Conceptual Art

 ART  AS IDEA—IDEA AS ART

At mid-century, the question of what is art? was raised again for the first time since Emmanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1781.  Starting in the mid-fifties, Neo-Dada art and Minimal Art challenged the presumed Modernist definition of “art,” as channeled through Clement Greenberg’s theories.  Neo-Dada artists did not create, instead they borrowed and appropriated already available imagery.  Pop artists mocked the pretensions of “high” art with their mimicry of “low” art. Minimal artists did not make works of art, they arranged encounters for the audience. If there was no difference between art and life, if there was no difference between the object and the spectator, if there was no such thing as independent art, if there was no sacred art space, then what was art?  and why was this object designated as “Art?”

By the end of the Sixties, the art world was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of Modernism and the continuing tributes to Abstract Expressionism and new challenges to the hegemony of European high Modernism and to the aging Greenberg himself.  Anti-modernist Pop Art and Minimalist Art and Fluxus and pro-modernist Post-Painterly Abstraction existed side by side, but in 1970, Conceptual Art emerged out of Duchampian-based interrogations of Modernism.  As a movement that generated works of art, Conceptual Art might have been less important for its disdain of objects than for the fact that it presided over the final act of Modernism.

In 1964, it was a suite of Brillo boxes re-fashioned by Andy Warhol that stopped critic Arthur Danto in his tracks at the Stable Gallery.  Clearly, a new theory of aesthetics—a new definition of “art”—had to be conceived. In his 1964 essay on The Artworld, Danto pondered this state of affairs:

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art…

Independently, philosopher George Dickie began to refashion aesthetic theory and in 1974  something new emerged: the Institutional Theory of Art, which states that “art” is legitimated by institutional processes.  Art does not exist on aesthetic grounds and has no inherent or intrinsic properties.  Art is an object “annointed” by the art world. The new functional analysis of the suitability of a candidate for the designation as “art” takes place within the institutional frame and destroys any possibility of the nominalism established by Greenberg.

Questioned by the intellectuals and attacked by artists, formalism collapsed. By 1968, Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth completed the destruction of Modernism by revealing that the “quality” upon which high art was based was nothing more than “taste,” and the taste of Clement Greenberg himself—one man with a good eye for art. “Above all,” he wrote, “Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.” In addition, Kosuth pointed out, the “condition” or definition of art rested upon “morphological” grounds—physical attractiveness. In contrast to the formalists who did not question the received concept of art, the role of the artist was to question the very notion that art had to be an object.

Although Kosuth would be connected to Conceptual Art, his essay is a definitive re-positioning of art. Based upon Marcel Duchamp’s criticisms of “retinal art,” Kosuth’s essay, “Art After  Philosophy,” 1969, was a definitive art critical end to Greenberg’s Modernism.  Kosuth suggested that an act of art was an act of language.

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context ± as art ± they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist¶s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.

 TRANSITION TO POSTMODERNISM

 The late 1960s and the early 1970s is a time marked by an artistic withdrawal from the established art rules and by a distaste for making saleable objects.  Conceptual Art was the first important gesture against the highly profitable art market, attracting artists who refused to make things anymore and/or who had a more intellectual bent.  Sol LeWitt was an important transitional figure between Minimal and Conceptual art, and many Minimal artists drifted towards Conceptual art.  According to LeWitt’s well-known dictum, “The idea is the machine which makes the art.”  The term “conceptual” Itself had been around since the early 1960s, meaning art, which was not sufficiently expressive or personal.  The German art movement, Fluxus, was considered “conceptual,” but Sol LeWitt’s 1967, essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” gave the term its first theoretical exegesis.  By 1969 the term referred to the works of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner.  Thanks to the first exclusively Conceptual exhibition, January 5 – 31, 1969, arranged by Seth Siegelaub, their dealer, Conceptual Art announced itself.  The object had been eliminated in favor of the idea.

Art became Philosophy.   Art was now understood to be an idea that could be expressed in language and did not need to become an object.  The Art-Language group in London published “Art and Language Point of View” in Art-Language magazine in 1967, stressing the fundamental role of language in the development of art.  This group consisted of Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Howard Hurrel who worked with Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden.  Conceptual artist from London to Tokyo to New York began to foreground the mental processes of the artist and to present, not works of art, but ideas about art in the form of declarations, statements and documentations of artist’s activities. As Raoul Noortmann wrote in 2012,

It can be argued that Art & Language is the most interesting expression of the resistance of conceptual artists against an alleged oppressive discourse in this decade. Their journal stood as an independent force within the artworld of this decade.

Written material, such as artist’s books and dealers’ catalogs, were presented as evidence of the mental activities of the Conceptual artists.  Following the lead of the Minimal artists, these Conceptual artists took an active part in art writing. The writing of Conceptual Art was not intended to be either a work of art or of art criticism but an artist’s idea, which takes the place of a now-unnecessary art object. In contrast to Minimal art which had emphasized the perceptual experience of an object, Conceptual art re-located art in the mind of the artist and in the mind of the spectator.  Supported by the austere philosophy of British analytical philosophy, particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conceptual Art represented a total withdrawal from object-ness into a discourse about the philosophical nature of art. As Kosuth wrote in “Art After Art Philosophy,”

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example fromwhich we decipher the nature of the general term art. For where there is a contextexisting separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely tofind results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a language with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that language becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came outof Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), andthe least assuming of all the general art concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a family resemblance.

Post Minimal Art or Conceptual Art changed the notion of abstraction in that the art no longer refers to reduction of form only but to Abstraction as an idea for it’s own sake.  1966- 70 was a watershed year in American art, as options derived from Minimalism, from the elimination of the object—Conceptual Art—to an expressionist revival of painterly issues as seen in  Process Art which is a break with Minimalism.  Process Art restored the non or anti-object resulting in “the de-materialization of art,” as Lucy Lippard said.  Both Conceptual Art and Process Art reject the physicality and the literalness of Minimalism.  Conceptual Art completely eliminates the object in favor of texts and language.  Kosuth produced a series of Photostat texts-as-art, “Art as Idea,” consisting of definitions of, for example, “red” or “water” or “art” as propositions.

Influenced by the analytic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kosuth saw art as a proposition, that is, a statement of reality  put forward to be analytically understood.  A proposition “creates” the event or the object and comes out of an a priori concept.  “Art” is a proposition that must precede any “art object.”  If that is the case, that art is, a priori, a proposition, then there is no need to produce the object.  All one needs is a text that defines “red,” and there is no need for a red painting.  The viewer is intellectually activated far more than s/he was with Minimalism.

As Sol Le Witt expressed it, “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.” When one reads one of Weiner’s enigmatic phrases, such as “…the joining of France and Germany by a rope…” written on a gallery wall, one is forced to “think” or “conceive” of what this “joining” would look like.  When Robert Barry announces that he is presenting a photograph of a mile high column of air, one must attempt to envision such a column in the mind.  The stress on art and language meant that art and language are interchangeable concepts.

Although any account of Conceptual Art must discuss Marcel Duchamp as a precursor, Duchamp was essentially an artist of the object.  Duchamp’s main contribution to the end of the Modernist definition of art was to expand meaning beyond the object.  “Meaning” in art was no longer inherent in the object or as an art meaning. Duchamp’s work suggested that meaning is multivalent, that meaning exists as a surplus, spilling over the supposed bounds of the object.  In contrast, Conceptual Art was not concerned with meaning per se.  Meaning is an externality that is of little interest.  What concerned the Conceptual artist of the seventies was the tautology that is art.  If Art is a Linguistic System and if Art is Information, then Art is Language.

Conceptual Art opened the door for artists who were writers, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer installed a form of communication or speech-making in galleries and museums, directly addressing the audience who “reads” directives and exhortations.  “Your body is a battleground,” as Kruger asserted, was not an analytical Wittgensteinian proposition, but a political statement.  Kruger was a designer who stamped out slogans.  Holzer wanted to write simple sentences. Had these artists begun their careers twenty years earlier, they would have been expected to paint, but after Conceptual Art, the two women had the art world’s “permission” to turn words into objects.

As Holzer stated in her Truisms, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

 


 

 

Defining Minimal Art, Part Two

THE DIALECTICS OF MINIMALISM AS DISCOURSE

Part Two

As an art movement, Minimalism was one of the first to attempt to establish its own art writing and its artists attempted to assert themselves against the art critics.  By the mid-sixties, cracks in the edifice of Modernist art writing had begun to appear.  From the years of Neo-Dada and Pop, avant-garde art had been moving beyond the limits of formalist writing. Given its basis in Kantian ideas, which appeared to diminish the significance of content or subject matter, formalist art writing had limited itself of an analysis of the surface elements of the object: line, color, form, shape, texture, composition, and so on. One could, of course, write of an Andy Warhol in a formalist manner, concentrating on the Modernist “flatness” of the picture plane, but such an account would have little of significance to say of the social conditions of its making or the cultural production of the imagery. The art world had moved beyond the art critics, leaving a rare opening for new writers and new kinds of writers.

The previous post discussed the definition of Minimalism and laid out the Minimalist “case” against Abstract Expressionism. Although Minimalist objects were three-dimensional, Minimalism was not concerned with sculpture; the target of Minimalism was tradition of Modernist painting itself. When Donald Judd wrote of Minimalism in Specific Objects in 1965, he opens his essay by stating,

“The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again, not in it as it is being done by those who developed the last advanced versions…The main thing wrong with painting,” he elaborated, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”

When Judd stated, “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting,” he was also pointing out the modern sculpture had been a reaction to modern painting and has not been a thing unto itself.  David Smith and Anthony Caro transformed abstract geometric paintings into the third dimension and these works, especially for Smith, tend to be frontal, like painting. Judd similarly compared Franz Kline and Mark di Suvero, stating, “Di Suvero uses beams as if they were brush strokes, imitating movement, as Kline did.”

“The main thing wrong with painting,” Judd explained, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it. In work before 1946 the edges of the rectangle are a boundary, the end of the picture. The composition must react to the edges and the rectangle must be unified, but the shape of the rectangle is not stressed; the parts are more important, and the relationships of color and form occur among them.”

For decades painting had dominated and sculpture had been relegated to the position of follower. Nothing had challenged the hegemony of painting which was why painting had to be Judd’s major target. Painting is relational or composed and Judd lauded Frank Stella’s painting for eliminating the practice of arranging parts in relation to a whole:

“Stella’s shaped paintings involve several important characteristics of three-dimensional work. The periphery of a piece and the lines inside correspond. The stripes are nowhere near being discrete parts. The surface is farther from the wall than usual, though it remains parallel to it. Since the surface is exceptionally unified and involves little or no space, the parallel plane is unusually distinct. The order is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another. A painting isn’t an image. The shapes, the unity, projection, order and color are specific, aggressive and powerful.”

Judd’s analysis of  Stella’s work understood his friend’s painting in a way that was similar to the analysis in Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters” of 1965, with its excellent section on the painter Frank Stella.  Fried, like Judd, saw Stella’s paintings as shapes stamped out and thrusting themselves forward, projecting aggressively from the wall.  With the hindsight afforded by the past fifty years, it is possible to place Frank Stella’s work out of the category of Modernist painting—which was where Fried analyzed it and to position his work from 1958-1965 in the Minimalist column. As Merve Ünsal wrote in an undated article,  Minimalist Art vs. Modernist Sensibility: A Close Reading of Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,

“The issue of defining Minimalism is thus one of modernist genealogy, where different critical opinions contextualize the work. The multiple narratives of modernism were an issue for Frank Stella himself, whose work was one of the central elements of disagreement between the Minimalists and Michael Fried. Stella’s work was claimed by Minimalist Carl Andre, as well as by Michael Fried. Retrospectively, Fried commented, ‘Carl Andre and I were fighting for his soul.’”

Judd was alert to the object-like qualities of Stella’s work and he was careful to set it apart from historical painting and sculpture. When referring to Minimalism, Judd used the term “three-dimensional work” and explained why the three-dimensional objects solved the problems of painting:

“Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors – which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present.” He continued,”In the new work the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. There aren’t any neutral or moderate areas or parts, any connections or transitional areas.”

As Roberta Smith summed up in her April 2012 article on Frank Stella, Laying the Tracks Others Followed,

“They (his black and metallic paintings) provide a heady sense of the first few fastest-moving years of his development, when he helped bring the Abstract Expressionist chapter of New York School painting to a close and lay the foundation for Minimalism.”

The specificity of the objects rests in the ways in which the “new” works lie outside the precincts of the emotive anthromorphism of sculpture. These works use non-art materials.  As Judd explained, “Most of the work involves new materials, either recent inventions or things not used before in art.” In addition, “Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific. Also, they are usually aggressive. There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material,” he said.

One of the greatest irritants to a formalist writer or a Modernist critic would be Judd’s flat statement, “A work needs only to be interesting.” Minimalism staked out a claim on a new and unexplored territory outside of the precincts of “art.” “Interesting” was far removed from the concept of art as a transcendent concept and threatened “art’s” claim to uniqueness. In fact, the biggest impediment to writing about Minimalist art was the fact that Minimalism challenged the very definition of “art.” It is on this precise epistemological battleground that the literary skirmishes too place.  Clement Greenberg retired from the fray and the battle to save Modernism was left to his acolyte, Michael Fried. Greenberg, however, put his ever-perceptive finger on the Modernist problem with Minimal art:

“Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper…. Yet it would seem that a kind of art nearer the condition of non-art could not be envisaged or ideated at this moment.”

 It is here with Greenberg’s statement on “non-art” that Fried began his analysis. Fried wrote a perceptive  essay on Minimalism, “Art and Objecthood” in 1967, where he signaled his eventual retreat into nineteenth century art that would begin with, Absorption and Theatricality published in 1980. In many ways, “Art and Objecthood” was  dress rehearsal for the book to come.  For an object to be “art” this object (painting or sculpture) must “defeat” its object-ness.  In other words, a work of art must be unique, singular, a universe of its own, a thing set apart from all the other objects in the world. Minimal art is what Fried calls “literalist” in that it insists on its “objecthood” in order to be “specific,” as artist Donald Judd wrote, and is set apart from the precincts of Modernist definitions of art.

Fried moved immediately in his essay—without any explanatory intervening logical steps—to his conclusion that the objecthood of Minimal art is “theatrical” and non-art: “…the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.” The “theatrical” quality of Minimalist three-dimensional works results from the viewer’s body which inhabits the same space as the “object” and the object is not set apart from its environment. A traditional sculpture would be placed on a socle, a painting would be hung on a wall, a vase in a vitrine, and so on.

But the Minimalist work is fully integrated with the space and becomes a stage presence.  Furthermore the object is hollow, a condition Fried decrees to be “almost blatantly anthropomorphic” not to mention “a kind of latent or hidden naturalism” which constitutes a kind of “presence.” The viewer has wandered into–not a sacred site for art where the work will be contemplated–but into a theater where s/he will have an experience.

For Fried, Modernist art is fighting for its life or to be more precise, the critic is attempting to salvage the traditional Kantian definition of “art” in all its supposed purity. The success of art, he maintains, lies precisely in their ability to “defeat theater” because art “degenerates” when it approaches theater. Fried would go on to elaborate upon this theory in his 1980 book in which he exalts art that is “absorbed,” that is art which is not “theatrical” and does not play to the audience as if it is an actor on the stage. Only art that is self-suffient can reach the place where it is free of the taint of the real world.  For Fried the very literalness of Minimal art rests in its traffic with all that is non-art so that it is “corrupted and perverted by theater.”

Minimalism was theatrical, because it existed only when the viewer was present, performed only for a limited period of time, like a play.  As theater, Minimalism could not be defined as “art” in Modernist terms. From the standpoint of Kantian aesthetics, which implied that art had to be independent of life, Minimalism, therefore, was “dependent” upon its audience and upon its site.  The lack of reference, the defining characteristic of Western sculpture, the lack of a statement of essentialism, and the intrusion of the quotidian, the utilitarian, and even the non-artistic was considered by the formalists to be a “loss for art,” a “dismantling” of the very definitions of art that was a distinct threat to high art.

Traditional Fine Art existed in a mental space of contemplation and independence and self-absorption, but Minimalism was part of the actual world and interacted with temporality and the audience’s reception.   Minimalism also broke with sculpture as representation or analogy of the human body but incorporated the human body in a different fashion.  The viewer had to interact with the installation and its objects, over a period of time. Thus the Minimalist object existed only in relation to the viewer and was dependent upon the viewer’s presence, and, therefore, existed in time.

The Minimalist object is repositioned as an object among objects, refusing the sitelessness or the “art space” of idealist sculpture on a pedestal.  The viewer enters into a particular space and encounters the Minimal work, which becomes a place in which the spectator intervenes.  Thus a body encounters another body–the human meets, not “sculpture” in the traditional sense, but an object located in a specific and defined zone. In sharp contrast to Judd who also condemned anthromorphic forms and claimed that Minimal objects were free of human references, Fried insisted that due to the theatrical elements of Minimalism anthromorphicism was present. At one point, apparently referring to the work of Robert Morris,  he mentioned the hollowness or humanness of Minimalist objects.  However, few Minimal works are hollow but Fried’s sense of an “encounter” between two beings is intriguing.

Towards the end of the essay, Fried summed up the position of Modernism,

“I want to claim that it is be virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist painting and sculpture defeat theatre. In fact, I am tempted far beyond my knowledge to suggest that, faced with the need to defeat theatre, it is above all to the condition of painting and sculpture—the condition, that is, of existing in, indeed of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present—that the other contemporary modernist arts, most notably poetry and music, aspire.”

What is ironic about the Modernist arguments against Minimalism is that this movement was uniquely dependent upon the art world—these objects were fabricated purely for the esoteric gallery setting. Unlike Abstract Expressionist or Pop paintings, a large gray object by Robert Morris does not blend into the home of an art collector; a temporary grouping of Carl Andre’s metal squares or plain bricks would not survive exposure to the great outdoors. Minimalism, whether the fragile florescent lights of Dan Flavin or the obdurate steel cube of Tony Smith, must be installed in a museum or a gallery. Without the art world as its specific site, Minimal Art could not exist.  In addition, if one accepts the “institutional theory of art” put forward by Arthur Danto and George Dickie, then by simply installing these works in the Greene Gallery or the Jewish Museum, the “institution” or the art world had decreed Minimal Art to be “art.”

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s insightful essay can be seen as one of the last strong defenses of Modernism but it is also an excellent analysis of Minimalism.  Fried expressed the problems that formalist writing and Modernist theory would have with Process Art, Performance Art, Installation Art, and other artistic expressions that were temporal and ephemeral and contingent on their specific sites and upon their temporary conditions. Today, one might argue against Fried and made a case for art as theater but it is clear that this writer perceptively understood the stakes in the game and knew that Minimalism was changing the rules.

It is an intriguing “coincidence” that Minimalism as an art movement emerged at the precise point in time when Continental philosophy was rethinking the very bases of the Enlightenment.  Contemporaneously, Derrida, in 1966, was deconstructing Modernist philosophers, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss and Husserl, Barthes was rethinking his own structualism work, such as his book Mythologies, Foucault was reconsidering the “archaeology of knowledge” as ever-changing “discourse,” and Kristeva was re-introducing the Russian concept of intertextuality or hetroglossia. All of these French writers rejected the concept of the “author” and proclaimed the “Death of the Author” and shifted their focus to the importance of plurality of meanings and sources and stressed the lack of origins.  While the French writers were dismantling conventional artistic wisdom, the new generation of Minimalist writers were dismantling Modernism, bringing the art world to the edge of Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com