What Is Conceptual Art? The Revolutionary Movement Explained

The Conceptual Art movement emphasizes the original idea or intention over the aesthetic quality of the final piece.

Jul 6, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature

What is Conceptual Art


Originally deriving from minimalism, Conceptual Art became a collective term for the development of abstract art’s tendency to emphasize the original idea or intention behind an artwork. Spanning across mediums, styles, and time periods, Conceptual Art was a revolution that challenged modernist notions of ‘art’. Learn about the history of the movement and its cultural impact below. 


Conceptual Art: Questioning Art Itself

Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art Exhibition by Mel Bochner, 1966, School of Visual Arts, New York. Source: MelBochner.net


Mel Bochner’s first exhibition, titled Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art, was a crucial event in the history of Conceptual Art, showcasing different art books in a New York gallery. Ultimately, it was the American conceptual artist Sol Lewitt with his essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art that paved the way for Conceptual Art as an accepted new art form. In his famous essay published in Artforum in June 1967, Sol Lewitt stated, “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. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”


Furthermore, Lewitt defines Conceptual Art as non-theoretical and non-illustrative of theories, intuitive, involved with all types of mental processes, and purposeless. Conceptual Art often questions the nature of art itself. In his definition of conceptual art, artist Joseph Kosuth, defined art in 1969 as tautology and explained: “Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art” (Art after Philosophy, 1969). Joseph Kosuth himself reflected on art as tautology in many of his artworks.


Clock (One and five), English/Latin version by Joseph Kosuth, 1965. Source: Tate 


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With his series Art as Idea as Idea and artworks such as One and Three Chairs (1965) or Clock (One and Five)  (1965), Kosuth reflects on the different codes for one chair: “a visual code, a verbal code, and a code in the language of objects, that is, a chair of wood”, as it is explained in the description of the MoMA collection. For Kosuth, the value of an artist can be weighed “according to how much they questioned the nature of art” (quote from Art after Philosophy, 1969). The artist’s quote shows that conceptual art was not only a new radical form of art but also an opposite understanding of Clement Greenberg’s view of modern art that was prominent at the time in the United States. 


Marcel Duchamp, The Readymade And Conceptual Art

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (replica 1964). Source: Tate


Even if Conceptual Art is mostly related to the 1960s and 1970s, the idea behind it goes back to Marcel Duchamp’s art toward the beginning of the 20th century. In his text Art after Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth describes Marcel Duchamp as an artist who first raised the question about the function of art. He writes, “The event that made conceivable the realization that it was possible to ‘speak another language’ and still make sense in art was Marcel Duchamp’s first unassisted Readymade.”


Nowadays, Marcel Duchamp is often called a predecessor of Conceptual Art, and his readymade Fountain from 1917 is often considered the first artwork of conceptual art. While America was the center of conceptualism, the art movement was international. While form, color, dimensions, and material differed from continent to continent as well as from artist to artist, the different artworks were alike in the approach of stating the idea over craftsmanship and final artwork. 


Nontraditional Methods and Materials 

Pose Work for Plinths by Bruce McLean, 1971. Source: Tanya Leighton Gallery


Many artists can also be recognized in terms of criticism of capitalism and an increasingly commercialized art world. Like Marcel Duchamp, many artists used everyday materials or intentionally produced artworks that were hard to sell – or even made themselves the artwork like artist Bruce McLean did in his performance work Pose Work for Plinths in 1971. 


Recumbent Figure by Henry Moore, 1938, Private Collection. Source: Christie’s


In the archive of the Tate Modern, London, Bruce McLean’s performance at the Situation Gallery in 1971 is described as “an ironic and humorous commentary on what he considered to be the pompous monumentality of Henry Moore’s large plinth based reclining sculptures”. Both McLean’s and Moore’s sculptures captivate with a particularly organic form, which in one case results from the real body itself, while in the other case, it reproduces this very real physical form in bronze.


Radical Positions

Merda d’artista (Artist’s shit) by Piero Manzoni, 1961, Private Collection. Source: Christie’s


While many art viewers may have found it difficult to classify Bruce McLean’s performance work Pose Work for Plinths as art in the first place, the Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni in 1961 had presented an artwork that even left experienced art viewers perplexed. The title Merda d’artista (Artist’s shit) already refers to the provocation that Manzoni wanted to achieve with his artwork. Merda d’artista (Artist’s shit) consists of 90 tin cans, each one – as the title says – filled with 30 grams of feces. The label on the cans states in Italian, English, French, and German: “Artist’s Shit / Contents 30 gr net / Freshly preserved / Produced and tinned in May 1961“. 


Only a few conceptual artworks in art history combine provocation and concept in such a radical way. By exhibiting the artist’s excrements, Manzoni combined the opposites of high art and biological waste of idea and object in a tin can of 4.8 x 6.5 centimeters. Furthermore, this art piece is an ironic comment on the mechanisms of the advertising industry in the 1960s.   Another conceptual artwork that caused a scandal when it was first exhibited in 1976 was created by the American artist Mary Kelly. In her works, Mary Kelly deals primarily with feminist topics. In a series of several parts in the 1970s, she documented the relationship between herself as a mother and her baby son. Each of the six parts focuses on different formal moments between mother and son, which in turn are reflected in the artworks as formal means.


Detail from Post-Partum Document by Mary Kelly, 1974. Source: Institute of Contemporary Arts, London


Mary Kelly often combined usual material from her daily life with her son with words – as she did in Part I of her Post-Partum Documentation. In this work, the artist used her son‘s nappy liners as a sort of canvas and combined them with written words. The scandalous detail about the work is that the nappy liners were used and the viewers of the art piece were not only confronted with stains of vomit but were also informed about the combination of food that produced it.


Conceptual Art Today: Martin Creed

Work No. 227: The lights going on and off by Martin Creed, 2000. Source: Tate Modern


Although the Conceptual Art movement was most prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, newer artists have also worked within the movement in more recent years. One example of this is Martin Creed, who was highly acclaimed for his piece Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000), which was the audacious single work in a Turner prize-winning exhibition. This artwork consisted of a single empty room, seen above, with lights that would turn off for five seconds, and then turn on for five seconds. Creed still lives and works in London today, creating Conceptual Art projects.


Ed Ruscha: Ongoing Conceptual Art Projects

Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha, 1966, Private Collection. Source: Christie’s


All these different examples of Conceptual Art have shown that as this special form of art is concentrated on the idea behind it, there are almost no borders of realization to the form. Today, the American artist Ed Ruscha is one of the most famous pop art artists and is also highly known for his conceptual work. Since the 1960s, Ed Ruscha has worked in different media such as painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, and film. One of the artist‘s most interesting works in the field of Conceptual Art is the book Every Building on the Sunset Strip. As the name already suggests, it is a book that shows every house on the famous Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Not only the form of the book – a 7.6-meter-long book in an accordion fold – but also the creation of the photographs in the book are particularly interesting. For Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ed Ruscha photographed the entire length of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles with a so-called motorized camera. With a special construction of a camera on a tripod standing on the loading space of a pick-up truck, Ed Ruscha documented the imagery of Los Angeles with one photograph per second on major film rolls. 


Parking Lots by Ed Ruscha, 1967. Source: LACMA


Ed Ruscha started this project in the 1960s and is still working on his documentation of Los Angeles today. In the past decades, the artist is said to have taken over half a million photographs. The fact that Ed Ruscha himself has never developed all the photographs and only used a small percentage of them for books like Every Building on the Sunset Strip shows how much the concept of this work and the activity of documentation itself in terms of importance stand above the output. Conceptual Art, as we see in all the examples above, knows neither spatial nor temporal nor often socially valid moral boundaries. Conceptual Art can be ironic, serious, or even shocking. Conceptual Art can be anything or nothing. The idea behind the work is the only thing that matters – it is the “machine that makes the art,” as Sol Lewitt explained in 1967.


Originally published: July 6, 2020. Last update: July 11, 2024 by Elizabeth Berry

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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.