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Tag Archives: Conceptual Art

In 1966, 21 yr. old artist Joseph Kosuth completed the world’s first Conceptual Art Cycle which began with Plato approximately 2,346 years earlier. Think about that. Noone had heard of Jesus, King Arthur was still a molecule waiting to happen and the atrocities that would later visit the world, the plague, Hitler, nuclear weapons and any other joke that comes to mind were inconceivable when Plato first postulated the following:

Forms (ideas) and not the material world known to us through stimulation, possesses the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. These Forms are the only true objects of study that can provide us with genuine knowledge.

Plato

Brother, that’s some badass conceptual art! It’s philosophy, granted, but when the guts of an art movement seek to refine itself to the it’s own essential DNA, like Pollock and Rothko finding the furthest reaches of Abstract Expressionism, then you’re a lucky little fellow to have a clear progenitor and not just some whimsical bit of hooey meant to lend credence to what you later hope is an ever-expanding bank account. In this case, Plato kicked the tires on subjective reality, said it was bullshit, did the math and invented the Forms. Later, Marcel Duchamp got crazy drunk on Absinthe, hallucinated Plato’s ghost and invented the Readymade – a physical extension of Plato’s original thinking.

Duchamp

Ok, most of that isn’t true, but you get the point. Later in the century future art master Kosuth melded Duchamp and Plato to produce One and Three Chairs (1965). Kosuth presented a chair, a photo of the chair and a text definition of “Chair,” presenting all 3 in a single piece.

One and Three Chairs

Idea, object and 2D representation of object. Kosuth was getting at the idea of an idea, but hadn’t quite nailed it. The work was famously artsy and a revelation in the artworld, but still a damn artsy thing to do and it didn’t quite satisfy Kosuth. So in 1966, unlike Jasper Johns’ inability to follow through on his numerical ideations, Kosuth went all the way, stripped art of ‘art content’ and produced a piece called Idea.

Kosuth Idea

Thus, Kosuth took the Platonic idea of Ideas and created a work called Idea that was the execution of an idea about the nature of Idea. That folks is about as smart as it gets, and a bridge that loops back on itself from which, lovely stroll that it is, there’s nowhere else to go, which oddly enough isn’t any kind of problem. Plato started this, Duchamp gave it form and Kosuth stripped the form to made it whole. Having completed Plato’s conceptual journey into modern art, Kosuth like any other artist was free to move forward in reclaiming language as a personal or political means of artistic exploration. Not that anyone needed to be aware of the execution of the work at the time, but it was done and life could move on.

Kosuth spent his entire career exploring the nature of art, language and meaning. In fact, in 1969 he became the American editor of Art & Language (which I’ll get to soon enough) and in 2011 did a major series celebrating the work of Charles Darwin. Once you’re rolling dice with Plato, taking on Darwin seems a fairly natural progression, hey?

Kosuth Nothing

Next up: Ray Johnson, Tom Phillips, Byron Gyson, William S. Burroughs, Hanne Darboven and Carl Andre.

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Conceptual art, at its best, is the simplest visual representation of an idea as possible. This isn’t good or bad, and it isn’t necessarily central to text-based art, but it is the as yet undefined ‘goal’ of transitional work of the 1950’s we’ve been discussing. With that in mind, specifically the marriage of Conceptual Art and text-based work still to come, let’s look at Jasper Johns.

gray numbers 1957

Jasper Johns, Gray Numbers, 1957

In its most basic terms, Johns painted a series of random numbers in gray. The big deal here is that Johns chose to ignore both the hidden interior landscape of Ab-Ex painting and chose as subject matter something as clinically abstract as numbers tho he also worked with targets, maps and flags, yer basic mass-manufactured informational products. Thus, post Ab-Ex, distrust language, distrust image, open your eyes to a new nature and… paint it? If Johns had ditched painting altogether and done this instead on cardboard

Numbered Grid

then he might not have become so darn famous. This first cautious step, incautious as it may have seemed at the time, freaked people out as he was using the tools of the past to suggest the direction of the future. Again, I wonder why he didn’t just ditch paint altogether to get to the root of the concept, but Johns’ idea of being an artist meant classic tools like canvas, paint and brush, something that was already in process of being dismantled.

Of which, and before we get to the dismantling via Fluxus, Yoko Ono and a whole new direction in literature, here’s a few innovations from Franz Kline in 1952 (!) that again suggest a new direction though still rooted in painting:

Kline Study for Hight Street 1952

Study for High Street, 1952

Kline Untitled 1952

Untitled 1952

Though both Willem DeKooning and Rauschenberg incorporated newspaper into their work at times, here Kline uses a New York City phone book as the primary surface for gestural painting. The idea is that Kline “cancelled the tedium” of the printed surface, erasing its function. Eh. I find the fact that he’s chosen a phone book, a comprehensive directory of everyone who owns a phone in New York to be far more interesting than what he was theoretically looking to achieve. In other words, negation of an alphabetical, mass-produced, printed, columned sheet of paper freely available to anyone – THAT’S Conceptual Art! And it required a text-based directory to function successfully. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Of which, negation, and to digress a moment, Rauschenberg in the 50’s was a wellspring of ideas that were way ahead of his time. Check out this piece of work:

Erased Drawing Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg’s erasure of a DeKooning drawing. Genius, no? Even more genius to get DeKooning to agree to the collaboration, though not necessarily a collaboration as DeKooning had no idea that the young Rauschenberg, a relative nobody in the art world at that time, would have the audacity to ask for 1. a free drawing and 2. absolutely negate it through erasure. The drawing was a mixture of pencil, charcoal, ink and crayon and took a full 2 months to erase. Another collaboration that took art in a whole new direction was Automobile Tire Print

Automobile Tire Print Rauschenberg John Cage

with John Cage driving his Model A Ford over paper creating the print. Rauschenberg in the 50’s was looking to expand the traditional media of the classic artist. He crushed it repeatedly, and if video had been around back then no doubt he would have dabbled in that too. Warhol later dove into film, doing single-shot sequences that doubled as feature-length films, but by then you could easily fold that into Duchamp’s idea of the Readymade. It was, as with Automobile Tire Print, simply a logical expansion of an idea that will continue to bear fruit long past our lifetime.

All that said, we’re laying the groundwork for the elimination of painting, per se, and the birth of Conceptual Art. In truth Conceptual Art had been around for a long time, but it hadn’t yet had an organized form nevermind manifestos, declarations, collectives and later the all-important retrospectives.

What’s interesting here, going back to the top of the post, is that the simplest visual representation of an idea is often words, ie: a description of the idea itself. Once you learn to abandon paint and most traditional artistic methods, yet still desire to create original art, what’s left to work with? Well, a few new inventions had just come about, much like Desktop Publishing of 90’s, that made the creation of a new cheapo mass-market artform all that much more egalitarian.

IBM Selectric

  1. 1959 – Plain Paper Photocopier (Mimeograph)
  2. Early 60’s – dry transfer lettering (Signs, posters and art)
  3. 1961 – IBM Selectric Typewriter with ‘golf ball’ type element that allowed for variable fonts (Mimeograph, extension of graphic design)
  4. Screen printing – not a new process, but popularized in 1962 by Warhol and yet another method of mass production, but this time with the added benefit of color (All of the above + image/non-image)

All of these methods, compared to painting and sculpture, are inexpensive, thus affordable to the proletarian masses, or any dork with time enough to try his hand at fine art. Key here is FINE ART. Soon you’ll see how even the definition of fine art, as under attack as it was by ideas, was also materially under attack as both critics and an uncertain public had to come to grips with the fact that art could be made on the cheap – and thus cheaply sell. So instead of knockoff prints you could buy originals, which oddly enough were also most likely prints. And maybe even small enough to fit in your pocket. What, had the world gone crazy? The answer to that, apparently, was YES.

60’s text art didn’t just happen overnight. Noone woke up and said ‘Lo and Behold! A mathematical equation – on canvas!” Nope, there were steps involved, like any new movement, and while things happened relatively quickly, they did have antecedents and a fairly clear transitional phase.

As with the Abstract-Expressionists looking to carve their own identity in the 40’s and 50’s against the omnipresent influence and greatness of their European predecessors, text-based artists, or more properly Conceptual Artists, needed to forge their own identity and so pushed back against their older Ab-Ex brethren. One thing the Ab-Ex movement had going for it, beside its own revolutionary greatness, was a kind of subconscious, spiritual aspect that had been attached to their work. Jackson Pollock famously visited a psychoanalyst, Mark Rothko built a chapel, and everyone’s work was hailed as a collective liberation of painting and Americanism. The only aspect that Conceptual Artists wanted any part of was the liberation of painting, in fact the complete elimination of it altogether, which ha ha got me to thinking:

Wouldn’t it be nice if two competing art movements really, honestly loved and respected each other? Usually, a movement comes out with a manifesto trashing whatever happens to be the dominant paradigm, and Conceptual Artists certainly released their own manifestos which were a bit Dadaist in nature, which again makes sense given the intensity of the culture around them. Here though, imagine this scene:

On Kawara: “Damn Jackson, that whole splashy thing is really amazing! Seriously, I’m impressed!”

Pollock: “Hey thanks! And I really dig your Date/Time thing. How’d you come up with that?”

On Kawara: “Oh you know, I was messing around in the kitchen, one of those really bright ones down in Mexico, and, heck, does it really matter? How’s Lee?”

Pollock: “She’s great, just fantastic! And her painting, wow, who knew? What’s with that little filly I saw you with at Kaprow’s wing-ding?”

On Kawara: “I don’t know man, I think she’s some kind of heiress. I’m trying to get her to buy one of my mimeographs, but she kept taking about DeKooning. You know how it is.”

Pollock: (Laughing) “Oh yeah, I know exactly how it is!”

End scene, arm-in-arm as they go to tear another door off the Cedar Tavern.

Point being, nothing like this could have every remotely happened. Nevermind the historical inaccuracies, ie: I don’t think On Kawara ever attended a Happening, ah ha, that’s another little joke – who the hell knows? Plus Pollock would have been long dead. You see the problem.

So what comes next will be the stages inbetween classic painting as represented by the Ab-Ex movement, and the blossoming of Conceptual Art in the 1960’s. Want a little sneak peak?

raRauschenberg white painting

Yep, blank canvasses. And a very young Robert Rauschenberg before he got to screenprinting BMW’s in the 90’s. That said, blank canvasses still used paint, thus had ties to a much older tradition that itself was in danger of crumbling. True too that nothing ever really dies, art-wise, it just becomes a more crowded landscape. Of course painting will never die, but from this moment forward neither will Conceptual Art.