Theory Lecture 3: Conceptualism

Conceptualism grew from the misprisms (the creative misreading of a former art form) of Minimalist art. The concepts behind the minimalist works such as those by Carl Andre or Dan Flavin were opened up as the work rather than looking solely at the object itself, this was the dematerialisation of the art object. An irony can be detected here considering Carl Andre in particular believed his work dealt with the materiality of the works. The conceptualist interpretation of his work took away the empirical material as the work itself would be non-permanent, it had to be constructed each time it was exhibited and deconstructed afterwards, the bricks would sold back to the brickyard, meaning that each time, new bricks were used and as such it can be seen that the aesthetic artwork is merely the instruction of how and where to place the bricks.

Sol LeWitt was one of the first artists to name their work style as being ‘Conceptual Art’ and therefore was one of the earliest conscious ‘Conceptual Artists’, took this idea of the actual piece being a set of parameters in which the piece had to be created to the literal sense. His wall paintings for instance were created by technicians from a set of his instructions rather than LeWitt himself physically applying them to the walls.

Sol Lewitt - Wall Drawing 122 (Detail) - 1972
Sol Lewitt – Wall Drawing 122 (Detail) – 1972
Sol Lewitt - Wall Drawing 122 - 1972
Sol Lewitt – Wall Drawing 122 – 1972

This method of thinking – parameter limited art- was pioneered by the celebrated composer John Cage who wrote indeterminate music that was not controlled by the composer, Cage was famed for his controversial work 4’33 which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds without any deliberate sound.

The earliest steps of conceptual art began in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning for an important drawing to which he erased as well as he could any trace of de Kooning’s effect on the paper. The importance of this was to look at what it was that made that specific piece of paper important, when there is no visual experience to induce sensation in the viewer.

Robert Rauschenberg - Erased De Kooning - 1953
Robert Rauschenberg – Erased De Kooning – 1953

In 1962 Robert Morris made the piece ‘Card File’ within the piece, each card described the process of making the object itself, talking of lost or found cards, parts of conversations had about the piece etc. The object therefore was the collection of all the information about its own coming into being, one could liken it to the idea of seeing only each and every individual brush stroke on the canvas where no image is created, these describe how the painting was created but nothing of what it is.

Robert Morris - Card File - 1962
Robert Morris – Card File – 1962
Robert Morris - Card File (Detail) - 1962
Robert Morris – Card File (Detail) – 1962

Later in 1966 Mel Bochner held the exhibition ‘Working Drawings and other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art’ often cited as the first conceptual art exhibition. Bochner asked artist and academic friends for drawings and notes which he photocopied and displayed in 4 identical binders that he placed on 4 identical plinths. The exhibition took the idea of the piece away from the wall and into the idea, the initial sketch, the workings out to the conception of the concepts.

Mel Bochner - Working Drawings and other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art' - 1966
Mel Bochner – Working Drawings and other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art – 1966

Dan Graham in his magazine ‘Homes For America’ – 1966-7 looked further into the non-traditional presentation of his art by using the medium of a magazine to echo the alienating and structural effects of the modern build houses that in turn appeared to echo the minimalist art of the time.

Lawrence Weiner took this further in his works which began to work into the wall of the gallery rather than on or in front of them. ‘A 36″ X 36″ Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall’ – 1968 is very self descriptive in its physical essence and later works began to work the title into the pieces themselves too, Weiner believing language to be infinite whereas the physical world is finite.

Lawrence Weiner - A 36" X 36" Removal to Lathing or Support wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall' - 1968
Lawrence Weiner – A 36″ X 36″ Removal to Lathing or Support wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall’ – 1968

The next development came to the first Conceptual Exhibition in 1969 in which the sole piece was the catalogue, all things being displayed on walls merely appearing as realisations of the pieces inside the catalogue, inverting the relationship between the two. Robert Barry began to then test the limits of what ‘materialisation’ was in his inert gas series. The series consisted of Barry releasing the contents of gas canisters into the atmosphere each being a unique singular event. Joseph Kusuth’s essay ‘Art after Philosophy’ described this conceptual art as being a ‘tautology’ that an artwork is self-defined as being an artwork.

European Conceptualism grew from Surrealism rather than minimalism as it did in America and was a much more socially involved practice, similarly to the differences in american and european modernist practices. Joseph Beuys believed ‘Every Person an Artist’ and followed this through allowing anyone that wished to study under him to do so, however he was fired from this post as a result of this.

Beuys considered society itself as a sculpture, forever changing, moulding and dissolving. Seeing the museum as a place for political discussion and founded the German Student Party and the Green Party. This sentiment was explored in his showing at documenta 6, ‘Honey Pump’, a system by which honey was pumped around, showing elements of fluidity and structure.

Joseph Beuys - Honey Pump - 1977
Joseph Beuys – Honey Pump – 1977

A friend of Beuys’s, Marcel Broodthaers showed a piece in 1972 entitled ‘Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, Section of Figures’ where he collected as many eagle representations as he could and labelled each with ‘This is not an Artwork’, Broodthaers focused the viewer on the concept of what an artwork is. Daniel Buren said that Art is when you don’t see the structure of its surroundings, Broodthaers piece makes the viewer aware of these surroundings, aware of the art museum environment, the viewer feels the frame.

broodthaers01 (1)
Marcel Broodthaers – Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles – 1968

Broodthaers later showed films over which was layered a screen with arbitrary Fig. labels, to focus the viewer on things that were chosen by virtue of the art itself rather than any conscious decision by the artist. Here for it ‘to be a work of art is to produce a new definition of art’.

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