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Conceptual art

2. The late 1960s

Source: Oxford University Press

Conceptual art emerged in the mid-1960s as a probing critique of Western art and of the political and economic systems that sustain it. As defined by its most important practitioners, for example by Joseph Kosuth in two influential articles published in 1969 as ‘Art after Philosophy’ (see Meyer, pp. 155–70), it examined the role of artistic intention in relation to the meanings ascribed to the resulting objects; the communicative limits and internal coherence of existing visual languages; and the degree to which the impact of art is visual rather than intellectual. In ascribing more importance to communicating an idea than to producing a permanent object, conceptual artists questioned labour itself as a potentially alienating process. They also drew attention to the institutional framing of art, especially the avenues whereby it reaches and comes to have meaning in the public domain; the extent to which art production is a manifestation of commodity fetishism; the role of the market as a mediating agent for art in the public sphere; the hierarchical social structures that regulate who becomes an artist; the function of the culture industry in ‘producing’ spectators; and the institutionalized rules by which a particular medium is given its value.

As a definable and international movement, conceptual art made a sudden appearance c. 1966 with works such as Joseph Kosuth’s series Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) (1966–7), dictionary definitions of words presented as photographic enlargements; Air Show/Air Conditioning (1966–7), a proposal for the exhibition of an unspecified ‘column’ of air by two English artists, Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin, who in 1969 became founder-members of the group Art and Language; and an exhibition in 1968 (Los Angeles, CA, Molly Barnes Gal.) of word paintings by John Baldessari, such as a canvas bearing the sentence ‘Everything is purged from the painting but art’. A group exhibition devoted exclusively to the work of conceptual artists, January 1–31: O Objects, O Painters, O Sculptors, mounted by the New York dealer Seth Siegelaub in 1969, featured Kosuth, Robert Barry (b 1936), Douglas Huebler (1924–97) and Lawrence Weiner (b 1940); later that year Siegelaub followed this with March 1–31, an exhibition that existed only in catalogue form, in which he included 31 conceptual artists, among them LeWitt, Atkinson, Baldwin and Kosuth. Other group exhibitions soon followed, helping to define the terms of the movement. These included When Attitudes Become Form (Berne, Ksthalle; Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Mus.; London, ICA; 1969); Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art (Turin, Gal. Civ. A. Mod., 1970), which presented conceptual art in relation to two movements emerging at the same time (see Arte Povera and Land art); and Information (New York, MOMA, 1970).

A prime concern of certain conceptual artists was with the context in which the work was exhibited. From the time of his first exhibition at the Galerie Fournier in Paris (March 1966), for example, Daniel Buren showed only striped paintings to focus the viewer’s attention on their specific location rather than on their physical attributes. One phase of the Street Work made in New York in 1969 by Marjorie Strider (b 1934) consisted of 30 empty picture frames presented as ‘instant paintings’ and installed to make passers-by aware of their environment. In late 1969 Jan Dibbets invited recipients to return one page of his Art and Project Bulletin to him by post; he then used their addresses to construct a world map on which he noted their locations in relation to his own studio in Amsterdam. On a much smaller but equally exact scale Mel Bochner in his Measurement Series (Munich, Gal. Heiner Friedrich, 1969) displayed the precise measurements of the exhibition space on its walls. Other artists were more concerned with the political, rather than purely physical, ramifications of the context, as in the case of the Rosario group’s extended street ‘exhibition’ throughout north-west Argentina in November 1968, which consisted solely of the name Tucumán, an allusion to public protests over work conditions by workers from that province. In New York in May 1970, during the insurrectional period surrounding the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, Adrian Piper (b 1948) presented a work that stated simply that it had been withdrawn ‘as evidence of the inability of art expression to have meaningful existence under conditions other than those of peace, equality, truth, trust, and freedom’.

Elevating the conception of the work of art above its execution, conceptual artists were keen to demystify the creative act and to democratize the role of the artist and public alike by decentralizing control away from institutions such as commercial galleries. For many this could be achieved simply by not producing works as saleable commodities, hence the preference for temporary installations, performances or written texts over finite objects. Part of the Experimental Art Cycle presented by the Rosario group in 1968 consisted of an empty room with a square drawn on the floor, accompanied by a page of instructions exhorting the spectator to construct a similar work elsewhere. Wiener, who stated that it was enough to know about his works to possess them, felt that any conditions imposed on the spectator constituted ‘aesthetic fascism’ (see Meyer, p. 218). As a corollary to this attack on the monopoly control of the artist, Huebler advocated the supercession of art as object-making or commodity production, since ‘the world is more or less full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more’ (Meyer, p. 137). Another, sometimes countervailing tendency of conceptual art concentrated on the self-referentiality of art, in order to address it as a language or as a form of logic. This position was represented in its most single-minded form by Kosuth, who assumed that art was a self-validating tautology, and in its most wide-ranging sense by Art and Language.

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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