Art Term

Conceptual art

Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

Joseph Kosuth, ‘Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version’ 1965
Joseph Kosuth
Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version 1965
Tate
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017

Although the term ‘concept art’ had been used in the early 1960s (Henry Flynt of the Fluxus group described his performance pieces as ‘concept art’ in 1961), it was not until the late sixties that conceptual art as a definable movement emerged. Joseph Kosuth’s series Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) 1966–7; the proposal for an exhibition Air Show Air/Conditioning 1966–7 by English artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin (founder members of the group Art & Language); John Baldessari’s word paintings exhibited in LA in 1968; and important group exhibitions such as that organised by art dealer Seth Siegelaub in New York in 1969, January 1-31: 0 Objects, 0 Painters, 0 Sculptors reflected this growing ideas-based approach to art-making. The term conceptual art was first used to reference this distinct movement in an article written by Sol LeWitt 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.
LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Artforum Vol.5, no. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 79-83

In 1973 a pioneering record of the early years of the movement appeared in the form of a book, Six Years, by the American critic Lucy Lippard. The ‘six years’ were 1966–72. The long subtitle of the book referred to ‘so-called conceptual or information or idea art’.

conceptual artworks

Conceptual art can be – and can look like – almost anything. This is because, unlike a painter or sculptor who will think about how best they can express their idea using paint or sculptural materials and techniques, a conceptual artist uses whatever materials and whatever form is most appropriate to putting their idea across – this could be anything from a performance to a written description. Although there is no one style or form used by conceptual artists, from the late 1960s certain trends emerged.

Read the captions in the artworks below to find out about some of the main ways conceptual artists explored and expressed their ideas.

See all artworks

Ewa Partum, ‘Active Poetry’ 1971
Ewa Partum
Active Poetry 1971
Tate
© Ewa Partum

Performance: Ewa Partum used performance as a means of creating her poetry. Her poetic works were made by taking individual letters of the alphabet cut from paper, and scattering them in city and countryside locations. By deconstructing language, the artist aimed to explore its structures.

Sol LeWitt, ‘A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations’ 1970
Sol LeWitt
A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations 1970
Tate
© The estate of Sol LeWitt

Instructions: Rather than actually making wall-drawings himself, Sol LeWitt produced instructions, consisting of text and diagrams, outlining how his wall drawings could be made.

Joseph Beuys
I like America and America likes me

Action: Beuys referred to his performance works as actions. His most famous action, I Like America and America Likes Me took place in May 1974. Beuys wrapped himself in felt and spent three days in a room with a coyote. The work was an expression of his anti-Vietnam War stance, and also reflected his beliefs about the damage done to the American continent and its native cultures by European settlers.

Photo credit Caroline Tisdall © DACS 200

Richard Long, ‘A Line Made by Walking’ 1967
Richard Long
A Line Made by Walking 1967
Tate
© Richard Long

Land art: To make this work Richard Long walked backwards and forwards in a field until the flattened turf caught the sunlight and became visible as a line. He photographed the work, as a means of recording this physical intervention within the landscape.

Bruce McLean, ‘Pose Work for Plinths I’ 1971
Bruce McLean
Pose Work for Plinths I 1971
Tate
© Bruce McLean

Body art: Originally conceived as a performance, McLean’s poses are an ironic and humorous commentary on what he considered to be the pompous monumentality of traditional large plinth-based sculptures. The artist later had himself photographed, repeating the poses.

Jannis Kounellis, ‘Untitled’ 1969
Jannis Kounellis
Untitled 1969
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Jannis Kounellis

Found objects: Some conceptual artists use found objects to express their ideas. For example artists in the Italian arte povera group used all kinds of found objects and low-value materials such as twigs, cloth and fat, with the aim of challenging and disrupting the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system. (Arte povera means ‘poor art’).

Mary Kelly, ‘Post-Partum Document. Analysed Markings And Diary Perspective Schema (Experimentum Mentis III: Weaning from the Dyad)’ 1975
Mary Kelly
Post-Partum Document. Analysed Markings And Diary Perspective Schema (Experimentum Mentis III: Weaning from the Dyad) 1975
Tate
© Mary Kelly

Documentation: In Post-Partum Document 1975, Mary Kelly documented the relationship between herself and her son over a period of six years. Drawing on contemporary feminist thought, and in particular on psychoanalysis, it explores the contradictions for a woman artist between her creative and procreative roles.

Gilbert & George, ‘A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men’ 1970
Gilbert & George
A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men 1970
Tate
© Gilbert and George

Film and video: Film and video is often used by conceptual artists to record their actions or performances. Gilbert & George’s art is a form of self-portraiture, since they almost always feature in their own work. They see no separation between their activities as artists and their everyday existence, and since 1969 have presented themselves as living sculptures.

When, why and where did conceptual art happen?

As a definable movement conceptual art is associated with the 1960s and 1970s, but its origins reach beyond these two decades. Marcel Duchamp is often seen as an important forefather of conceptual art, and his readymade Fountain of 1917 cited as the first conceptual artwork.

The movement that emerged in the mid 1960s and continued until the mid 1970s was international, happening more or less simultaneously across Europe, North America and South America.

Artists associated with the movement attempted to bypass the increasingly commercialised art world by stressing thought processes and methods of production as the value of the work. The art forms they used were often intentionally those that do not produce a finished object such as a sculpture or painting. This meant that their work couild not be easily bought and sold and did not need to be viewed in a formal gallery situation.

It was not just the structures of the art world that many conceptual artists questioned, there was often a strong socio-political dimension to much of the work they produced, reflecting wider dissatisfaction with society and government policies. (See for example Joseph Beuys’s social sculpture).

Although as a definable art movement conceptual art is associated with the 1960s, many artists continue to make conceptual art in the twenty-first century (such as Martin Creed and Simon Starling).

Related terms and concepts

Selected artists working with conceptual art

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Conceptual art at Tate