In a 1967 Artforum article titled “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” the artist Sol LeWitt gave a simple definition for what would soon become one of the crucial facets of contemporary art in the 20th century and beyond. “In conceptual art,” he writes, “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work….The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” In a few short paragraphs, LeWitt cast aside concerns about aesthetics and visual expression in favor of a new way of art making, one that takes place primarily in the mind of an artist such that the making of the physical object becomes “a perfunctory affair.” Unbound from traditional art mediums, conceptual artists quickly moved into idea-privileging formats such as found objects, archival documentation, text, and video.
Conceptual art was very much in vogue from the late 1960s through the ‘70s, alongside related movements like Minimalism, but strictly speaking it precedes LeWitt’s famous definition. Today, we might see it as existing on a continuum from the early-20th-century works of Duchamp and Magritte to the very 21st-century art of Thomas Demand. The ten works below, each excerpted from the new edition of Phaidon’s The Art Book, offer just a slice of the depth and variety of conceptual artworks from the past 100 years.
This work is a replica of a porcelain urinal, which was originally purchased by the artist in 1917 from a plumbing supply firm in New York. Duchamp simply signed the object with the pseudonym R. Mutt, then entered it for an art exhibition. The bizarre item exemplifies the notion of taking a commonplace object out of its customary setting and placing it in a new and unfamiliar one. It was through this work that Duchamp first defined the concept of the "ready-made" or "found object"—an idea which has influenced ountless artists since. In defending the original sculpture in 1917 Duchamp challenged traditional preconceptions of what art is. He stated that it was not important whether or not “Mr. Mutt” had made the work with his own hands; what mattered was that he had chosen it. Therefore the creation was not important, but the idea and selection was.
The Treachery of Images, 1928-29
Magritte appears to contradict reality by nonsensically naming something that does not need to be named, at the same time as denying that it is what it obviously is. By writing “This is not a pipe” beneath the picture of one, he illustrates that the image of an object must not be confused with something tangible and real. One of Magritte’s most famous images, the painting questions the concepts of definition and representation. All is not as it appears to be, Magritte is saying; the picture thus presents a challenge to ordered society and an assault on the accepted way in which people see and think. Initially inspired by Giorgio de Chirico, Magritte’s Surrealist paintings often use fantastic, disturbing and dream-like images, such as a steam train emerging from the center of a fireplace, or a sky in which the clouds have turned into French loaves. Born in Belgium, Magritte began his career as a commercial artist, and this may be reflected in the sharpness and clarity of his work.
21 OCT. 68, 1968
On Kawara makes art out of time, history, and memory. His magnum opus and ongoing project is the “Today” series, also called “Date Paintings,” comprising a simple painting of a date, housed in a cardboard box lined with a newspaper clipping from the same day. Beginning with Jan. 4, 1966, each painting is executed in white paint on a dark background, using the language and grammatical conventions of the country in which it was painted; the clipping comes from a local newspaper. Some days more than one painting is made, and on many days none; if the work is incomplete at midnight, it is destroyed. Kawara’s recording of countless dates from over a hundred cities so far is a form of artistic meditation. Time is experienced both as a lived abstraction and as a personal history, seen in the occasional subtitles he gives to the paintings: “USA bombs Vietnam again,” “a friend came to the studio.” The dates, too, created within a rigid standardization, nevertheless reveal the process of their making in slight imperfections.
The Pencil Story, 1972-3
This iconic work by the Conceptual artist John Baldessari not only expresses his mischievous and subversive sense of humor, but also as his lifelong interest in language and his curiosity about the potential significance of everyday things. Two photographs of a pencil, first dull, and then sharp, are presented above a handwritten caption that creates a narrative around the work. By magnifying the importance of this mundane object, and constructing a story around it, the artist forces us to look at the world – not just at the pencil – differently, or, as he said, to "look between things rather than at things." Baldessari began his career as a painter, but in 1970 he burned most of his canvases in a performance called The Cremation Project, which announced his transition to text-based art and photography. Blending influences from Dada, Surrealism, Pop, and Conceptual art, his subsequent works explored the interrelationships between language and visual art, always interrogating the nature of art itself.
Present Continuous Past(s), 1974
A combination of Performance art and video installation, Present Continuous Past(s) produces a disorientating reconfiguration of the spatial and the temporal. Attached to the wall of a specially constructed room is a video camera; positioned directly below it is a monitor. The opposite wall and one adjacent wall are both mirrored. Events recorded by the camera are played back on the monitor with an eight-second delay. Whilst the viewer can see their live actions reflected in the mirrors, they simultaneously see their previous actions on the monitor. If the reflection of the monitor is not obscured, the camera will also record the action on the monitor that happened eight seconds previously; enabling the viewer simultaneously to see events that had occurred sixteen seconds ago. A pioneering figure of the Conceptual art movement in the 1960s, Graham has since employed a wide range of media including film, sculpture, performance and sound. He is also a respected writer and critic.
Casserole and Closed Mussels, 1976
A tall pile of mussel shells is held together with green-tinted resin, evoking the sea. The shells seem to be surging upwards in an explosion of vitality. The image uses a pun on the words la moule (“the mussel”) and le moule (“the mold”). The work is intended as a metaphor for the artist’s home country of Belgium, where mussels are a national dish; it is also a satire on the Belgian bourgeoisie. It is probably Broodthaer’s most famous image. The artist’s sculpture can be categorized as Conceptual Art, in that the ideas behind his works are more important than the works themselves. Broodthaers was also greatly influenced by his compatriot, the Surrealist painter René Magritte. Like Magritte, he often delights in incongruous juxtapositions and the creation of visual paradoxes through the combination of words, everyday objects and printed material.
During a baseball game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants, the scoreboard suddenly projects a pithy statement that seems at first arbitrary, then thoughtfully relevant. It is one of Jenny Holzer’s “truisms.” Holzer first began to explore the idea of language as art while studying literature and philosophy in New York. Simplifying complex and abstruse thoughts from her readings into short statements, she exhibited signs in Manhattan telephone booths and on buildings, eventually extending her oeuvre to include the electronic billboard in Times Square and the Guggenheim Museum ramp. Combining computer-controlled LED lights and axioms derived from classical philosophy, Holzer’s aphorisms are deliberately challenging: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” “There is a fine line between information and propaganda.” The anonymous, silent voice speaks in streaming light diodes, sending concise opinions in seamless cycles of light, thoughts inspiring thought.
The Hotel: Room 24, March 2, 1981, 1981
Sophie Calle’s conceptual projects examine identity, emotion and intimacy, using a voyeuristic method that scrutinizes not only friends and strangers but also, in an exhibitionistic way, the artist herself. In 1981 Calle was employed for three weeks as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel. As she cleaned, the artist recorded and scrutinized the personal possessions that belonged to the hotel guests occupying each room. In addition to photographing the items, the artist created diary entries in which she wrote down her thoughts and observations as she rifled through letters and rummaged through the discarded contents of the waste paper basket. The project resulted in twenty-one diptychs, each specific to a room, in which text and image were presented along side each other. As with much of her work, “The Hotel” series centers on the artist’s interest in the interface between public and private lives – her own and those of others – and her fascination with unconscious patterns of behavior.
Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991
These two identical, battery-powered clocks were initially set to precisely the same time, but inevitably they fall out of sync as the hours and days pass, one moving ahead as the other falls behind. This inescapable loss of connection is the metaphorical message of the work, which was created shortly after the artist’s partner was diagnosed with AIDS. The pale blue paint of the wall behind was, according to Gonzalez-Torres, the color of a beautiful memory. The piece reflects mortality, human relationships and the passing of time, and like much of the Cuban-born artist’s work, it transforms everyday objects into a meditation on love and loss. Gonzalez-Torres combined elements of Conceptual art, Minimalism and political activism to create a “democratic” art – one that required the interaction of the viewer to activate and complete it. He was a master of allegory, using commonplace materials such as newspapers or wrapped sweets to suggest personal history and universal human emotion.
The subject of this photograph appears to be the corner of a normal, albeit somewhat untidy, kitchen. There is however something peculiar about this scene. Everything is surprisingly untarnished and rather sterile. There are no numbers on the dials of the cooker, or words on the packaging of the bottle and carton. This is in fact a life-size cardboard-and-paper reconstruction of the kitchen belonging to the house where US troops discovered Saddam Hussein in hiding in 2003. The artist, who originally trained as a sculptor, based the carefully crafted three-dimensional model on an image that was published widely in the press. After it was photographed, the model was destroyed. Whilst the artist’s process of working raises questions relating to our common acceptance of photography as a conveyor of reality, the current work also emphasizes the banality of the setting for an historically important and politically charged event.