Language and Art

Explore the role words played in Conceptual art’s emphasis on ideas over visual forms.


Outside the Museum

Discover the work of two artists who thought beyond the confines of a museum.


Language was an important tool for Conceptual artists in the 1960s. Many used language in place of more traditional materials like brushes and canvas, and words played a primary role in their emphasis on ideas over visual forms. Though text had been used in art long before this, artists like Joseph Kosuth were among the first to give words such a central role.

Conceptual artists also used language in the form of instructions detailing how an artwork should be made. Sol LeWitt was among the principal originators of this strategy, which his peers widely embraced. Arguing that ideas alone can be art, he allowed for a measure of separation between the artist and the physical execution of his or her artwork. His work exemplifies this: he would generate ideas for artworks and write instructions on how to make them, which other people—sometimes whole teams working days or weeks—would then carry out.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” p. 80.

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

The shape or structure of an object.

Art that emerged in the late 1960s, emphasizing ideas and theoretical practices rather than the creation of visual forms. In 1967, the artist Sol LeWitt gave the new genre its name in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in which he wrote, “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” Conceptual artists used their work to question the notion of what art is, and to critique the underlying ideological structures of artistic production, distribution, and display.

Questions & Activities

  1. Repetition and Meaning

    To create I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, Baldessari repeated the same phrase over and over again. On a blank sheet of paper, hand-write a five- to seven-word phrase of your choosing 20 times.

    Does the repetition have an effect on the meaning of your statement? How did the process of writing the statement impact its meaning?

  2. Words and Images

    Everyone has a different, though often related, visual association with a word or concept, even when we share a common language. To prove it, draw a picture of a noun (chair, house, or dog, for example) and present it to several friends and family members. Have them guess what the picture represents. Next, draw a picture of a verb (run, think, or fly, for example) and have others guess what the picture represents. Finally, draw a picture of a concept (art, freedom, or community, for example) and have others guess what the picture represents.

    Which pictures were easiest to draw? Which did people guess correctly?

  3. Activating Materials

    In the mid-1960s Richard Serra began experimenting with nontraditional art materials like fiberglass, neon, and rubber, and also with the language involved in the physical process of making sculpture. The result was the list of action verbs, compiled by Serra and then enacted on the materials he had collected in his studio. As Serra explained, “It struck me that instead of thinking what a sculpture is going to be and how you’re going to do it compositionally, what if you just enacted those verbs in relation to a material and didn’t worry about the results?”

    Read Serra’s list aloud, imagining how these ordinary actions might be applied to the different materials Serra uses, including lead, rubber, and steel.

    Can you apply some of these verbs to any other Conceptual art works? Compare your application of verbs with a friend’s, classmate’s, for family member’s?

  4. The Wit of Sol LeWitt

    In “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” LeWitt wrote, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”1 What do you think he meant by this statement? Summarize your ideas in a brief essay (200 words or less) describing your interpretation.

  5. Interpreting LeWitt’s Instructions

    Sol LeWitt often hired people to execute his written instructions for works of art. Have someone read LeWitt’s instructions (below) to you while you carry them out. You’ll need a black crayon, a ruler, and paper. After you’re done drawing, switch roles and read the instructions to your partner while he or she draws.

    WORK FROM INSTRUCTIONS (1971):
    USING A BLACK, HARD CRAYON DRAW A TWENTY INCH SQUARE.
    DIVIDE THIS SQUARE INTO ONE INCH SQUARES. WITHIN EACH
    ONE INCH SQUARE, DRAW NOTHING, OR DRAW A DIAGONAL
    STRAIGHT LINE FROM CORNER TO CORNER OR TWO CROSSING
    STRAIGHT LINES DIAGONALLY FROM CORNER TO CORNER.

    Are there differences between the two drawings you made? Is it because the drawer did not correctly follow the instructions or is it because LeWitt’s written instructions can be interpreted in different ways?

  6. Challenging Conventions

    What are some of the ways these works of art challenge artistic convention and institutional authority? Write down five ways you can think of, and write one to two sentences describing your rationale.