Art Term Tuesday: Conceptual Art

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

“You call that art?!” Much of modern and contemporary art prompts that response, but perhaps none more than conceptual art, today’s term. Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt kindly provided us with a definition, one of the first written, in 1967:

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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.” 

As explained by LeWitt, whose work is currently on view in Landfall Press: Five Decades of Printmaking, in conceptual art, the idea behind the work takes precedence over the finished object’s aesthetic value, so it can look like almost anything. Rather than a recognizable style or a well-defined movement, it may be best described as a set of strategies; a realized conceptual artwork is often the product of its own system of rules. As an avant-garde movement, Conceptual art calls into question the very definition (or…concept) of art itself, eschewing traditional notions of skill and craftsmanship.

The origins of conceptual art are often traced to Marcel Duchamp and his readymades of the 1910s, most famously Fountain (1917), a urinal signed “R. Mutt” and turned on its side. Duchamp’s repurposed found objects, recontextualized in a gallery setting, became artworks essentially because he said so. The intention and idea were more important than the physical object, although we are also prompted to pay closer attention to its aesthetic, sculptural qualities as well.

In the 1960s, conceptualism emerged as a trend nearly simultaneously across continents. In the United States, the broader cultural and historical backdrop provided fertile ground for a radical, rebellious art form. The 1960s and 70s was a tumultuous era, with the Vietnam War, counterculture, Civil Rights, and other social movements. Conceptualism responded to the increasingly commercial art world by placing value on the works’ production and ideas behind it. The finished product could be made of nearly anything, often materials that are cheap and commonplace (or, conversely, anything but!). 

Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953) is an early conceptual work in which, as suggested by the title, the younger artist obtained a drawing by the famous Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning and erased it. It took Rauschenberg a month of work with different erasers. Then his pal, Jasper Johns, added a gilded frame. Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) uses a more everyday object. Consisting of a chair, a scale photograph of the chair, and an enlarged dictionary definition of the word “chair,” Kosuth challenges our notion of what constitutes an actual chair. Aligning with conceptual artists’ notions of value, when one acquires a work like One and Three Chairs, no chair is included! It is, instead, a set of instructions. The institution or individual provides the chair, photographs it in the gallery space, and handles the printing themselves. Both works ask big questions: can art be made through erasure? What makes art valuable? What is “real”?

Allen Ruppersberg explained why conceptual art isn’t tied to any one material or style: “every idea has its own form of representation.” Like Kosuth, and many other conceptual artists, Ruppersberg is especially interested in language. Through works like the portfolio currently on view at FWMoA in Landfall Press, below, Ruppersberg explores the relationships between author and reader, between “high” and “low” art.

An exhibition shot of Allen Ruppersberg's photo lithographs that explores how the two mediums are similar and different.
Allen Ruppersberg, American, b. 1944. The Top Ten Historical Similarities (and Differences) Between Prints and Photographs. Suite of 10 color lithographs on paper with hand-coloring, 2012. Loan from Jack H. Lemon. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Conceptual art is often controversial. Remember that banana duct-taped to a wall? Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian caused quite a stir at Art Basel Miami in 2019. Produced as an edition of three, the actual work obtained by the collectors (two were sold for $120,000 and one was donated to the Guggenheim) was a certificate of authenticity and a set of detailed installation instructions. The physical banana and tape are immaterial, but intentionally positioned.

While FWMoA may not own any of the kind of conceptual art that forgoes an object entirely, you can find a few works in the vault! Shusaku Arakawa’s Point Blank I takes the form of a diagram of five tubes. Through stenciled words, some legible and others not, Arakawa calls into question the ability of language to accurately capture the world around us. 

A lithograph and screenprint of a diagram five tubes using stenciled words, some legible and some not, that questions language's ability to capture the world around us.
Shusaku Arakawa, American, b. Japan, 1936-2010. Point Blank I. Lithograph and screenprint on paper, 1979. Museum purchase with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alliance-Weatherhead Endowment, 1981.03.1. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Jennifer Bartlett combined the cool calculation of conceptualism with expressive abstract painting. Exploring our relationships with rules, she often applied different systems of mark-making in gridded compositions using the recognizable motif of the house. 

A screenprint of dot and hatch marks that create an abstracted red house against a blue sky and green grass.
Jennifer Bartlett, American, 1941-2022. Houses: Dots, Hatches. Screenprint on paper, 1999. Gift of the Hamilton Circle, 2000.03. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Much of my job as a museum educator is helping our visitors make sense of the images that surround them, mostly by using their own tools of perception, critical thought, and experience. Conceptual art, however, often requires at least some backstory, adding to its reputation for inaccessibility: one must be “in the know” to really “get it.” Even if you do know the story, it can be unsatisfying. Providing more questions than answers is precisely the point! Hopefully, learning a bit more about Conceptual art will spark your curiosity when you’re confronted with the next banana on a wall (whatever that may be).

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