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 (Exhibition Version)' 1965, 1997
Joseph Kosuth
Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version (Exhibition Version) 1965, 1997
Clock, photographs and printed texts
Transferred from the Irish Museum of Modern Art 1997© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

Introduction: What is conceptual art?

Why ‘conceptual’?

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.

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  • Ewa Partum, 'Active Poetry' 1971
    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
    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.
  • Richard Long, 'A Line Made by Walking' 1967
    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
    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
    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
    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.
  • Written statement : While this appears to be a glass of water on a shelf, the artist presents a written statement alongside the shelf and water suggesting that it is in fact an oak tree. Craig-Martin’s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what art is and our faith in the power of the artist.
  • Gilbert & George, 'A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men' 1970
    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?

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).

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). 

Key conceptual artists

Some of the main artists associated with the conceptual art movement are: Art & LanguageJohn BaldessariJoseph BeuysMarcel BroodthaersVictor BurginMichael Craig-MartinGilbert & GeorgeMary KellyYves KleinJoseph KosuthJohn LathamRichard Long and Piero Manzoni.

Keith Arnatt, 'Trouser - Word Piece' 1972-1989
Keith Arnatt
Trouser - Word Piece 1972-1989
Black and white photographs on paper
support, each: 1005 x 1005 mm
Purchased 2000© The estate of Keith Arnatt

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’.

John Latham, 'Time Base Roller' 1972
John Latham
Time Base Roller 1972
Steel, canvas, acrylic paint, ink and electric motor
object: 1850 x 6370 x 660 mm
Purchased 2005© The estate of John Latham (noit prof. of flattime), courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

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' 1917, replica 1964
Marcel Duchamp
Fountain 1917, replica 1964
© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Further reading

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.

Excremental value
This Tate Etc. article explores the life and work of contorversial conceptual artist, Piero Manzoni who famously canned his own excrement.

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.

Conceptual artists in focus

John Baldessari: Language as art

Joh Baldesarri The Pencil Story 1972 to 1973 two photographs of a dull and a sharp pencil with a story about sharpening the dull pencil.
John Baldessari
The Pencil Story 1972–3
Colour photographs, with coloured pencil, mounted on board

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty
In this video John Baldessari, one of the leading conceptual artists of his generation, talks about what inspires him.

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 artworks by the artist in Tate’s collection.

Cildo Meireles: Conceptual art and politics

Cildo Meireles, 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project' 1970
Cildo Meireles
Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project 1970
Transfer text on glass bottle, metal and soft drink, in three parts
object, each: 250 x 60 x 60 mm
Presented by the artist 2006, accessioned 2007© Cildo Meireles

Material language
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 artworks 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.

Conceptual art in context

Mary Kelly: TateShots
Watch American artist Mary Kelly discuss her seminal conceptual work Post-Partum Document 1973-79, in the context of her feminist practice.

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

Christopher Burstall A Question of Feeling 1970 BBC documentary, out-take
Christopher Burstall
A Question of Feeling 1970
BBC documentary, out-take
Day one with students on the reconstructed The Locked Room project.

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.

Other perspectives

Find out what happened when Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was installed in a public toilet in Liverpool…Film director Mike Figgis filmed the public’s response.

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.

Tate Tracks: New Young Pony Club
Pop band New Young Pony Club talk to TateShots about how they turned art into music, inspired by a neon light sculpture by conceptual artist Martin Creed.

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.

Conceptual art in detail

Victor Burgin Section from Office at Night 1986 (detail)
Victor Burgin
Section from Office at Night 1986 (detail)

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.

Related glossary terms

Fluxus, land art, performance, Art & Language, arte povera, video artsocial sculpture, body art, conceptual photography