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Conceptual art

3. Evolution in the 1970s and 1980s

Source: Oxford University Press

The theoretical impasse brought about in particular by Kosuth’s insistence on the primacy of an artist’s intentions was broken only by the ascendancy in the early 1970s of conceptual artists such as Buren and Hans Haacke, who recognized that the formative idea was only one aspect of the systemic process whereby the work of art acquired signification or ‘completion’ in society. Haacke in particular created works that deftly disclosed the conceptual role of institutions in framing all art, so that its meaning went far beyond the artist’s original conception. Such works can be referred to as ‘meta-conceptual’, since they address the conditions preceding the production of all works of art and later influencing their public reception. Haacke neither privileged his own concepts as art nor resorted to an anti-art assault on the aura in which high art is institutionally encased. He instead presented works as so formally cool and so reticent with regard to his intention that their most obvious characteristic became their aura as art, as evoked by corporate patrons in remarks photo-engraved on the six plates of the series On Social Grease (e.g. On Social Grease, No. 2, 1975; Detroit, MI, Mr and Mrs Gilbert Silverman priv. col.). Haacke’s self-conscious removal from the opinions he quoted enabled him to force cultural institutions to face the fallacy of their own modes of appropriating art, since they were shown saluting art’s ‘purity’ and purported detachment within the ‘impure’ context of social manipulation. Ironically, then, art was shown to be useful to corporate patrons precisely because of the myth of art’s ‘uselessness’. Haacke and other conceptual artists such as Victor Burgin demonstrated that the context of art was ideologically evasive in that it could be identified only to the extent that the institutions framing it allowed it to be.

In the 1980s there emerged a new generation of artists who were indebted to conceptual art, particularly to the critical mode formulated by artists such as Haacke and Buren. These artists, along with the Americans Sherrie Levine (b 1947), Barbara Kruger (b 1945), Jenny Holzer (b 1950) and Rudolf Baranik (b 1920), extended the critical focus to include the intersection between the institutional concerns of the art world and other social and political matters such as those pertaining to gender or race. The subtitle of a photograph of two classical statues by the American artist Louise Lawler, Sappho and Patriarch (1984; see Foster, p. 98), consists of a question that in many ways encapsulates a major concern of this particular generation of conceptual artists: ‘Is it the work, the location or the stereotype that is the institution?’

David Craven
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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