Conceptual Art: A Beginner’s Guide

Sometimes beautiful, sometimes exasperating, always fascinating

Christopher P Jones
Apr 10, 2020 · 11 min read
One and Three Chairs (1965) by Joseph Kosuth. Source Wikimedia Commons

Some art movements — like Impressionism — inspire a type of elation in their audience. Other movements bring out cynicism and distrust. Conceptual Art tends to fall into the latter category.

Conceptual Art remains, for some, the death-knell of all sensible thinking about creativity. The idea that a work of art can be made merely by stating an idea, not requiring an artistically crafted object but reliant on concepts alone, leaves some people feeling — well, hard-done by.

But this is to underestimate the virtues of the conceptual movement. I want to argue that Conceptual Art is full of creative verve and artistic depth. It is, above all, an arena where the world around us can be refashioned, awakening within us a new sensitivity to perceptual possibility.

This is absurd…

It is common for viewers of Conceptual Art to wonder if the objects on display are perpetrating some sort of hoax, or at least sharing an inside joke that the rest of us are not allowed to understand.

An Oak Tree (1973) by Michael Craig-Martin. Source Wikimedia Commons

Take the artwork An Oak Tree by the artist Michael Craig-Martin.

It consists of a glass of water perched on a glass shelf. In the accompanying text, the artist makes the claim that “the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.”

Great care has been taken to arrange the piece into its constituent parts. The glass of water is deliberately positioned high up on the wall (at 253cm) so as to be somewhat evasive to the viewer. Beneath it, at eye level, the wall text describes the artist’s intention: “It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”

To some, this work seems like the ultimate mockery. In fact, the artist’s conceit of his alchemist’s power to transform a glass of water into a tree is a deliberate absurdity, one that is designed to jolt the viewer into thinking again about what they expect art to do and to look like.

An Oak Tree echoes the work of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni. In the early 1960s, Manzoni playfully toyed with the idea of the artist as a god-like figure who could make art at his own command.

Artist’s Breath (1960) by Piero Manzoni. Source

In 1961, Manzoni conceived of designating real people as works of art by signing them with his name. A year before, he produced the Artist’s Breaths (Fiato d’Artista), a series of red, white and blue balloons, inflated and attached to a wooden base inscribed “Piero Manzoni- Artist’s Breath”. At around the same time, he turned a stone plinth upside down and declared the entire world a work of art (Base of the World, 1961).

In perhaps the ultimate parody of artistic ego, Manzoni manufactured 90 sealed cans in which was contained — so the artist asserted — his own excrement, as stated on the cans’ labels. To underline the joke, each 30-gram can was priced by weight based on the current value of gold (around $1.12 a gram in 1961).

Artist’s Shit (1961) Piero Manzoni. Source

Disruptive beginnings…

So, these are some of the places where Conceptual Art has gone to. But where did it begin?

There are many places you might begin with a history of Conceptual Art, but there is no better place than with Marcel Duchamp.

In 1917, Duchamp made his seminal work Fountain, which consisted of little more than a porcelain urinal. Fountain was a so-called ‘readymade’ sculpture, meaning that it was an ordinary, manufactured object that the artist simply selected and perhaps modified in some way. Duchamp made very little modifications to the object, in fact, except to turn it on its side and sign it with a pseudonym “R. Mutt”.

There is little else to say about it. It’s a urinal. Except that, in April 1917, Duchamp had the temerity to submit it to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York as a work of art.

Fountain’ (1917) by Marcel Duchamp (replica). Source Wikimedia Commons

Fountain has none of the hallmarks of a typical artwork we might expect to find in a gallery. It is not a painting, nor is it a sculpture in any traditional sense. The artist did little except pick out the object and place it on a plinth. The ‘skill’ behind it was minimal. He didn’t even signed it with his own name (R. Mutt was a joke by Duchamp: Mutt comes from Mott Works, the name of a large sanitary equipment manufacturer).

Duchamp’s foremost intention was to test the submission rules of the Society of Independent Artists. How would they react to a work that was, to all intents and purposes, a toilet?

When Duchamp submitted the work to the exhibition, he knew that it was against the rules of the society to reject it, since he had paid the required entrance fee. He wrote later:

A work can’t be rejected by the Independents. It was simply suppressed. I was on the jury, but I wasn’t consulted, because the officials didn’t know that it was I who had sent it in; I had written the name “Mutt” on it to avoid connection with the personal. The “Fountain” was simply placed behind a partition and, for the duration of the exhibition, I didn’t know where it was. I couldn’t say that I had sent the thing, but I think the organizers knew it through gossip. No one dared mention it. I had a falling out with them, and retired from the organization. After the exhibition, we found the “Fountain” again, behind a partition, and I retrieved it!

Of course, Duchamp wasn’t trying to compete against traditional painting or sculpture with his readymade. Instead, he was making a disruptive claim about what art can be. If something is presented as art — if the artist says it’s art — then who is to say whether or not it qualifies?

There is something astonishingly vivid about Duchamp’s Fountain, a work that has lingered in the memories of generations of artists and become one of the most influential artworks of all time.

It is a work that makes you smile; its disobedience is so absurd and contrary — and yet, just as it is about the descend into complete silliness, it somehow survives as a profound statement. It became the last word in modern art, and the first word in something new.

New ways of conceiving art…

What art is, or what constitutes art, are questions that have consistently foxed philosophers and critics. Different places and different ages have found their own answers to these questions, which suggests that any permanent, stable definition of art is impossible to pin-down. Duchamp’s act of proclaiming Fountain as a work of art was reliant precisely on the inherent instability of the term.

Conceptual Art, then, was a new way of thinking about art. It entitled artists to re-imagine the rules of the game, to put objects and their meaning entirely at the disposal of their own creative curiosity.

A forerunner of the conceptual movement was the French artist Yves Klein. His re-imagining of the rules of art involved a willful and theatrical obsession with the colour blue: not just any blue, but a particularly attractive shade of ultramarine that he called International Klein Blue (IKB).

IKB 191, monochromatic painting by Yves Klein. Source Wikimedia Commons

Klein made single-tone paintings in his favourite colour blue, large and intense objects that appeared to represent nothing but an experience.

The artist Michael Craig-Martin — he of the oak tree — summed up the charisma of these paintings: “The power of a single blue painting to stay in ones imagination for ones lifetime, that’s quite something. There are not many things that leave such a vivid impression. Once you see an Yves Klein painting, you’ll never forget it.”

Klein also put on performances that involved the same shade of blue, such as his Monotone-silence Symphony. This strange conceptual work was later performed in public: on March 9 1960, in front of an audience of around one hundred, a small orchestra and choir performed Monotone-silence Symphony: a “continuous high-pitched” sound that suddenly gave way to total silence. The audio-spectacle was accompanied by three nude models, who walked onto the stage, and using a sponge, covered their bodies with blue paint before printing themselves on a large sheet of part paper laid on the floor, a method he used in his Anthropometry series. Klein himself perambulated around the edge of the room, part conductor, part maestro, part circus ringmaster.

Yves Klein, Anthropometry of the Blue Period (ANT 82), 1960. Artwork © Yves Klein, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2017. Source

With these blue works, Klein was reaching for a purer mode of painting that removed the artist’s “subjectivity” from the work. His desire to capture what he called “the void” turned into works that were in turn outrageous, humorous, and also deeply serious.

In 1958, at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, he created scandal by inviting 3,000 people to a private exhibition in which he displayed nothing more than an empty cabinet in an otherwise empty room. As part of the spectacle the audience members were offered a blue balloon to carry and a blue cocktail to drink from. He called the exhibition The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility: The Void.

Le Vide (The Void) exhibition displayed at the Iris Clert Gallery. Source

And to America…

If artists like Manzoni and Klein could bestow the value of “art” on an empty room or a balloon blown-up with their own breath, so an artist could also take the value of art away at their own dictate.

In 1961, the American sculptor Robert Morris issued a statement about one of his sculptures in which he claimed to have stripped it of all its artistic merit. Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal made an official declaration that “all esthetic quality and content” had been withdrawn from the sculpture.

The wider meaning of this artwork was to question the assumption of creative agency — the romantic gloss that culture tends to apply to artistic “genius”. Was it really possible for an artist to create (and destroy) by will-power alone? Were artists gods? Who actually decides whether an object is art or not?

A couple of years earlier, Morris made Box with the Sound of its Own Making. The sculpture consisted of a wooden box — a simple wooden cube — accompanied by a 3-and-a-half hour soundtrack of the noises of its construction. The idea was to include the viewer in the process of the building object, not simply to present a finished piece as the result of miraculous invention.

Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) by Robert Morris. Source

Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making made a wider reference to the idea of ‘narrative’ — that is, an overt awareness that everything we come across is a story told through a prism.

The telling of stories is one of the primary means by which histories are written and societies understand themselves. As such, narratives can be seen a fundamental but also fallible. An obvious example is the idea that “history is written by the victors.” To realise this truth is to understand that narratives are not necessarily (if ever) descriptions of truth, and that sometimes there are voices and stories that we don’t hear. Narratives are subjective, with their own biases and limitations.

Conceptual artists grew increasingly mindful of this situation, and began to demonstrate their awareness of the “problem of narrative” by making works of art that displayed the very bare-bones of their conception and making.

Artists like Sol LeWitt began to make artwork that used predefined rules as the basis for their construction. His work is characterised by the use of repetition, with each instance a permutation on the array of possibilities. As LeWitt wrote:

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. [..] To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity. (From Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1968)

Other similar methods of exploring meaning whilst stripping the work of its subjective aspect were adopted by conceptual artists. The common feature of many of these artworks was their refusal to identify art as a special type of object — a traditional painting or a sculpture — but rather to treat art as part of the fabric of language and culture.

One and Three Chairs (1965) by Joseph Kosuth. Source Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Kosuth’s work One and Three Chairs was made to draw explicit links between language, art and objects. Made in 1965, the work consists of a chair, its photo and a printed definition of the word “chair” from a dictionary.

In this way, conceptual artists constantly sought ways to get ‘outside’ of art, by becoming self-referential, looking inwards, analysing and deconstructing. “Without language, there is no art,” the artist Lawrence Weiner has said.

Afterword…

The strands of Conceptual art are many and various. This summary is just the beginning.

To end, I want to mention one of the simplest yet profound works of Conceptual Art that I ever saw.

It was by a British artist called Richard Long. In 1967, whilst traveling between his home in Bristol and his art college in London, Long stopped in a grassy field where he walked backwards and forwards, again and again, until he had flattened the grass enough to create a line, much like a track across the field. He took a photo and called the resulting work A Line Made by Walking.

The work is purely conceptual, involving a process that requires no special skill to undertake. And yet its effect is powerful. The work has led me to re-appraise the way I interact with my environment, thinking about the traces that I leave whenever I pass through a place. Now, whenever I’m out walking in the country and see the pathways left by other walkers through fields and undergrowth, I think of this artwork by Richard Long. For me, the artwork is an eloquent reflection on human habit and expectation, and the role of time and change in our lives.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

Thinksheet

A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of Berlin Tales: https://www.chrisjoneswrites.co.uk/berlin-tales-series/

Thinksheet

A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of Berlin Tales: https://www.chrisjoneswrites.co.uk/berlin-tales-series/

Thinksheet

A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

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