siegelaub, in Michael Claura and Seth Siegelaub, "L'art conceptual," Xxe siecle, 41 (December 1973) reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, (eds.), Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p.289. (Cited also in Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 1.)
  19. See Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Gregory Elliott, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, 2006. [Orig. ] While Boltanski et al., do not specifically cite 'conceptual art', they refer to a broader 'artistic critique' which correlates strongly with key themes in conceptualism and with the cultural dissent associated with '1968'. They ask: 'Must we not ask […] if the forms of capitalism which have developed over the last thirty years, while incorporating whole sections of the artistic critique and subordinating it to profit-making, have not emptied the demands for liberation and authenticity of what gave them substance…?'.
  20. Victor Burgin's pronouncement from 1988 is revealing here: 'The original conceptual art is a failed avant-garde. Historians will not be surprised to find, among the ruins of its utopian program, the desire to resist commodification and assimilation to a history of styles'. See Victor Burgin, 'Yes Difference Again...' in A. Alberro & B.Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p. 429.
  21. Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 13.
  22. For an entertaining read in this vein see Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

"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."


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'sBrillo 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

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.

Most Important Art

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 Rene 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).

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Conceptual Art Artworks in Focus:

Conceptual Art Overview Continues Below


One of the most important precedents for Conceptual art was the work of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, who in the early twentieth 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.

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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.

Concepts and Styles

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-ninetieth 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 'colour', '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'sMoMA 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'sFollowing 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

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. Still, it eventually became inspiration to subsequent post-Conceptual artists, many of whom embraced the material basis of art and the langue of visual culture, such as the so-called 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 Seghal, Gabriel Orozco, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Glen Ligon, and Damien Hirst.


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