Conceptual Art CASE STUDY 3: QUESTIONING THE ART OBJECT John Baldessari, (US b. 1931) I will not make any more boring art, lithograph, 1971, 57 x 76cm
Review of what Duchamp’s work achieved: • Questioned what art is, by using ordinary readymade objects; in some cases re-titling them,and putting them into the ‘art context’, where they were to be regarded as art. (He even claimed himself to be ‘indifferent’ to the aesthetics of the objects. Ironically though, it is hard NOT to consider the formal qualities of Fountain, for instance.) • The use of other signatures (such as ‘R Mutt’ on his Fountain, and of his alter –ego Rrose Selavy) brought into question the idea of originality and of authorship. • Questioned the manual skills of the artist in creating an aesthetic object (echoes of this too, in Cubist collage.) • Gave the audience a new role: it is up to us to look at an object, or interact with the idea behind the object. The audience, according to Duchamp, is an essential part of the art. We are expected to work, not simply be passive consumers. Duchamp, Box in a Valise (From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy), 1935, Leather valise with miniature replicas, photographs, colour reproductions, and one "original" drawing 40.7 x 38.1 x 10.2 cm.
So what was Conceptual Art? The use of language within works, or actually AS the entire work, and the privileging of ideas over an aesthetic object, were key features of this kind of art-making. The ‘merely aesthetic’ was insufficient. At the beginning of the century, art was becoming something more than simply ‘descriptive,’ as photography and film began taking over. Cubism was interested in the formal aspect of art-making, and led the way to an abstract art. (That wasn’t all that was going on though, as we know…Dada and Surrealism was going on at the same time. We may recall Dada was ‘anti-art’ and the Surrealists were interested in meanings other than aesthetics. There is always more than one thing happening….) Fernand Leger, (French, 1881-1955 ), The Bargeman, Oil on canvas, 1918, 48.5 x 54.2 cm. An example of Cubism. CLIP ON CONCEPTUAL ART WHICH IS GOOD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hzh0TTrnS2o&feature=channel&list=UL
Joseph Kosuth (U.S. b. 1945), Titled. Art as idea as idea (water), 1966. Photocopy, mounted on board, 121.9 x 121.9 cm Conceptual art, like Duchamp’s readymades, acted to make us become conscious of the context that we are viewing art in; the institutions of art (state-run galleries & commercial outlets; art schools) and our own roles as audience. It offered us art based on an idea or like Joseph Kosuth, investigating the links between the word, the idea, and the image. Who can be an artist? Who says so? If the idea is the important thing, rather than manual skill, then being an artist is something different people can do. Artists of this period questioned the commodification of art objects, that is, art as something that is bought and sold, often at huge prices. The meaning of the art is caught up in how much it costs. They were really shaking up the conceptual framework of the time.
Part of this questioning of the aesthetic or the visual with Conceptual art was the perceived need to challenge the dominant art of the 1940s and 1950s in America: Abstract Expressionism (aka New York School, Painterly abstraction, Action painting.) With WW2, many European artists, in particular several Surrealists, fled to USA to escape Nazism. America and more specifically, NYC, became the centre for the new avant-garde, rather than Europe, for the first time. This was politically good for the US and they milked it. The name of ‘abstract expressionist’ was applied to art that actually varied widely, but was all created at that time and mainly in New York. Jackson Pollock, (US, 1912-1956) Number 18, 1950, Oil and enamel on Masonite, 56.0 x 56.7 cm. Pollock was the most famous Ab Ex painter.
Abstract Expressionism was the result of many influences coming together: • Surrealist influence – automatism; link with unconscious; • Expressionist influence – intensely personal expression; use of colour. • Cubist influence – anti-figurative; anti-descriptive. Jackson Pollock’s work was important for many reasons, including use of new materials within his artworks – liquid paints; house paints, broken glass; sand. Also the techniques he used to apply the paint: hardened brushes; sticks; turkey-baster syringes; and famously, DRIPPING the paint from the can onto the canvas. To manage this , he took his paintings down from the easel and laid the canvas on the floor. This meant he could approach the canvas from any direction and use his body in new ways. He felt he ‘entered into’ the painting. This was a huge break with Western tradition. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrVE-WQBcYQ Jackson Pollock, No 11 (Blue Poles), 212 x 488cm, paint and glass on canvas, 1952
Clement Greenberg (U.S.1909-1994): Modernist critic. Greenberg is famous for his promotion of Modernist art in the US, in particular Abstract Expressionism, and then ‘Post painterly abstraction’. He wrote about each medium (painting, sculpture etc.) as having specific character exclusive to itself. The role of Modernist art was to discover these inherent qualities. He had very strong opinions and continues to be influential. We will be examining some of his critical writing in coming sessions. Willem de Kooning was one of the best known Abstract Expressionists. Here is Woman V, 1952-3, oil & charcoal on canvas, 154 x 114cm
And now, back to Conceptual art…. The Conceptual artists were reacting against Greenberg’s influence. They had differing ideas about what art may be, and were following in the tradition of Dada and Surrealism in their questioning of Western society, economies and art traditions. Piero Manzoni (Italian, 1933-1963) pre-dated the American Conceptual artists but had the same ideas and questions. You had to see this: Artist’s Shit no. 14, 1961, faeces in sealed container.
What does this have to do with us? Why should we care? The challenges that Conceptual Artists threw at audiences made possible other practices which questioned contexts for art such as earth art and installations; and performances, especially those focussing on the body as art object or art-making tool. Marjorie Strider, (US, b. 1934), Street Works IV – cityscape, frame in front of building. Strider’s interest was in getting audiences to reconsider the context for art. Note the ephemeral nature of the work. The audiences response, also, is an important part of the actual artwork.
Guillaume Apollinaire: The Cubist Painters, 1914. Apollinaire (Polish, 1880-1918) was an influential poet and writer. He loved art, and wrote on it in commercial magazines. He was friends with many members of the avant-garde in Paris. He coined the term ‘Surrealism’ and helped define and establish Cubism. As we go through this excerpt, consider the tone that Apollinaire uses to Introduce us to the new art. The ‘old art’ in this instance would mean the art of the Impressionists, and the Post- Impressionists. Francis Picabia, Dance at the Source, 1912, 251.8 x 248.9 cm
“Many of the new painters only paint pictures which have no real subject. And the titles in the catalogues are like names which designate individuals without describing them. Just as there are very thin people called Legros and very dark people called Leblond, so I have seen canvases entitled ‘Solitude’ featuring several human figures. In such cases, painters still deign sometimes to use vaguely explanatory words like Portrait, Landscape or Still-life; but still many young painters only use the general term Painting. These painters still observe nature, but they no longer copy it, and they take care not to depict scenes studiously observed and reconstituted from nature. Resemblance no longer has the slightest importance, for the artist sacrifices everything to the truths and imperatives of a higher nature which he can envisage without ever having encountered it. Subject-matter now counts for little or nothing at all.”
“Modern art broadly rejects most of the means that great artists of the past used in order to give pleasure. Though the aim of painting is still, as always, to please the eye, the art-lover is now expected to seek a different pleasure from one that can just as well be derived from viewing natural phenomena. So we are moving toward an entirely new art which will be to painting, as hitherto understood, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting, as music is pure literature. When he listens to a concert, the music-lover experiences joyful feelings which are different from the joy experienced when he hears natural sounds like the murmur of a stream, the roar of a waterfall, the wind soughing through a forest, or the harmonies of human speech, based on reason and not on aesthetics. Similarly, the new painters will provide their admirers with artistic sensations created only by the harmony of contrasting hues of light.”
“There is a well known story in Pliny about Apelles and Protogenes… … Apelles arrived one day on the island of Rhodes to see the works of Protogenes, who lived there. Protogenes was not in his studio, but an old woman was there, looking after a large panel which was ready for painting. Apelles, instead of leaving his name, painted a line onto the panel [as his signature] which was so finely drawn that it looked as though it could never be bettered. On his return, when he saw the line, Protogenes recognised Apelles’ hand and drew on his line another still finer one, in a different colour, so that there appeared to be three lines. Apelles returned… …and the line he drew that day was so fine it drove Protogenes to despair. The picture was long admired by connoisseurs, who gazed at it with as much pleasure as if , instead of showing almost invisible lines, it depicted gods and goddesses.”
“The young painters of the most radical movements are secretly aiming to create pure painting. It is an entirely new type of art. It has only just begun and it is not yet as abstract as it would like. Most of the new painters are mathematicians without knowing it, but they have not yet abandoned nature, which they patiently question so that it will teach them the road of life. Picasso studies an object like a surgeon dissecting a corpse. If the art of pure painting manages to free itself entirely from the old style of painting, this will not necessarily mean the disappearance of that type of art, just as the development of music did not lead to the disappearance of the various literary genres, or the bitterness of tobacco replace the flavour of food.” Artists do a lot of drinking. Especially after reading Art-criticism.
Resources Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/conceptual-art/ MoMa on Conceptual Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=10065&displayall=1#skipToContent Marzona, Daniel, Conceptual Art. Uta Grosenick, Ed. 2006, Taschen Guggenheim Museum Collection: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/show-full/movement/?search=Conceptual%20art