Conceptual art is centered upon the principle of art as idea, moving beyond the physical object to the ideas it generates. As such, conceptual artists work with all types of media, including found objects, ready-mades and physical spaces.
Works like Duchamp’s Fountain served as precursors to the Conceptual movement, which emerged in the 1960s.
Conceptual artists have an interest in exploring the relationship between vision and language and the role both play in the formation of meaning.
Performance art incorporates a wide range of methods that include the physical participation of the artist and/or others. As there is usually not a final, physical object to be commodified or collected, performance art has appealed to activists and provides a way for artists to circumvent traditional exhibition methods.
As the movement’s name suggests, Post-Minimalism is a reaction against Minimalism and its focus on the geometric form. Post-Minimalist artists gravitated towards organic and asymmetrical forms, and often allowed the artistic process to remain visible in the finished work.
Post Minimalist rejects the impersonal, detached nature of Minimalism, and Post-Minimalist works often incorporate individualistic or hand-made elements.
In 1972 the De Saisset Art Museum at Santa Clara University in the San Francisco Bay Area gave the artist Tom Marioni several hundred dollars to help cover expenses for mounting an exhibition of his work at the institution. Instead of using the money to purchase art materials, Marioni bought an older model used car, a Fiat 750, which he carefully maneuvered into the museum for the opening of his show. The vehicle, parked on top of an oriental rug, formed the centerpiece for this exhibition, titled My First Car. Was this really art, or was it a scam to get the museum to pay for a car the artist wanted? After learning about the show, the University President concluded that it was more of the latter and ordered the show closed. Presumably, he was put off by how My First Car profited Marioni without involving any technical skill or hard work on the part of the artist.
Marioni’s work was in many ways typical of the late 1960s and early 1970s art practices that came to be known as Conceptual art. As the term suggests, Conceptual art placed emphasis upon the concept or idea, and deemphasized the actual physical manifestation of the work. Thus an artist did not need manual skill to produce his work and, in fact, could get away with not making anything at all. Rather than being a mere prank (as many dismissed it at the time), Marioni’s work was a proposal for a new kind of art that deliberately disavowed art’s traditional role as a showcase for the artist's creative genius and technical abilities.
Marioni’s appropriation of a car is only one example of a number of very diverse art practices that are grouped under the term Conceptual art. Refusing to work in any one medium, and especially hostile to the painting and sculptural traditions in Western art, Conceptual artists would broaden their approach to art-making to include just about any material: text, photography, found objects, and even the physical space of the gallery, as long as there was a conceptual dimension that emphasized a set of principles or process involved in producing a given artwork, rather than a finished product.
With the explosive expansion of the contemporary art market in the 1960s that included high auction prices for living artists (previously it was only dead European masters who fetched such prices), oneof the main concerns of artists in the 1960s was that art had become increasingly commodified, and yet artists weren’t the ones benefiting from the growing market. At the mercy of dealers, collectors, and museum trustees, artists felt they had little control over their own work and careers. So it is not entirely surprising artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s began to reject technical artistic skill and material objects altogether. To make an object the essence of the artwork was to be in thrall to the concerns of the market and art institutions.
Conceptual art had its precursors, notably early twentieth-century Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp, whose “readymades” (mass-produced objects like a urinal or bicycle wheel that he designated as artworks) also questioned the tenet that art be solely a demonstration of an artist’s creative and technical abilities. In the 1950s and early 1960s, movements such as Fluxus, Happenings, Neo-Dada, and Nouveau Réalisme also employed techniques we could categorize as Conceptual art from today’s vantage point. Embracing ephemeral and performative practices, and provoking viewers with sometimes aggressive assaults upon “good taste,” they, too, let go of the notion of art as refined object. In the decades following, Conceptual art strategies were taken up by feminist as well as postmodern artists, and today conceptualism has become a global phenomenon, with artists from around the world deploying video, photography, text, body art, performance, and installation, often interchangeably. Ironically, the strategies of Conceptual art, once a challenge to orthodox, mainstream modern art, have now become so fundamental that they are taken to be a given of contemporary art practice.
One and Three Chairs, Kosuth
You would not be wrong, standing in front of One and Three Chairs, to think, “there is not much to see here.” This work by Joseph Kosuth consists of a wooden folding chair placed against the wall flanked by two prints: a black and white photograph of the chair, and a photostat of its dictionary definition. Nevertheless, One and Three Chairs is a defining work of conceptual art, a movement that emerged in the mid-1960s and advocated a radically new form of artwork: one whose value, meaning and existence was rooted in its concept, rather than in the work’s physical or material properties.
Questions of form (the visual elements of works of art) had been paramount for many modern artists during the twentieth century and especially post-World War II, when New York City replaced Paris as the center of the most advanced art of the time. Modernism’s focus on pure form (works of art that sought to contain no references or likenesses to the external world and focused instead on their own inherent visual and material aspects) reached a peak in the 1960s with Minimalism, the movement that directly preceded conceptual art.
Minimalism pushed abstraction to its limits and set out to strip art of any contextual meaning. For instance, the Minimalist artist Donald Judd produced a series of geometric boxes using industrial materials. There was no evidence of skill or handicraft—the artist had in some cases not even constructed the object—and the viewer was left with no references to a subject or theme. The result was a work insulated from any external meaning beyond its material, color, and shape.
For the Minimalists, art’s role was no longer to render scenes of nature, spirituality, or humanity, as had been central to Western art since before the Renaissance, or even to celebrate the artist’s vision and hand as had been the case with Abstract Expressionism. The credo of Minimalist art was “what you see is what you see.” With these pure forms, art was emptied of all other meaning. It was as if the word “sculpture” needed quotation marks. It certainly strained credulity to imagine an industrially-fabricated object made from lacquered, galvanized iron as the equal to the historic sculptural processes such as carved marble or cast bronze produced by Donatello or Bernini.
By the end of the 1960s, these Minimalist practices were being challenged. Minimalism’s value remained tied directly to the physical object—a visual form that invited viewers to see it, walk around it, and enjoy its aesthetic qualities. Conceptual artists like Kosuth wanted to downplay the pleasures associated with looking at art as part of a rejection of what they saw as outdated ideas about beauty. While retaining Minimalism’s critical stance toward traditional art forms, they wanted to engage with the unseen relationships that Minimalism had put aside: ideas, signification, and the construction of meaning. “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art,” Kosuth wrote in his 1969 essay “Art After Philosophy.” To this end, he created works that directed the viewer away from form and toward the ideas that generated them.
In the case of One and Three Chairs, the central idea was to explore the nature of representation itself. We know instinctively what a “chair” is, but how is it that we actually conceive of and communicate that concept? Kosuth presents us with a photograph of a chair, an actual chair, and its linguistic or language-based description. All three of these could be interpreted as representations of the same chair (the “one” chair of the title), and yet they are not the same. They each have distinct properties: in actuality, the viewer is confronted with “three” chairs, each represented and experienced—read—in different ways.
Kosuth was influenced by new theories of language and signification that had emerged in the early twentieth century, particularly semiotics—the study of the meaning of signs (words or symbols used to communicate information). Semiotics grew out of the science of linguistics, which looks at how language structures meaning. However, the field of semiotics had a broader set of goals: it sought to explore how both linguistic and image-based forms of communication shaped larger social and cultural structures.
Why photography and text, and not a painting or a sculpture? Kosuth’s avoidance of the traditional media was also a critique of the ways that art institutions had historically accepted and promoted only certain types of artworks. This criticality had roots in the radical Dada practices of Marcel Duchamp and other early twentieth-century artists who pushed for the acceptance of new forms of art. Artists from the 1960s onward were increasingly interested in building on this legacy, challenging the ways that museums, academies, and other art institutions adhered to traditional, nineteenth-century notions of what art was and should be.
Tier 3: Concept—One and Three Chairs
The concept of an artwork deals with its meaning, a term we use to encompass a kaleidoscope of intentions, interpretations, and responses from the artist to the viewer. As you consider this work's meaning, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 3: Concept.
Due to its highly philosophical nature, One and Three Chairs invites us to consider its use.
When we look at One and Three Chairs, we are not drawn to admire its beauty, nor are we presented with a relatable story or a figure to be admired. Rather, we are invited to consider the concept of what a “chair” is, as well as the nature of visual and linguistic representation itself—fundamental questions that Plato asked more than two thousand years ago. And like the ancient Greek philosopher, Kosuth focuses on the idea of a “chair,” rather than simply its physical representation. But he also reveals the importance of the viewer’s role in the function of conceptual artwork. It is not until we approach pieces such as One and Three Chairs and begin to engage with them intellectually that the actual “artworks”—the concepts—emerge. In this sense, conceptual art can only exist in tandem with its audience, and is created anew each time we view it. This emphasis on the participation of the viewer was also important for the related movements of performance and participatory art, which gained momentum as well beginning in the 1960s.
One and Three Chairs stripped art of its outer casing and celebrated, instead, the importance of the conceptual for both the artist and the viewer. Importantly, it also stripped the artist of his or her role as a romantic and existential agent of personal expression (an aspect of art that was increasingly important from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century). The conceptual artist appears, instead, as a philosopher questioning the nature of reality and the social world in which art and audience reside.
I Will Not Make Boring Art, Baldessari
“I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art,” repeated in a neat cursive script down the length of a sheet of lined paper is clearly reminiscent of an old-fashioned school-room punishment. But just who is it that the artist, John Baldessari, is punishing? The lines are stark and simple, and like so much of John Baldessari’s art, employs a wry humor that turns on the art world, only in this case, the blackboard is a canvas.
Only a year earlier, in 1970, Baldessari underlined a key rupture in his career and one that was taking place in the art world as well at that time. Since the 1950s,Abstract Expressionismhad been the dominant avant-garde style in galleries and art schools. For example,Jackson Pollock’s huge canvases, dense with paint he applied directly, were understood (however inaccurately) to be a direct expression of his internal emotional state.
"I will not make any more boring art."
"I will not make any more boring art."
This is repeated, over and over again, down the length of a sheet of paper, and originally down the length of a wall, in column after column.
Clearly, this is like a schoolroom punishment. "I will remember to do my homework," written over, and over, and over again.
We're talking about a work of art that was made by an artist whose name is John Baldessari. that was made in 1971, first in the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.
This is basically a form we already know. We know it as a schoolroom punishment. How is it transformed into art?
Well, I think that the idea that it was in a gallery, that context was really important to the artist. He actually has spoken about how he takes his word images and makes them on canvas to give them that frame of reference. Yeah, this is different than if it was on a blackboard in a school.
Let's think about the words for a second, because it's not, "I will not speak out in class." It's, "I will not make any more boring art." It's self-punishing. He's looking at his career and saying, "I made some bad art, and in the future, "I'm not going to make any more bad art."
He had apparently originally written the sentence in his own private notebook. That was the genesis of this. I think it's important to understand this within the broader context of his early career. Baldessari had been taught, I think like so many art students, to create, in a kind of abstract expression, a style.
We're talking here about Mark Rothko, about Jackson Pollock, artists who were making what I think of as very serious art in the 1950s.
Well, what this artist did, was in 1970, to gather up all of the canvases that he owned of his own work. These were abstractions. There were landscapes. Then, together with some friends, and some art students of his, he brought them to a crematorium, and he had them burned like we burn bodies. Then, he took the ashes, and he put them in an urn. This was a way of creating, I think, a really [stark erupture] in his career between this older style and his mature, much more conceptually oriented work.
There is a way in which art was painting still, even in the 1960s. To make art, you paint it. In "I will not make any more boring art," is labeling that as boring, and saying "I'm going to do something different going forward."
But, even using the word "boring" is hilarious and off limits.
Because in the serious nomenclature of the art world, you don't use words like "boring." There's a kind of directness and a kind of humor that's incorporated in this deep irony.
You can see that as an artist the real challenge would be, what is interesting art? What does it mean to make art that's sincere, and engaging, and clever, and new?
It was also about the qualities of new conceptual art. If you think about, for instance, the work that people, like Sol Lewitt, there's a kind of cool clarity, which is also at the same time boring, although you're not allowed to say that. So, there's something wonderfully ironic, but also irreverent about this.
As a young artist, Baldessari had also painted abstractions. But in 1970, a year before I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, Baldessari, together with friends and students from University of California at San Diego, gathered paintings he had made as a young artist and drove them to a crematorium where they burned them. The artist then placed the ashes into an urn with a bronze plaque inscribed,
JOHN ANTHONY BALDESSARI
MAY 1953 MARCH 1966
The urn and plaque, together with documenting photographs of the cremation constitute Baldessari’s CremationProject, 1970. The previous year, the artist had written of this project as an act to,
…rid my life of accumulated art….It is a reductive, recycling piece. I consider all these paintings a body of work in the real sense of the word. Will I save my life by losing it? Will a Phoenix arise from the ashes? Will the paintings having become dust become materials again? I don’t know, but I feel better.
InCremation Project, Baldessari defined the clearest possible demarcation between his early and mature work. By sacrificing his early paintings, by burning them, he emphasized their physicality. They existed as a thing in the world that could be destroyed. But he shifts our frame of reference from the physical, the material, by creating a work of art that relied on the physical artifact, the ashes and urn, only as a way to draw the viewer to the larger conceptual issues—including the construction of a division in his career.
With theCremation Project, John Baldessari staked his place in the highly intellectualized space of the 1960s and 70s conceptual art practice. By 1970,Conceptual arthad established a place for itself in the art world. The stark machined repetitions created by the artistDonald Juddand the grids painted byAgnes Martinlaid the groundwork for artists like Sol Lewitt who created written instructions for lines drawn with mathematical precision onto a wall to create dazzling geometries. Lewitt had created conceptual works of art that asked the Platonic question, where is the art itself actually located? Does it exist as the completed drawing on the wall? Does it exist in the originary act of writing the instructions? Is the art embedded in the performance of the work when assistants do the drawing? What happens when the wall drawing is painted over and is remade somewhere else? This was the world of ideas into which Baldessari entered.
In Baldessari’s art, words, photographs and paint offer visual statements that are so flat, so bald-faced in their directness and sincerity that they become ironic visual statements aimed at the very definition of what art is. And because these statements are on canvas or within a galley context, they challenge the most sacred theories of modern art, what the artist calls “received wisdom.”
Baldessari’s word paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s are a case in point. Many were hand-lettered onto stretched canvas by sign painters that Baldessari had hired to render statements that he had not even written but had only read. These are often statements that naively set out to define the most elusive of questions that confront artists. And they are rendered in the clearest most direct lettering possible, the lettering found on a sign, the most earnest typography that directs and informs in the most straightforward manner possible. We cannot help but trust what these sign paintings tell us, even when Baldessari’s word paintings offer audaciously innocent solutions to the complex theory-soaked issues that define modernism.
Works of art such as What is Painting, 1966–68,Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work,1966–68 andComposing on a Canvas, 1966–68 are brilliantly ambitious. They layer the false objectivity of didactic grammar and clear careful hand lettering over impossibly trite yet seductive solutions at the very core of art’s definition.
For example,What is Painting tries to define what painting is and does so in only three short sentences. But these sentences are written on a canvas and so inherit a fraught five hundred year history of art making. What makes these issues all the more pleasantly absurd is that Baldessari is at least as well known for his long career as a teacher as he is as an artist. So when he offers paintings with statements such as, “Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work,” the allegedly instructive nature is given more weight and is ultimately more absurd.
Soon after the Cremation Project, Baldessari was asked by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to exhibit his work there. Instead of sending art, Baldessari sent instructions to the school in the form of a letter for the initial iteration of I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, a work based on a sentence Baldessari had written to himself in a notebook he then kept. The letter reads in part,
. . . I have no idea what your gallery looks like of course, and I know that you do not have much money for shows so that conditions my ideas of course. . . . I’ve got a punishment piece. It will require a surrogate or surrogates since I cannot be there to . . . impose punishment. But that’s ok, since the theory is that punishment should be instructive for others. And there is a precedent for it, Christ being punished for our sins, and many others. So some student scapegoats are necessary. If you can’t induce anybody to be sacrificial and take my sins upon their shoulders, then use whatever funds there are, fifty dollars, to pay someone as a mercenary.
The piece is this, from floor to ceiling should be written by one or more people, one sentence under another, the following statement: I will not make any more bad art.
At least one column of the sentence should be done floor to ceiling before the exhibit opens and the writing of the sentence should continue everyday, if possible, for the length of the exhibit. I would appreciate it if you could tell me how many times the sentence has been written after the exhibit closes. It should be hand written, clearly written with correct spelling. . . .
By the end of the exhibit the walls were covered with Baldessari’s statement of sacrificial punishment and he allowed the school to create a lithograph of the work for their fundraising based on his own handwriting.
Baldessari has called himself “purely a strategist” and in I Will Not Make Any More Boring Arthe references the fundamental modernist tension between the word and image that Magritte had exposed in The Treachery of Images and the cool, spare, self-referential repetitions of the minimalists. John Baldessari has spent his career coaxing beauty and complexity from our prosaic visual culture.
The Artist is Present, Abramović
“Sit silently with the artist for a duration of your choosing”—so the instructions read on a small plaque in the second-floor atrium at The Museum of Modern Art. Behind the plaque, a queue of visitors forms, eager to enter a large square space—demarcated only by tape on the floor—to sit down at a wooden table across from a dark-haired woman in a navy-blue dress that conceals every part of her body save her face and her hands.
The woman is the pioneering artist Marina Abramović, but its likely that few of the people in line have any sense of this woman’s indelible impact on contemporary art. As I wait, an anthology of her performances scrolling through my head. Watching her from afar, I look to see the courage and fearlessness in a woman capable of incising a five-pointed star on her own stomach, screaming until she loses consciousness, and living in a gallery for 12 days without food. Strangely, she doesn’t seem reckless at all, but peaceful and wise. I then remember she trained with Tibetan Buddhists and has said she’s able to transcend the limits of her own body and mind through meditation. She’ll need these skills now more than ever as she attempts her longest performance-to-date, sitting at this table for every hour of every day that her retrospective is open at MoMA. No food. No water. No breaks.
So, I wait for my moment with the artist, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A young girl is sitting across from Marina and the two seem engaged in a staring contest, though from that distance it’s impossible to tell if they’re actually making eye contact or simply staring ahead in a daze. Seventy-five minutes later she finally stands up and exits the square, declaring she lost all sense of time and thought it had only been a few minutes. Marina leans forward and closes her eyes, while the next sojourner steps forward and takes the empty seat. Marina sits up and another staring contest commences—this one lasting sixty-seven minutes. This process repeats—ten minutes, fifty-five minutes, twenty minutes, forty-five minutes, etc. Finally, the man in front of me takes the seat and I’m next. More than three hours from when I entered the succession I’ve seen only six people participate in the performance and more than thirty leave the line in frustration. The nameless, faceless strangers I queued with hours ago are now friends—an artist from Poughkeepsie, an art history undergrad from Chicago, a nurse from outside Philly—and we share our excitement as our turn approaches. Finally, after nearly four hours, my time has come.
I enter the square and approach the table, immediately noting the heat of the lights and the watchful eyes of the crowds gathered to gawk at the spectacle. I put my purse on the floor and take a seat. While Marina leans forward, I settle into the chair and imagine I’ll last about ten minutes before I become either bored or totally uncomfortable. She begins to sit up and I try to prepare myself for the moment she opens her eyes. I have many skills, but sitting still and being silent are not traits I’m known for, so I was afraid: afraid of the judgment implicit in staring, afraid of the silence, afraid I wouldn’t have the transformative experience that had captivated those before me, afraid, afraid, afraid. Her lids opened and our eyes locked, not in a stare but in a friendly gaze. For the first few minutes, I thought only about who this woman was—a renegade, a feminist, an inspiration—but quickly realized that those things were more about her persona than the person. I discarded my preconceived notions and expectations and, as soon as I stopped thinking of her as an artist-celebrity, saw the woman behind the legend. We sat absolutely still in deafening silence, exchanging energy, and just being with each other. I’ve heard it said that couples married for decades can sit in silence and understand one another perfectly, but I’d never imagine that sort of intimacy could be possible between two total strangers. It is.
I could have stayed in that moment for hours but thought of my fellow line-mates, now friends, and decided it would be selfish to bask in this experience any longer. But, could I leave? It felt as rude as leaving a lecture in the middle. How would I leave? Abruptly just wouldn’t do, so I said good-bye and thanked her. More than thirty minutes had passed, thirty minutes of epic silence I’ll never forget.
This kind of exhibition is really unique, the public will see something they never saw before, and I hope they will like it and I hope they will really have the different and change opinion about performance art.
So the preparation for the MoMA show, it's going well. I mean, it's a very big task for me because it's not just third perspective of my performers' work, it's what really stands for some kind of historical view, what performers can be, and how the performers can enter the museum, and how can be performers collected from the museum, and what happen if a performer die, if the work can be re-performed, can be continue, and what kind of roles that will take. It's really interesting to see how the performers can be present in the museum, live.
The title of the show is Marina Abramović Artist is Present. Literally, I will be there for entire period of time of three months and the duration of the opening of the museum, which means seven and a half hours of every day. Also, there will be re-performance of five of my performances, some of which I made in seventies and eighties, and they're going to re-perform the same amount of time, like three months.
So this kind of thing's never been done til now, so it's a really big experiment. I myself never actually performed three months also. If at my opening, and my opening come only the artists of my generation, I know of something's terribly wrong, because it means that my work doesn't communicate anywhere, that means it's dead.
There was a very funny interview of Leonard Cohen, and he say, "I am now in a third act," and in third act, everything start very well, but in the end, the main actor die. I also feel that I'm in a kind of third act right now, you know, (mumbing) MoMA, it's finishing a huge amount of work, which is very interesting about legacy, what you going to leave after you die. But one thing you can leave always is a good idea, and I really wanted to have this good idea to live after me.
On Concept Art: Dr. Thomas Folland and Dr. Leta Y. Ming, "Conceptual Art: An Introduction," in Smarthistory, January 10, 2018, accessed August 16, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/conceptual-art-introduction/. On Kosuth: Dr. Thomas Folland, "Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs," in Smarthistory, December 21, 2017, accessed September 6, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/kosuth-one-and-three-chairs/. On Baldessari: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed September 6, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/john-baldessari-i-will-not-make-any-more-boring-art/. On Abramović: Rebecca Taylor, "Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed September 6, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present/.
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