Not sure where to start? We recommend two of our most iconic conceptual art pieces on the contemporary art scene: Riddler by Philip Maltman and the Abstract Body series by Erik Brede.
Philip Maltman uses oil and crayon on canvas in Riddler to explore the ‘littoral zone’ - where land meets water - with beautiful gestural strokes and variety of colours which instill his work with life.
Erik Brede is a self-taught Norwegian photographer who has mastered the art of conceptual photography in his own right. His pieces, such as the unique, neon Abstract Body series, cleverly question the nature of human existence by blurring the lines between the real and the imagined.
Although the movement was heavily influenced by previous avant-garde trends such as Cubism, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, the father of conceptual art, also referred to as conceptualism, is said to be Marcel DuChamp.
In context, the movement erupted in response to dissatisfaction with an increasingly commercialised art world with museums and galleries ever more influenced by financial gain. Conceptual art also grew from wider socio-political unrest during the 60s to mid-70s. Conceptual art in britain was particularly rife in in the mid to late-60s, with artists such as Bruce McLean, Michael Craig Martin and Keith Arnatt abandoning traditional approaches to artistic expression in order to present new ways of engaging with the real world through art.
A key theorist in conceptual art is Sol LeWitt. In retaliation to Clement Greenberg’s totalitarian commitment to formalist art - restricting art to a flat surface hung on a wall - LeWitt gave the characteristics of conceptual art in his seminal Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, published June 1967. He states:
when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” In other words, the thought and process behind the piece are the most valuable aspects of it, not the aesthetic or craft.
Conceptual art can therefore take many forms, including performance art, video art, art installations, conceptual painting, conceptual art photography and written word. With the emphasis on art as something purely conceptual, artists tend to carry out a process of ‘dematerialisation’, minimising the material presence of their work as much as possible. For conceptual artists, there is no need for the final product to look like traditional ‘art’. This has led to a titillatingly infinite range of artistic works.
At the height of the conceptual art movement, highly subversive filmmaking and performance art shook the very foundations of traditional artistic expression. Many conceptual and avant-garde artists took part in a collaborative called Fluxus during the 1960s. The Fluxus community engaged in experimental performance-based art which, once again, ranked the artistic process over the final product. Yoko Ono and John Lennon staged the Bed-In in 1969, blurring the boundaries between the private and the public, turning ordinary human activity into art.
Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades - objects which he found and then exhibited as ‘artwork’ - did not fail to ruffle the feathers of distinguished art critics and historians. The pieces, called ‘retinal art’ by Duchamp, were not particularly aesthetically pleasing, did not share anything personal about the artist nor had they been crafted by Duchamp. Through these installations, Duchamp demonstrated the total subjectivity of art; art is not defined by craft, material or skill, but rather by the discourse surrounding the piece.
As an example, Fountain, a porcelain urinal engraved with ‘R.Mutt’ is often said to be the first example of conceptual art. The urinal became art because it had been repositioned, titled and signed as art by Duchamp. The original Fountain has since been lost, however photographs of the urinal have been saved and are now seen as works of art in themselves.
Conceptual art photography means photography that expresses or illustrates an idea. As conceptual photography is quite an abstract term, the range of photography labelled as conceptual is incredibly diverse. This opens the stage to anyone with a camera to represent with an image something beyond what was in front of the camera lens. Dennis Oppenheim, though openly unwilling to be assigned to any particular art movement, was an influential figure in conceptual photography. His photographic pieces, such as Salt Flat (1968), epistemologically questioned the very nature of art.
Words began to play a central role in articulating the message behind a work. Art and text had long been intertwined before conceptualism came to the forefront, for example, in Magritte’s famous surrealist painting ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. However, during the 1960s there was a clear reemergence of textual artforms. For example, Robert Barry’s All the Things I Know But of Which I Am Not at the Moment Thinking (1969) uses this very titular statement on a plain white background, just about visibly printed, to express that art resides in the idea, and not in the form.
The rise of conceptual art posed one of the most important questions in the art world of all time: what is art? It is still a question that puzzles many of us today. In fact, conceptual art remains as controversial as ever. Andrew Wilson, curator of the 2016 Tate exhibition ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979’, said of conceptualism: “It’s not a movement, it’s not a style, it’s a set of strategies.”
Over recent decades, a great many new and distinguished conceptual artists have entered the conceptualist art scene, exploring and experimenting with these “strategies”; Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Jenny Hollizer, to name a few, continue to redefine what it means to make art.