Conceptual Art
Meaning, Origins, Characteristics of Conceptualism.

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Conceptual Art
Meaning and Characteristics


Core Characteristics
Young British Artists
Turner Prize-Winning Installation
Famous Conceptual Artists

Examples of Conceptual Art

Shark art by Cosmo Wenman.
Shark, glass, silicone, plastic,
1.5 percent Red Bull solution.
Derivative or brilliantly unique?

My Bed (1999) Saatchi Collection
By Tracey Emin. An example of
Conceptual as well as feminist art,
from a leading Young British artist.

The Physical Impossibility of Death
in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).
Tiger shark in 5% formaldehyde.
As the title implies, the shark looks
suspended and silent in its tank
but still utterly deadly.
By Damien Hirst, one of the most
famous UK postmodernist artists.

Encirclement of Eleven Florida Islands
in Pink (1980-3), Biscayne Bay.
A form of transient conceptualism by
Christo and Jeanne Claude.


A modern form of contemporary art which gives priority to an idea presented by visual means that are themselves secondary to the idea. Conceptual art, while having no intrinsic financial value, can deliver a powerful message, and thus has served as a vehicle for socio-political comment, as well as a broad challenge to the tradition of a 'work of art' being a crafted unique object. Indeed, some conceptual artists consider that art is created by the viewer, not by the artist or the artwork itself. NOTE: Due to the overlapping nature of conceptual, installation and performance art, many artists are involved in all three genres.


The ideas behind this form of visual art were explored by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the so-called father of Conceptual Art, although the term was first used by Edward Kienholz (1927-94), in the late 1950s. Duchamp, who became the darling of the radical Dada movement (founded by Tristan Tzara), created numerous challenging works such as his "readymades" series of found objects, of which the most celebrated was Fountain (1917), a standard urinal basin, which Duchamp submitted for inclusion in the annual, exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. (It was rejected.). Surrealism was another source of early conceptualism. Later proto-type conceptual works included '4-33' - the controversial musical composition by John Cage (1912–1992), the three movements of which contain not a single sound or note of music.

That said, conceptual art was in part a reaction against the tenets of "formalism" as expressed by the trenchant New York art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94). Formalism considers that the formal qualities of a work - such as line, shape and colour - are self-sufficient for its appreciation, and all other considerations - such as representational, ethical or social aspects - are secondary or redundant.

For movements, styles, artists,
see: History of Art Timeline.

Forms, genres, see: Types of Art.


Core Characteristics

Conceptual Art is all about "ideas and meanings" rather than "works of art" (paintings, sculptures, other precious objects). It is characterized by its use of text, as well as imagery, along with a variety of ephemeral, typically everyday materials and "found objects". It also typically incorporates photography and video, as well as other contemporary media such as computers, performance art, projections, installation art and sound. One might say it was an artistic revolt against the increasing commodification of art, and/or the creative limitations imposed by modern art taught in traditionalist venues.

The first quintessential conceptual artwork was Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) which, as the name indicates, is a drawing by the Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning (1904-97) which Rauschenberg erased. The work raises interesting questions about the meaning of art. Is the erasure of another artist's work a creative act? Is the finished product as important or more important than the idea behind it? And so on. The work itself now resides in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Conceptual art emerged as an international art form during a period of social and cultural upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s, which coincided with the era of Pop-Art and the Italian movement Arte Povera. Its profile was raised significantly by the 1970 art show "Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects" - the first exhibition in America devoted exclusively to conceptualism, which was hosted by the New York Cultural Center. Participants included Sol LeWitt (b.1928) and Joseph Kosuth (b.1945), who both exemplified the conceptualist notion that genuine art is not a unique or valuable physical object created by the physical skill of the artist - like a drawing, painting or sculpture - but is instead a concept or an idea. Sol LeWitt, the High Priest of Conceptualism attached great importance to the primacy of 'the idea', admitting in his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967) that "all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." His attitude can be illustrated by the fact that many of his works can be constructed by anyone who follows his written instructions. Other influential pioneers of conceptual art included the performance artist Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), noted for his "Happenings" and Andy Warhol (1928-87), who used conceptualism in several different forms. Recent examples of conceptualism include the word art practised by Barbara Kruger (b.1945) and Christopher Wool (b.1955), and the body art practised by Marina Abramovic (b.1946).

NOTE: Some traditionalist art critics question whether Conceptual art is best classified as a "visual art", since the "artwork" created need not be particularly "visual", and also because it is not valued particularly highly by the conceptual artists themselves.

Young British Artists

A modern art group known as YBAs (Young British Artists), appeared during the 1990s, whose approach was exemplified by the conceptual-style works of Turner Prize winner Damien Hirst (b.1965) such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), (his shark), and Away from the Flock (1994). Strictly speaking, however, the YBA style is not conceptual, since it relies heavily for its impact on the actual art object itself, despite its lack of artistic skill or craftwork. (See also Turner Prize Winners 1984-2009).

For details of the top postmodernist art venues around the globe, see: Best Galleries of Contemporary Art.

Turner Prize-Winning Installation

In 2001, the postmodernist Scottish artist Martin Creed won the Turner Prize with his conceptual artwork 227: The Lights Going On and Off. Now (2010), nine years later, this rare work - consisting incidentally of an empty room with a flickering light bulb, or rather, a set of instructions to this effect - has been donated to the nation by its creator. Although ridiculed by a number of art critics, and pelted with eggs by one of Creed's envious artist-rivals, this conceptual masterpiece has since been exhibited at some of the world's leading galleries of avant-garde art including most recently the Museum of Modern Art MoMA in New York. Valued at around €130,000, is just one of six Creed-specials being donated by the artist to the Artist Rooms collection – a set of works owned jointly by The Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The other works, valued at €200,000, include a neon installation, a series of paintings, Work No 220: Don't Worry, and a film which features a woman vomiting. While one applauds the artist's obvious talent for self-promotion in bagging a Turner Prize (which gives the winning artwork an automatic cachet of authenticity), one's jaw drops at the sight of so many art professionals rushing to praise this piece of artistic chutzpah - especially since no museum over the last eight years has considered it to be a worthwhile purchase. For other styles like conceptualism, see Art Movements, Periods, Schools (from about 100 BCE).

Famous Conceptual Artists

Other famous artists involved in Conceptual art include (chronologically):

Yves Klein, whose works included Aerostatic Sculpture (1957, Paris), during which 1001 blue balloons were released into the sky from Galerie Iris Clert. The following year Klein asserted that his paintings were now invisible and demonstrated this fact by exhibiting an empty room (Le Vide, the Void) - an early example of Installation art. (See also: Yves Klein's Postmodernist art 1956-62.) Another of his conceptualist arrangements (1962), involved the sale of his 'pictorial sensitivity' (not defined) in exchange for gold. Purchasers (there were 7) received a certificate testifying to the 'transfer'. Afterwards, they destroyed the certificate while Klein threw the gold into the River Seine. For more, see: Nouveau Realisme (c.1960-70).

Stanley Brouwn, famous for his artistic declaration in 1960 that all shoe shops in Amsterdam comprised an exhibition of his work.

Piero Manzoni, who in 1961 scandalized the art world by exhibiting cans of his own feces. He also exhibited balloons containing his breath. Another of his techniques was to affix his signature on the bodies of customers, thereby turning them into living works of art.

Christo and Jeanne Claude Javacheff (b.1935), the Bulgarian sculptor and conceptualist, famous for his 1962 work entitled Iron Curtain. This consisted of a barrier of oil drums built in a narrow Parisian street which caused traffic gridlock. He stated that the 'art' lay not in the barricade itself but in the ensuing traffic jam.

Yoko Ono, future wife of Beatle John Lennon publishes Grapefruit (1964): A Book of Instructions and Drawings, detailing how to obtain an aesthetic experience by cutting up and eating grapefruits.

John Baldessari, known for his 1970 film during which a number of intellectually important observations on conceptual art by Sol LeWitt are accompanied by popular tunes like 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'Camptown Races'.

Douglas Huebler, noted for his 1970 exhibition of 12 photographs taken every two minutes whilst driving his car along a road for 24 minutes.

Judy Chicago, the leading feminist artist of the 1970s, whose major work was the conceptual installation entitled "The Dinner Party" (1974-9, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, New York). This conisted of a triangular banqueting table with 39 place-settings for important female figures in history. The names of 999 additional eomen of consequence were incised into the floor tiles underneath the table.

Walter De Maria, who in 1977 sank a one-kilometre brass rod into the earth in North Germany, calling the result Vertical Earth Kilometer. The 'art', she stated, therefore existed in peoples' mind.

Christopher Williams, noted for his 1989 work, Angola to Vietnam. This comprised a set of monochrome photos of glass-enclosed specimens from Harvard's Botanical Museum, selected according to a list of the thirty-six countries that witnessed political disappearances in 1985.

Tracey Emin, a popular exponent of postmodernist art whose 1999 exhibit for the Turner Prize was 'My Bed', an installation consisting of an unmade bed, strewn with personal items like, condoms, blood-stained panties, bottles, and bedroom slippers.

Other postmodernist artists who have used conceptualism in their work, are: Giovanni Anselmo (b.1934), Daniel Buren (b.1938), Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941), Gilbert & George (b.1943; b.1942), On Kawara (b.1932), Giuseppe Penone (b.1947), Cindy Sherman (b.1954) and Martin Creed (b.1968).


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