Conceptual Artists

This is the second of two blog posts inspired by our original discussion of Eleanor Antin’s artwork. In the first discussion I mentioned that Antin is considered to be a performance and conceptual artist. To explain those terms, I recently wrote about performance art. Today let’s talk about conceptual art.

Like performance art, conceptual art has roots extending back to the early 20th century and particularly the Dada artists. Another bit of common ground it shares with performance art is that conceptual art also came into its own during the 1960s.

Conceptual art emphasizes the ideas that are the premise and core of a particular work. Those ideas might be presented by themselves as written or spoken statements, or they might be presented as part of an aesthetically interesting or pleasing package. Ultimately, however, it is the idea – the concept – that is the focus of a conceptual art piece.

I realize this can sound vague and confusing at first. It is probably best to just present some examples.

In a previous blog post about the role of context in art we mentioned the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was one of the first visual artists to capitalize on the notion that objects are perceived differently in different environments. A bicycle wheel mounted on a stool has one meaning in a workshop and another meaning in an art gallery. He presented everyday items (i.e. “found objects”) in galleries as his art.

Robert Rauschenberg was one of the most prolific and important artists of the 20th century. In his early career he erased a drawing by the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem DeKooning. The resulting piece of blank paper raised questions about the nature of drawing and of authorship. Are negative marks equal to positive ones? Who is the artist here?

Yves Klein produced many different conceptual pieces including multiple works focused on empty space, or what he called the void. One of his more famous void pieces was an exhibition at the Iris Clert Gallery. The gallery was completely empty except for a single cabinet that was also empty. Questions raised by this exhibition include: Is negative, or empty, space by itself valuable enough to warrant exhibiting? Who has a legitimate right to claim ownership of empty space?

Yoko Ono and Joseph Beuys are both known as members of the neo-Dada art movement called Fluxus.

Ono is an experimental musician, poet and performance artist. Her conceptual art often involves brief written directives that lead the reader to a more creative state of mind.

Beuys considered himself a shaman/teacher and to him his art was merely a demonstration of the concepts he was teaching. His performances and installations were enigmatic and mystical, using arcane objects as props.

Sol LeWitt created drawings and sculptures derived from systems and formulas. His art objects were created on site and then erased or dismantled at the end of the exhibition. If sold or exhibited again they could be re-created at another location using his written formulas and instructions.

Hans Haacke creates sculptural installations that critique social, economic and political systems. They are usually the result of in-depth investigations revealing sensitive relationships among large corporations, public institutions and powerful individuals.

Damien Hirst is an artist, curator, collector and entrepreneur. His confrontational sculptures often focus on issues of life and death. Hirst has exhibited, for example, an enclosed vitrine containing maggots eating a cow skull. As the maggots mature and turn into flies they are killed by a bug zapper mounted a few feet away in the same enclosure.

Martin Creed is a visual artist and musician who produces simple but thought provoking installations. He won the prestigious Turner Prize for his piece titled Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. In it he presented an empty room at the Tate Gallery with its lights turning on and off every five seconds. Creed’s Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space consisted of a room half-filled with inflated balloons.

These are just a few of the artists who have produced work that focuses mostly on ideas and concepts. Follow these links (and their links) to get a more comprehensive and definitive sense of conceptual art. It’s a controversial and very interesting arena of art.

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