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Conceptual Art

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Covering the entire 20th century, this text traces the roots of conceptual art to movements such as Dada, explaining its importance in the 1960s and 1970s and showing that it is still alive today.


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Covering the entire 20th century, this text traces the roots of conceptual art to movements such as Dada, explaining its importance in the 1960s and 1970s and showing that it is still alive today.

30 review for Conceptual Art

  1. 4 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    Why did the conceptual artist cross the road? So his girlfriend could take a photo of him doing so in the middle of dangerous rush-hour traffic which he could then exhibit in the Lower East Side in New York in 1969 as part of a piece called Look Both Ways And Die which challenges the impossibility of gender relations under patriarchal capitalism whilst also rendering acutely the futility of the art itself and, axiomatically, protests against the Vietnam War. You know that old rhyme Great fleas hav Why did the conceptual artist cross the road? So his girlfriend could take a photo of him doing so in the middle of dangerous rush-hour traffic which he could then exhibit in the Lower East Side in New York in 1969 as part of a piece called Look Both Ways And Die which challenges the impossibility of gender relations under patriarchal capitalism whilst also rendering acutely the futility of the art itself and, axiomatically, protests against the Vietnam War. You know that old rhyme Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum Well, I think the Conceptual Artists were THE LITTLER FLEAS biting away at the back of the Art beast. The whole thing coincided exactly (according to this book) with the rise and fall of the counter-culture/hippy movement late 60s/early 70s thing, so 1965 to 1973 which is strangely the exact lifespan of The Byrds, but they don’t get a mention in this tiring volume. Sometimes, in moments of despondency, I think that all art is merely a series of footnotes on the work of a handful of real geniuses – Shakespeare and Joyce in literature, and in the visual arts Picasso and Duchamp. These conceptual artists appear to be grappling the whole time with variations on Duchamp’s famous readymades. In which, back in 1913, he would stick a urinal in a gallery and give it a title (“Fountain”) and declare it to be art. Or a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel, whatever. So maybe art is just what artists decide it is? Is that it? Half a century later, a bunch of young artists, disgusted with the “art world” and especially the “art market”, they didn't like art being part of the oxygen of capitalism, they were utopian, and being of a leftist persuasion, and naturally, you didn’t even need to ask, being 99% white and male, and they sought to stage a kind of insurrection, like student sit-ins but in art galleries; and they did this by exhibiting a whole string of works which might be described as serious jokes, like Duchamp did. They hated art being turned into a commodity and sold to collectors; they hated its elitism and all of that. So they sought to dematerialise the art object. So there would be no more buying and selling. (What were they then to live on? Ah, that's why the first wave of conceptual artists drifted away in 1972/3. No more grants. ) For instance, and this is possibly my favourite work, an exhibition of work by Robert Barry in Amsterdam in 1969 was staged. When people turned up to the gallery to see it, there was a notice on the door : “DURING THE EXHIBITION THE GALLERY WILL BE CLOSED”. Another way of describing Conceptual Art is that it is art having a nervous breakdown. It can’t carry on in the same way, nothing makes sense for it anymore. Traditional art is, almost by definition, about quality and success – about “perfection”. But it is part of a commitment to the everyday in Conceptual art to look at, and live with, failure. Trying to get rid of the art object made them do stuff like create giant patterns in an obscure part of the world (Spiral Jetty) or write directly onto the gallery walls or have a giant block of ice melt slowly over a week or do spoken or written word pieces or photograph the gallery floor and then lay the photographs exactly over the gallery floor which was photographed, all kind of strange and silly stuff like that. Some of it veered off into agitprop political gesturing and some fizzled and squelched along in that hello sky Yoko Ono Grapefruit manner : let 500 people think of the same telephone number at once for a minute at a set time. Walk all over the city with an empty baby carriage. Whatever squirming the conceptual artists did they could not do the impossible – they could not shake free of the art market without not being artists (which some of them realised and gave up, fair play to them). The dealers saw all this craziness and thought okay, no art object? No problem. We will photograph the artist doing his thing and sell the photograph. We will chip off the gallery wall with the writing on it. We will film the ice melting and sell that. Conceptual Art lives on sporadically – what is most of Damien Hirst’s stuff but conceptual-style jokes and tomfoolery, along with Tracy Emin’s bed and all that Saatchi Gallery stuff. I've been there... I loved most of it! But being post-everything, 21st century artists never agonise about their contradictions like the late sixties earnest types did. They’re done with suffering now. PIERO MANZONI DECLARES A WONAN'S ARM TO BE ART BY SIGNING IT, MILAN, 1961

  2. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Conceptual art asks questions not only of the art object: ‘Why is this art? Who is the artist? What is the context?’—but also of the person who looks at it or reads about it: ‘Who are you? What do you represent?’ It draws viewers’ attention to themselves, making them self-conscious … This was quite an extravaganza for the eye and mind, a thoughtful history of the field illustrated with over 250 photos. I took this up after a read of Steve Martin’s novel “An Object of Beauty”, which revealed the i Conceptual art asks questions not only of the art object: ‘Why is this art? Who is the artist? What is the context?’—but also of the person who looks at it or reads about it: ‘Who are you? What do you represent?’ It draws viewers’ attention to themselves, making them self-conscious … This was quite an extravaganza for the eye and mind, a thoughtful history of the field illustrated with over 250 photos. I took this up after a read of Steve Martin’s novel “An Object of Beauty”, which revealed the incestuous relationship among artists, gallery owners, collectors, and critics in NYC in the 90s. So-called “Conceptual” art as an “ism” arose in the 60s as a response against the insidious commoditization and distorted valuation of art as novel creations by genius artists capitalism and the fetishism and almost religious perspective for its appreciation in fancy galleries and revered museums. I appreciated a lot all the avenues that artists took on this trajectory and the ironies over how the purest advocates of the mission to “dematerialize” art and artists painted themselves into a corner (so to speak) and had to play ball with marketing their work in order to gain recognition and make a living. I liked the lively presentation and the way he started each chapter with parallel quotes from lyrics from musicians like John Lennon, the Doors, the Mothers of Invention, and Jefferson Airplane and theorists like Wittgenstein, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, and Cage. The author is aware that the history of this art is often told from artificial and biased perspectives common to other “history of ideas” approaches. As with other “movements” in art” there are contradictory themes at play and ambiguities about its members. To aid a reader making their own framework, he makes a sumptuous appendix with artist biosketches, timelines of art events in the context of historical ones, and a glossary of styles and movements. As a movement, Conceptual art owes much to Dada a half century before: Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings. It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but by the way it questions what art is. In particular, Conceptual art challenges the traditional status of the art object as unique, collectable or saleable. Because the work does not take a traditional form it demands a more active response from the viewer, indeed it could be argued that the Conceptual work of art truly only exists in the viewers mental participation. This art can take a variety of forms: everyday objects, photographs, maps, videos, charts, and especially language itself. …Conceptual art can be said to have reached both its apogee and its crisis in the years 1966-72. The term first came into general use in 1967, but the argument can be made that some form of Conceptual art has existed throughout the twentieth century. The earliest manifestations are are often seen to be the so-called ‘readymades’ of the French artist Marcl Duchamp. The most notorious of these was Fountain, a urinal placed on its back on a plinth and signed R. Mutt, which Duchamp offered as a work of art to the 1917 exhibition of the Society for Independent Artists in New York … The urinal placed in the context of an exhibition declared that art is whatever the artist claimed was art, which was an affront and threat to the whole edifice of the art world. Duchamp discarded the piece; for him its work was done. He soon stopped his work with readymades as he continued to pursue participation in the movements of Dada and Surrealism. Certainly, playing with ideas is important to this work (think of Dali’s melted clocks and Magritte’s painting of a pipe entitled “This is not a pipe”), but there was still production of well-crafted paintings and sculpture. After the devastations World War 2, there was less tolerance with playful distortions of reality and mental games in these approaches. The Cold War combined with the birth of the consumer society cast a serious pall, stimulating some artists to move toward questioning their roles. We see totally black or white paintings and the disturbing case of Rauschenberg framing a work of erasure of a complex de Kooning drawing. In parallel, the radical musician John Cage (who was a professor at my college) explored randomness and elemental sounds and, famously, in one piece had a performer sit down at a piano and do nothing, leaving the audience to their own sounds. He called one of Rauschenberg’s blank canvases ‘airports for lights, shadows, and particles.’ Throughout the 60s there was a lot of wonderful ferment in play with the meanings of art, spawning the movement of Minimalism and a group called Fluxus, whose “Happenings” engaged the art consumers/viewers into direct participation in various modes of performance art (Yoko Ono being one I remember). The author of this history explains the convergence of these avenues of practice later in the 60s into a more defined (though still loose) concept of Conceptual art. Four examples highlight the next phase: 1) Mel Bochner displaying as art his crude drawings for constructing wooden boxes and frames; 2) Joseph Kosuth displaying a photostat of the dictionary definition of the word “universal”; 3) Paul Kos putting microphones to a block of melting ice, and 4) Joseph Smithson placing mirrors in a rocky landscape, accessible as “art” only by photographic documentation. Theorists began to make proclamations for a new outlook and the periodical “Art & Photography” was born as a self-appointed mouthpiece for their vision. The author takes a stab as framing common elements: If it is not defined by medium or style, how can you recognize a piece of Conceptual art when you encounter it? Generally, speaking, it may be in one of four forms: a readymade, a term invented by Duchamp for an object from the outside world which is claimed or proposed as art, thus denying both the uniqueness of the art object and the necessity for the artist’s hand; an intervention, in which some image of thing is placed in an unexpected context, thus drawing attention to that context:e.g. the museum or the street; documentation, where the actual work, concept or action, can only be represented by the evidence of notes, maps, charts or, most frequently, photographs; or words, where the concept, proposition or investigation is presented in the form of language. The problem for me with much Conceptual art is that once you “get” the idea, the art loses interest to my mind. So much seems mental onanism. Performance art, like that of Yoshihara in Japan in 1959 making an exhibit of three chickens splotched with paint walking around or of Jannis Kounellis putting a dozen live horses in a gallery in Rome in 1969 can make me smile, but yields no lasting insight. I also have long had trouble appreciating words in art as a distracting and reductive invasion of a visual medium. I recently appreciated Ben Shahn’s “The Shape of Content”, which taps into the play of art between form and its meanings or content, and last year Roland Bathes “Camera Lucida”, which deconstructs the meanings of photographic images from advertising to family snapshots. Somewhere between the delightful pure form of Alber’s boxes of solid colors and appealing attempts to render formlessness by Turner in the 19th century and Pollock’s post-war renderings with dripped paint lies a select realm of visual art that I can appreciate from the Conceptual movement. For example, I love this visual rendering of the concept of number: "Triangular and Square Numbers" by Mel Bochner (1972) These days, Bochner is focused on word art, but his works are painterly and I think something I wouldn’t mind on my wall. Unlike the “Love” sculpture by Robert Indiana, works like this don’t become kitschy to me: "Do I Have to Draw You a Picture", Mel Bochner (2013) Here is another relatively recent example of “word art” that appeals to me, four words that tell a story while in a glorious but simple form fit for a museum, in violation of the anti-art object that typifies Conceptual art of the 60s: "Rock Fall Echo Dust (A Twelve and a Half Day Walk on Baffin Island Arctic Canada Summer 1988)", by Hamish Fulton Another recent work I love lays the names of different categories of famous people (e.g. philosophers, artists, actors) along lines of a map of the London subway system. Where a figure is on the intersection of a station, playful mysteries ensue in the mind for the mash-ups: Detail from "The Great Bear", Simon Patterson (1992) From this book, I also came to appreciate other ways that word art has been fused with architecture and geography. For example, Robert Smithson started out in the 60s do things like portraying a mountain made of words, but by the end of the decade was becoming a leader in doing works in the natural world, which acquired the tag “Land Art.” "A Heap of Language", by Robert Smithson (1966) Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson (1970) Land Art is what I love best, though its connection to Conceptual art is a bit loose. My favorite artist in this area is the Brit Andy Goldsworthy (though not featured in this book). There are a bunch of video presentations of his work on YouTube I encourage you to view, which I find stunning and delicious. He goes out in his Yorkshire countryside and does interventions and constructions, many of which are ephemeral. For example, sticking a ribbon of leaves together in a stream and filming it float away, or as another example, fusing bits of icicle into a spiral around a branch and catching its glow in a sunrise. It begins to rain and he lies on the ground for a few moments, and when he stands up, there lies the form of a man in the grass. Check out this fragile and beautiful construction of sticks, soon to be collapsed in the tide: "Traces", by Andy Goldsworthy I liked the closing paragraph of Godfrey’s book with its summary that: The legacy of Conceptual art is not an historical style, but an ingrained habit of interrogation.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    An excellent book, though a large part of my feeling that it is excellent can be attributed to Godfrey having more or less my feelings about so many things. I like that he's not afraid to make critical comments. I particularly like that he's not afraid to make critical comments about things I don't like: art that is just about art but acts as if it were about something far more important (e.g., if you're protesting against a museum for not giving artists more control over museums, you might like An excellent book, though a large part of my feeling that it is excellent can be attributed to Godfrey having more or less my feelings about so many things. I like that he's not afraid to make critical comments. I particularly like that he's not afraid to make critical comments about things I don't like: art that is just about art but acts as if it were about something far more important (e.g., if you're protesting against a museum for not giving artists more control over museums, you might like to consider that nobody gives a shit, and that, e.g., climate change is a more worthy target of protest; this is not to say that you shouldn't protest against the museum. Just don't act like you're doing something other than trying to push your own very particular interests). That said, I'm sure even fans of Fluxus and (though I can't imagine such people exist) the YBAs will learn a lot from Godfrey. Also, it's very well written. My minor cavil is that, although the book is kind of sort of marketed as a 'world' history, it really isn't. I don't know how much this has to do with definitions of conceptual art excluding (not in a moralising way) African and Asian artists (potentially a lot), and how much it has to do with conceptual art really just being the preoccupation of a small number of rich American/Europeans.

  4. 5 out of 5

    vi macdonald

    4.5

  5. 4 out of 5

    CM

    A wide-ranging, in-depth history/introduction to this art movement/style/strategy, tracing all the way from its modern art root to the early 90s(the time of publication of this book). I seldom give art books more than 2 stars but this one definitely overcomes the usual problems in art books with the use of plenty of photos (Can you believe most mentioned artworks are given a photo?) ,and more clear languages than the usual high-falutin artspeak. It can take a while to finish this 448-page book bu A wide-ranging, in-depth history/introduction to this art movement/style/strategy, tracing all the way from its modern art root to the early 90s(the time of publication of this book). I seldom give art books more than 2 stars but this one definitely overcomes the usual problems in art books with the use of plenty of photos (Can you believe most mentioned artworks are given a photo?) ,and more clear languages than the usual high-falutin artspeak. It can take a while to finish this 448-page book but it is a worthwhile journey.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Gediminas Kontrimas

    Itin profesionalus koncentruotas tekstas. Skaityti buvo vienas, ne, daug konceptualių malonumų.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Villa Lena

    Recommended by Silja Addy

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    read this for college to do with my conceptualism essay for art appreciation.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Shaun Johnson

    Beautifully illustrated and well-written. A seemingly boring subject is transformed into the exciting energy that encapsulates Conceptual art of the 60s and 70s. A wonderful introduction and highly recommended.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Malcolm

    This is a wonderful book. For a subject so sprawling and swollen with cul-de-sacs, it's amazing how supple the author's writing is. This is a wonderful book. For a subject so sprawling and swollen with cul-de-sacs, it's amazing how supple the author's writing is.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Janešlieva Slavica

  12. 4 out of 5

    Gregg Favalora

  13. 5 out of 5

    Joana

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lee

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ibra

  16. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  17. 4 out of 5

    Chlöe Stewart

  18. 4 out of 5

    Keith Suta

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nick

  20. 4 out of 5

    bridget

  21. 4 out of 5

    Vanien

  22. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  24. 4 out of 5

    Alesh Houdek

  25. 5 out of 5

    Marie Pascale Geist

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tiffani Szilage

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tina Tomšič

  28. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  29. 4 out of 5

    S Yoon

  30. 5 out of 5

    Natasha Iliopoulou

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