Art in which the idea takes precedence over its manifestation in visual form. It emerged in the 1960s and was often concerned with the nature of art and the use of language.
Marcel Duchamp: The First Conceptual Artist
The French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp is often cited as the first Conceptual artist, who placed an emphasis on ideas over skill, rarity, style or beauty. Duchamp described his ‘Readymade’, found object sculptures as ‘anti-retinal’, including Fountain, 1917. He broke away from tradition and considered the mind and body of the viewer in many of his artworks, such as Mile of String, 1942 with long lengths of string stretched across the gallery. Many of his sculptures were reissued in the 1950s for the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, sparking new interest in his ideas.
Neo-Dada, Fluxus and Minimalism
The Neo-Dada gestures that emerged in the late 1960s had an irreverent, experimental spirit, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953 , Yves Klein’s attempt to fly in Leap into the Void, 1960 and Piero Manzoni’s signing of people’s bodies in 1961. Fluxus developed around the same time, embracing ‘flux’ or change and aiming to integrate art and life by using found objects and sounds, with important artists including Allan Kaprow and composer John Cage. While minimalism grew out of modernist abstraction and relied on geometric or formalist arrangements, artists Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Robert Morris placed greater emphasis on ideas to dictate the form of their artworks.
The Influences of Kosuth, LeWitt, Weiner and Beuys
In 1967 American artist Sol LeWitt published Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. In the essay he defined Conceptual art as: ‘made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or his emotions.’ In LeWitt’s installations, he aimed to remove all elements of chance and subjectivity, relying instead on highly specific instructions, particularly for his wall drawings, which have been restaged in a range of different institutions by teams of assistants.
American Joseph Kosuth helped define new parameters for understanding the nature of art through the exploration of linguistic analysis and structuralism. His One and Three Chair s, 1965-66, questions the divide between an idea and its visual or literary representation.
In 1968 American artist Lawrence Weiner wrote a ‘Declaration of intent’ stating that he no longer wished to make art objects, but instead chose an art where the idea took precedence. His focus on text and language was in line with many others in the United States including Barry Baldessari and Pop artists Robert Indiana and Ed Ruscha.
Other artists looked beyond the language of art, with references to natural phenomena, narrative and storytelling. For German artist Joseph Beuys, art had a redemptive, transformative power. He posed himself as a modern-day shaman, staging events and installations that made reference to social and political issues, such as Three Pots for the Poorhouse – Action Object.
In the late 1960s the British collective Art & Language was formed and produced series’ of published journals expressing distain for the commodification of art. They had a rotating membership which eventually reached around 50 artists, before dissolving in the 1970s. Other collectives have included the Canadian group General Idea, the Chilean group CADA (Art Action Collective), and the Peruvian group Parenthesis.
Many conceptual artists have worked together to create a shared ideology, eschewing the traditional idea of the artist as a solitary, reified figure. British artists Gilbert & George have worked collaboratively since the late 1960s as ‘living sculptures’, with a set uniform of matching grey suits. Their work has taken a variety of forms, from photography to performance, video and installation, driven by the shared idea that art and life are inseparable.
Conceptual Art Today
Conceptual art as a movement dispersed after the 1970s, but its emphasis on idea over form continues to influence the majority of contemporary artists working today. Jenny Holzer and Tracey Emin have explored the ways text and language can communicate powerful personal or political messages. British artist Peter Liversidge has made use of self-directed instructional messages typed on a typewriter, while many others have continued to reject the traditional role of art through experimental formats including performance, video and installation.