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.
- Introduction: What is conceptual art?
- Conceptual artists in focus
- Conceptual art in context
- Other perspectives: Different takes on conceptual art
- Conceptual art in detail: In-depth articles and videos
A concept is an idea or thought, so the term conceptual art means literally ‘idea art’ – or art about ideas.
What does conceptual art look like?
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. Browse the slideshow below and read the captions to see examples of conceptual art and to find out about some of the main ways conceptual artists explored and expressed their ideas.
- Discover how conceptual art changed the way we think about art to this day in Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964–1979
When, why and where did conceptual art happen?
The term conceptual art usually refers to an art movement that emerged in the mid 1960s and continued until the mid 1970s. It was an international art movement 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).
Key conceptual artists
Some of the main artists associated with the conceptual art movement are: Art & Language, John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Victor Burgin, Michael Craig-Martin, Gilbert & George, Mary Kelly, Yves Klein, Joseph Kosuth, John Latham, Richard Long and Piero Manzoni.
The development of conceptual art
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’.
Origins and influence
As a definable movement conceptual art is associated with the 1960s and 1970s, but its origins and its influence 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 influence of conceptual art also stretches way beyond the early 1970s with contemporary artists such as Martin Creed, who is often referred to as a conceptual artist, championing the importance of the idea and process of art making over the art object.
Marcel Duchamp: Fountain
Marcel Duchamp is often seen as the forefather of conceptual art. He is perhaps best known for presenting ordinary objects as art (readymades). Find out about his most iconic work Fountain, in this blog article.
TateShots: Victor Burgin
From the late 1960s conceptual artist Victor Burgin began using combinations of photographic images and printed texts to examine the relationship between apparent and implicit meaning. In this video he introduces some of his key artworks in Tate’s collection.
John Baldessari: Language as art
Nine to five
Christopher Miles visits John Baldessari and gets some insights into his ideas, art and life
Somebody to talk to
Where did Baldessari’s fascination with language come from? Here, he talks to Jessica Morgan, the curator of Tate Modern’s 2009 retrospective of his work.
John Baldessari in Tate’s collection
Browse artorks by the artist in Tate’s collection.
Cildo Meireles: Conceptual art and politics
Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles is regarded as one of the leading figures in the development of conceptual art. To coincide with his 2009 retrospective at Tate Modern, he talks to the writer and curator Frederico Morais about his life and work.
Coca-Cola, but not as you know it
Discover how Meireles used ordinary coke bottles to embed and distribute his political values and beliefs.
Cildo Meireles exhibition
Explore the artist’s work in detail in this online guide to the 2009 exhibition Cildo Meireles at Tate Modern
Cildo Meireles in Tate’s collection
Browse artorks by the artist in Tate’s collection.
Martin Creed: Contemporary conceptual
A runner in running gear runs through Tate Britain’s Duveen galleries. Are they lost? No it’s art. Watch Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 and discover more about this fast-paced work.
Martin Creed: Work No. 227: The lights going on and off
Find out about Martin Creed’s Turner Prize-winning, but controversial Work No. 227.
TateShots Edinburgh: Martin Creed
For his 2010 exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, Down Over Up, Martin Creed presented a selection of his works that focus on stacking and progression in size, height and tone. TateShots visited him while he was installing the exhibition, and found out why repetitive actions help him to make sense of the world.
Martin Creed in Tate’s collection
Browse artworks by the artist in Tate’s collection.
The year of the locked room
This article delves into an almost forgotten experimental approach to teaching at St Martin’s School of Art, inspired by conceptual ideas about artistic production
TateShots: Michael Craig-Martin – Educating Damien
Conceptual art was a huge influence on the work of many artists who came later. Not only an important conceptual artist but also an influential teacher, artist Michael Craig-Martin discusses the early work of one of his most famous pupils, Damien Hirst.
TateShots: Sol LeWitt
Sol Lewitt is regarded as a founder of conceptual art. This video presents a fascintaing insight into the artist and his working methods from the perspective of his former assistant Jeremy Ziemman and the curator of the Sol Lewitt Collection, Janet Passehl.
Lost Art | Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit
In this fascinating video Tate conservator Patricia Smithen relives the horrifying moment that Beuys’s Felt Suit 1970, in Tate’s collection was discovered to have been destroyed by moths.
The Separateness of Things, Victor Burgin
This research article examines conceptual artist Victor Burgin’s combinations of photographic images and printed texts to examine the relationship between apparent and implicit meaning.
Expanded Conceptualism – Day 1 video recordings
Watch video recordings of Tate Modern’s 2011 symposium which examined conceptual art from a variety of geographical, historical and theoretical viewpoints. Noted scholars and artists contribute to sessions around issues such as migration and mutation, weapon and survival and mind and body.
Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium
Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, which he created as a series of instructions, are the subject of this in-depth article.