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One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art

Terry Smith

Part One  

Tactically, conceptualism is no doubt the strongest position of the three; for the tired nominalist can lapse into conceptualism and still allay his puritanic conscience with the reflection that he has not quite taken to eating lotus with the Platonists.

—Willard van Orman Quine

1

Philosophers often add “-ism” to a term in order to highlight a distinct approach to a fundamental question, that is, to name a philosophical doctrine. For example, when it comes to universals, 

 There are other definitions, but the point about the use of “-ism” to name a philosophical doctrine is clear. For art critics, curators, and historians, however, “-isms” have somewhat different purposes: they name movements in art, broadly shared approaches that have become styles or threaten to do so. During the heroic years of the modern movement, when critics, artists, or art historians first added “-ism” to a word, they usually meant what the suffix usually means in ordinary language: that The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that “Conceptualism is a doctrine in philosophy intermediate between nominalism and realism that says universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.”2x is like y, even excessively so. Often with ridicule as their aim, they highlighted a quality twice removed from the source of that particular art, from its authenticity. Thus “Impressionism” and “Cubism,” neither of which names what is really going on in the art to which it refers: each takes up a banal misdescription and then exaggerates it into a ludicrous delusion on the part of the artists. The success of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes led to a plethora of “-isms” that gradually lost these negative connotations and become almost normal descriptors. By mid-century, anyone could generate an “-ism,” and too many artists did so in their efforts to link their unique, often quite individual ways of making art to what they, or their promoters, hoped would be market success and art historical inevitability. When Willem de Kooning, at a meeting of artists in New York in 1951, said: “It is disastrous to name ourselves,” his was a lone voice, quickly silenced by the tide that named all present Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1960s this kind of naming had become so commonplace, so obvious a move, and such a sure pathway to premature institutionalization and incorporation, that many artists rejected it, to avoid being comfortably slotted into what they regarded as an ossified history of modernist avant-gardism. In the 1970s, for example, artists driven primarily by political concerns consciously blocked efforts to designate their work as belonging to a “political art” movement. Yet for some artists, long excluded from any kind of historical recognition, this was a risk worth taking: feminist artists emphasized their feminism, for instance, precisely because it connected their practice to the broader social movement to vindicate the rights of women.

As the artists most acutely aware of the powers and the pitfalls of exactly these processes, conceptual artists refused to embrace the term “conceptualism” during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They were, however, happy to use terms such as “conceptual” for their work, because questioning the concept of art was precisely the main point of their practice. As we shall see, they foresaw that the tag “Conceptual Art” would inevitably be associated with their work, and thus tie it too closely to art that had already resolved its problems. Their goal was to keep their art (practice) problematic to themselves by keeping it at a (critical) distance from Art (as an institution). They therefore sought to prevent the precipitous labeling of their art by adopting one or both of two strategies: insist that the term “conceptual” be applied so broadly (describing any art no longer governed by a traditional medium) as to be meaningless, or so narrowly (indicating only language-based art that dealt with Art per se) as to be offensive to almost everyone.

It is a nice paradox that the term “conceptualism” came into art world existence after the advent of Conceptual art in major centers such as New York and London—most prominently and programmatically in the exhibition “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999—mainly in order to highlight the fact that innovative, experimental art practices occurred in the Soviet Union, Japan, South America, and elsewhere prior to, at the same time as, and after the European and US initiatives that had come to seem paradigmatic, and to claim that these practices were more socially and politically engaged—and thus more relevant to their present, better models for today’s art, and, in these senses, better art—than the well-known Euro-American exemplars. I explored a variant of this idea—that conceptualism was an outcome of some artists’ increased global mobility—in my selections for the “Global Conceptualism” exhibition, and in my catalogue essay, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand.”3 Retrospection of this kind has also shone spotlights on what were once regarded as minor movements in Euro-American art (Fluxus, for example).

The question posed by the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980,” presented at the University of Toronto Art Galleries in 2010, is whether a similar valuing structure might be applied to certain strands in art made in Canada from the 1960s to the present. Even though Canadian artists were conspicuously absent from “Global Conceptualism,” certain artists have since been valued as contributors to the international tendency. Thus the exhibition asks us to look in more detail at work of the time made throughout the regions of Canada and consider whether perhaps this valuing can be extended to them. There is no suggestion that this art was nationalistic—on the contrary, it was everywhere based on skepticism about official national culture-construction. The implication is that regional conceptualisms existed—that is, that conceptualist developments (in the broadest sense) occurred differently in each of the distinct regions of Canada. Again, the implication is skeptical: in every case it is about regionality in transition, not a self-satisfied parochialism.

Triggered by remarks made by some of the key artists back in the day, I wish to revisit the terms “Conceptual art” and “conceptualism” as indications of what was at stake in the unraveling of late modern art during the 1960s and in art’s embrace of contemporaneity since. I will do so by asking what conceptualism was before, during, and after Conceptual art, and I will show that there were at least one, usually two, and sometimes three conceptions of conceptualism in play at each moment—and that these were in play, differently although connectedly, in various places, at each of these times.

 

Josef Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea (Meaning), 1967. Photostat on paper mounted on wood.

Pop or Conceptual? Or both and neither?

Let me begin with the question as seen from within orthodox art historical narratives, as a matter of the meaning of style, a concern of art historians. I start from before Conceptual art was named as a style, before the term “conceptualism” had any currency, to see what might count as Conceptual art in that circumstance.

Ian Burn, in conversation in late 1972, said of Joseph Kosuth’s Art as Idea works:“If they were made in 1965 like he claims, they are Pop Art. If they were made in 1967–8, when they were exhibited, then they are among the first conceptual works, strictly speaking.” In his 1970 essay “Conceptual Art as Art,” Burn gave these works this latter dating and characterized them as key examples of the “strict form of Conceptual Art” because they were analytic of the nature of art, their (minimal) appearance being of the most minimal relevance.4 Why did an artist with such a critical attitude toward orthodox art history’s puerile dependence on style terms apply such crude criteria to the work of a close colleague?5

Kosuth’s response was outrage at applying such anti-conceptual criteria to such work: he was an art student who had the ideas but not the resources to realize them; by the time he did have these resources a few years later, everyone (including Burn) was dating their work to the moment of conception—immediacy was the new currency.6

Josef Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

In one sense Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) is Pop-like in that its statement about what constitutes a sign is all there, all at once, and obvious, as in your face as Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, but without the fascinated irony that informs the British artist’s perspective. To an observer outside the US sphere of cultural influence—or, more accurately, at its waxing and waning borders—One and Three Chairs might seem to offer viewers an open choice as to which item seems the most attractive constituent of “chairness,” thereby reducing spectatorship to supermarketlike art consumption, and artmaking to the provision of competitive goods.7 To the extent that this is true, Conceptual art that turns on overt demonstration or the instantiation of an idea (as does much of the better known and easily illustrated work—think Baldessari, Acconci, or Huebler) shares something with what might be called ordinary language Pop art, that which recycles the visual codes of consumer culture.

But the matter does not end there. In my view, the invitation to look in One and Three Chairs is at least as subtle as it is in key works on this subject by Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol in its conceptual questioning of what it is to see, what an image might be, what an idea looks like. These artists regularly juxtaposed photographs and objects such as actual chairs (in Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim, for example), or evoked black-and-white photography and overtly displayed the tools that made them (Johns’s Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, for example). Warhol’s Dance Diagram (“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”), 1963, is an appropriation of an illustration, but it is also a demonstration of what constitutes a visual sign, especially when displayed, as he preferred, on the floor. Indeed, Warhol now seems the most nakedly conceptual of artists (in this pre-Conceptual art moment), precisely in his instinct for setting out one visual idea at a time, in showing an image as an idea, in making artworks that plainly demonstrated how visual ideas achieved appearance in the culture, in the visual culture, in popular imagination, in unArt, in America. The idea-image, for him, was in David Antin’s brilliant perception, a “deteriorated image.”8

 
Warhol, Dance Diagram
 
Joseph Kosuth, Art as an Idea
 
Rauschenberg, Pilgrim

There were of course many others striving to picture the many dichotomies afforded by the idea-image interplay that was taking shape at the time: a random list must include Guy Debord, with his films such as Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and his collaborations with Asger Jorn; concrete poets of all kinds; Jim Dine; Kaprow, with his early happenings; Ed Ruscha; and many others, all of whom converge with Pop in certain ways, although they, like the artists mentioned above, were on a track much more interesting than that which can be encompassed by that term. In Canada, Greg Curnoe’s work throughout the 1960s offers a fascinating instance of a figurative painter, alert to the stylistics of Pop and flat color abstraction, yet, like Kurt Schwitters, drawn irresistibly to the potency of words and texts as they occur in the flow and stuff of everyday life. Add to this a Wittgensteinian consciousness that we are all products of our language-worlds, and an interesting outcome is assured. Thus, in Westing House Workers (1962), the names of a group of laborers are stamped out on a sheet that seems taken from a factory cafeteria notice board, while Row of Words on My Mind #1(1962) stamps out a set of names of people, things, promises, and so forth, that seem as random as anyone’s everyday ruminations. By 1967, however, Curnoe had evidently seen tautology-based conceptualism (either through reproductions or via the agency of Greg Ferguson): Front Center Windows (1967) is a blue vertical rectangle stamped with black letters that describe a façade in the language of a builder’s report, while Non-Figurative Picture (1968) is a vertical column stamped with the letters of the alphabet.

These examples tell us that the question “Is it Pop or Conceptual art?” is at best a provocation (as it was for Burn), and at worst a badly formulated misunderstanding of the deeper stakes of both kinds of work. Rather, we can see that various kinds of conceptualization inspired the most inventive artists of the late modern era, and that the conceptual qualities of their work were among its most important. This is the first, the most rooted, sense in which the three ideas of what it is for art to be conceptual could count as one idea: the term “conceptual” as an adjective is most fitting to this sense. Quite properly, this basic usage precedes any real usage of the terms “conceptualism” and “Conceptual art” in art discourse, as these are derivative from it. It permits us this proposition, the first part of a proposal that I advance—with full awareness of how paradoxical a gesture it is—as “a theory of conceptualism”:

1. At its various beginnings, conceptualism was a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible).9

 

Dan Graham, March 31, 1966.

x

These remarks combine elements from three recent lectures. The first was delivered on November 27, 2010, at the conference organized by Barbara Fischer, director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, in association with the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptualism in Canada,” shown at the University of Toronto Galleries during the preceding months. The second, dedicated to the memory of Charles Harrison, was delivered at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, on March 8, 2011, as part of a series on Global Conceptualism organized by Sarah Wilson and Boris Groys. The third was presented on April 14, 2011, as part of a conference titled “Revisiting Conceptual Art: The Russian Case in an International Context,” convened by Boris Groys and organized by the Stella Art Foundation, Moscow. I would like to thank all those concerned.

Terry Smith

 is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Distinguished Visiting Professor, National Institute for Experimental Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney. In 2010 he received the Franklin Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism conferred by the College Art Association (USA) and the Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate Award (Commonwealth of Australia). He was a member of the Art & Language group (New York) and a founder of Union Media Services (Sydney). He is the author of a number of books, notably Making the Modern: Industry, Art and Design in America (University of Chicago Press, 1993; inaugural winner Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Prize, 2009),Transformations in Australian Art, volume 1, The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation, volume 2, The Twentieth Century: Modernism and Aboriginality (Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002), The Architecture of Aftermath (University of Chicago Press, 2006), What is Contemporary Art? (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Contemporary Art: World Currents (Laurence King and Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011).

Footnotes:

1

Cited on a file card from the catalogue/exhibition by Gary Coward with Arthur Bardo and Bill Vazan, “45°30'N-73°36'W + Inventory ,” Williams Art Gallery, Montreal, 1971.

2

Simon Blackburn, ed.,

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1996.) Oxford Reference Online.

Oxford University Press, posted April 8, 2008.

3

Terry Smith, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand,” in Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss, eds. Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), 87–95.

4

Ian Burn, “Conceptual Art as Art,” Art and Australia(September 1970): 167–70.

5

During the 1990s, Burn became acutely aware of what he saw as the growing disjunction between the histories of art written by art historians and what he saw as the historical work, on both art and history, being undertaken in certain works of art: “While any image or object can be fitted into many historical discourses, it cannot be at the expense of the historical discourse within the image itself.” (Ian Burn, “Is Art History Any Use to Artists?,” in Ian Burn, Dialogue: Writings in Art History (Sydney: Allen &Unwin, 1991), 6.) To Burn, artists created that discourse less as picturing of it (as if it were a parade occurring at a representable distance), more in the way they composed their works, in the disposition of elements internal to each work. Sidney Nolan and Fernand Léger were prominent  examples: in one of his essays, Burn showed that Nolan used some compositional ideas of Léger’s not to create a local modernism, nor to modernize his own art by imitation, but to negotiate a reconception of what landscape might mean in Australian art and history. “Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Modern Life,” in Burn, Dialogue, 67–85.

6

Conversation, New York, March 27, 2011.

7

An observation made by Boris Groys in a seminar at the Courtauld Institute, University of London, March 9, 2011.

8

“Before the Warhol canvases we are trapped in ghastly embarrassment. This sense of arbitrary coloring, the nearly

obliterated image and the persistently intrusive feeling. Somewhere in the image there is a proposition. It is unclear.” David Antin, “Warhol: The Silver Tenement,” Art News (Summer 1966): 58. Cited by Leo Steinberg, see Harrison & Wood , 953.

9

I first published these propositions, under the heading “A Theory of Conceptualism” in “Conceptual Art in Transit,” chapter 6 of  Transformations in Australian Art, volume 2, The Twentieth Century – Modernism and Aboriginality

(Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002),127. They may be found in a nascent form, but applied to the Art & Language group only, in my essay “Art and Art & Language,” Artforum XII, no. 6 (February 1974): 49–52.

 

 


 

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