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Conceptual Art


conceptual art n art in which the idea behind a particular work, and the means of producing it, are more important than the finished work

Reproduced from Collins English Dictionary with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
© Harper Collins Publishers Ltd 1998

As befits its title 'Conceptual Art' raises more questions than it answers. There is considerable debate as to when it began, who was involved, where it was made, and what constituted it. What is certain is that it challenged the notion of producing traditional objects to look at and thereby denied the viewer the opportunity for aesthetic contemplation. Simply stated, Conceptual art is art about ideas.

Like Minimalism, Conceptual art challenged the existing structures for making, disseminating and viewing art. Both argued that the importance given to the art object was misplaced and led to a rigid and elitist art world which only the privileged few could afford to enjoy.

This is not to be looked at
John Baldessari,
This is not to be looked at, 1974

© John Baldessari
They stressed instead artists' thought processes and methods of production as the value of the work, and adopted art forms that were not necessarily object based 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, unlike Minimalist art, there was often a strong socio-political dimension to much of the work they produced, reflecting wider dissatisfaction with society and government policies.

Although the term 'concept art' had been used in the early 1960s, it was not until the late sixties that conceptual art as a definable movement emerged with works such as 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 and 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. Conceptual art is now considered the forerunner of international conceptualism seen in much of contemporary art, albeit with a socio-political dimension.

Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.

Sol Lewitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art 1969
Qualities of Conceptual art

What does conceptual art look like?

Richard Long, artist book

Private view card for Gilbert and George exhibition

The term refers to a multitude of 'anti-formal' art activities from those based on photography and language on the one hand, such as the many artists books, to process and the everyday on the other.

Richard Long, artist book
Two sheepdogs cross in and out of the passing shadows The clouds drift over the hill with a storm, 1971

© The Artist

Perhaps the best way to define Conceptual art is to discuss its qualities in terms of key work from the period. Conceptual artists deliberately produced work that was difficult if not impossible to classify according to the old tradition. Some consciously produced work that could not be placed in a museum or gallery, or perhaps resulted in no actual art object (Smithson for example).

Private view card for Gilbert and George exhibition, Bloody Life, Modern Art Agency, Naples, 1975
© Gilbert and George

Conceptual art encompasses a great variety of different art forms, such as performance, process and land art, which can be linked only by the notion that the idea is the overriding feature of importance within the art work.

Conceptual art and Minimalism overlap and interrelate substantially and several artists can be said to belong to both tendancies. Sol LeWitt for example, produces work which is object based and appears Minimalist, but considers himself a Conceptual artist as can be seen in this letter. While Robert Morris produces Minimalist sculpture, much of his work, in its participatory nature, displays elements of his background in performance art.