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Sometimes art is paintings, and sometimes it's a chair. Why? Let's learn about "Conceptual Art," where the idea is more important than the form. Oh, and take the PBS Digital Studios survey!: https://to.pbs.org/Survey2018

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You're in a museum.  In one room, you admire an exquisitely rendered painting of a lush garden by Spanish artist Santiago Rusinol.  In another, you encounter one of the most famous paintings in the world, a monumental work by Picasso that bowls you over with its dynamic composition of abstracted but still recognizable figures and forms, telling you of the horrors of the 1937 bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and in another room, you come across something completely different: a picture of a chair, a chair, and a blown-up dictionary definition of a chair by Toledo, Ohio born artist Joseph Kosuth.  What the actual.   Can we really call this art?  This thing that is entirely unlike those other things in the rooms before it, that exhibits no technical skill and transports you to nowhere but right where you are, in an empty feeling, slightly chilly gallery?  How can this be art and what am I supposed to do with it?  This is the case for conceptual art.

Kosuth made this work in New York in 1965.  In the years leading up, the Equal Pay Act had been passed.  President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  The Civil Rights Act was freshly signed into law, and the Vietnam War and protests against it were in full effect.  The decade's identity as one of countercultural revolution was crystallizing and the art of the time likewise reflected a widespread questioning of tradition.  There was pop art and minimalism and happenings and fluxus.  

Paintings, when they did happen, were coming off of the wall and invading your space and there was also this thing that Kosuth was doing, which came to be called conceptual art.  In 1967, artist Sol Lewitt explained it like this: "In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.  It means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.  The idea becomes the machine that makes the art."

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For Lewitt, this often meant creating specific instructions and diagrams for large scale wall drawings that could be carried out by others.  Even after Lewitt's death, a draftsperson or many of them can make the drawing happen, as long as the instructions and certificate of authenticity are on hand.  The resulting works can be magnificent, but it's not the individual touch of the artist that makes them so.  It's the idea, supported by proper execution. 

Sometimes people were the machines that made the art, like for a 1969 piece Vito Acconci challenged himself to follow randomly selected passers-by until they entered a private space.  He said of it, "I'm almost not an 'I' anymore.  I put myself in the service of this scheme," and sometimes it was actually machines that were the machines that made the art.

Ian Burn's "Xerox Book" came to be when he photocopied a blank sheet of white paper and then copied that copy and so on and so forth 100 times with more and more visual noise appearing as he went.  Documentation is often how we come to know about conceptual art, and that's okay, because the physical presence is secondary to the idea that brought it into being.  

You didn't have to be there to see Eleanor Antin parade 50 pairs of rubber boots on a trip around California and New York.  She took photos and made postcards of them and mailed them to hundreds of artists and museums and libraries and friends, and when you see one of those postcards or hear about them in a YouTube video, your understanding isn't really distorted or diminished.  

Art critic and curator Lucy Lippard described what was happening at the time as a dematerialization.  It wasn't often as literal as John Baldessari's "Cremation" piece of 1969, in which he burned all of his paintings and had the ashes interred in a wall of The Jewish Museum, because materials were almost always involved, it's just that they were often ephemeral.  Maps, diagrams, photos, books, or at least not the primary concern.

Even molten lead became fleeting, as much as it can be, in the hands of Richard Serra, who in the late '60s focused on action and process over finished object.

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None of his original splash or cast pieces still exist.  They were made for temporary shows and discarded after.  Uniqueness wasn't important.  He has since made new iterations following the same procedure.  More characteristic of conceptual art is Douglas Huebler's "Duration Piece #6" for which he made a rectangle of sawdust in a doorway and documented it every half hour for six hours.  The sawdust was then cleared away and what you see here is the final piece.  Huebler said at the time, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting.  I do not wish to add any more.  I prefer simply to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place."  

Which brings us back to those chairs, because what Kosuth is doing is pointing out the existence of things in time and place, taking it a few steps further than when Magritte reminded us that this painting of a pipe is not a pipe.  Like when we look at this painting of a chair, we know it's not a real chair, but we're probably not thinking about how it's a kind of sign we recognize as indicating a chair.  Just as a dictionary definition is a verbal sign that points to something in the world and a photograph is a visual sign that points to something that is or used to be in the world.  Which of these three chairs do we perceive to be more chair than the other, especially now that this real one is in a museum collection and will likely never be sat in again.

If this putting regular stuff in a museum sounds familiar, it's because Duchamp, who made conceptual art way before it was cool or even had a name.  In 1913, Marcel Duchamp attached a bicycle wheel to a wooden stool and called it a readymade work of art.  It was art because he said it was, and because he put it in a gallery.  Kosuth's operation here is similar.  He said, "The art consists of my action of placing this activity in an art context."  But the art context didn't have to be a gallery.  Sure, there were exhibitions that chronicled this kind of art, but more often, the art was its own means of distribution.

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Seth Siegelaub thought of his "Xerox Book" as an exhibition venue in itself, giving each artist included 25 pages to make a work that responded in some way to the format.  On Kawara made art by documenting his everyday life and mailing news of it on postcards to friends, acquaintances, and art collectors.  Eleanor Antin photographed herself naked every morning to document her weight loss of 10 pounds over the course of 37 days, and Mary Kelly recorded the activity of taking care of her young son, reflected on motherhood and conversations with him, and eventually allowed him to scribble over her documentation.

As Lippard wrote in 1973, "Much art now is transported by the artist or in the artist himself."  Conceptual art was a way of working around the power structures of the art world, which as it happens, was rife with himselfs and around market concerns.  Lee Lozano began her "General Strike Piece" in 1969, declaring her withdrawal from the art world and documenting her final visits to gallery openings and museums.

Conceptual art was out in the world, often blending with activism.  The Art Workers Coalition, organized in 1969 to agitate for artists' rights and against Vietnam, racism, and sexism, but for the most part, conceptual art was political not in its illustration of current events but in its commitment to rethink the status quo.  There was a worker mentality and pragmatism to much first generation conceptual art.  A deadpan recording and structuring of life, almost aggressively unartful, that replaced the careful consideration of composition and form and flourish normally associated with art and artists.

Ed Ruscha's book Twentysix Gasoline Stations recorded exactly that, 26 gasoline stations.  Bernd and Hilla Becher took straightforward pictures of water towers.  That's what they did across years and continents.  There was no trickery at play.  No need for an interpreter.  What's needed for this kind of art, more than interpretation, is a shift in perspective, an opening of a door that allows an idea by Douglas Huebler to be art, a piece of paper that reads "the line above is rotating on its axis at a speed of one revolution each day" or a sign to be art like this one by Luis Camnitzer.  

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You can sit with this for a few seconds.  In 1969, artist and writer Victor Burgin contended, "It may now be said that an object becomes or fails to become a work of art in direct response to the inclination of the perceiver to assume an appreciative role.  As Morse Peckham has put it, art is not a category of perceptual fields, but of role playing."  So it's up to you.  Do you want to play a role and call this art?  If you do, congratulations.  In some cases, you might now own it.  Lawrence Weiner's "Two Minutes of Spray Paint Directly Upon the Floor From a Standard Aerosol Spray Can" is exactly what it sounds like and according to the artist the year after it was made, "They don't have to buy it to have it.  They can have it just by knowing it."

We're used to art galleries being places where visual experience reigns supreme, but conceptual art asks us to understand the gallery experience as never having been purely visual, always informed by our other senses, the art's context, and the invisible perceptual operations happening in our minds to process it.  Conceptual art has given us new words to describe what we encounter and new levels of interaction.  We can still appreciate a masterful painting, but in a world after conceptual art, we do so with our blinders off, understanding that art is composed of signs.  It illustrates, it lives in specific buildings, it decorates rich peoples' homes.  Once conceptual art's lessons have been internalized, we see that this is not a garden.  This is not what happened at Guernica. 

Conceptual art still lives and blends with many other ways of making, but it's a slippery art, one that avoids living in just one spot, one that resists ownership and being turned into just another luxury good.  

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Despite its utopian aims, conceptual art was and is still gobbled up by institutions and put on the auction block, but when it's good, it lives far outside of our art stores and places of art worship and in this way, these ephemeral works are strangely more permanent for their never having much physicality to begin with.  Marble crumbles, paintings fade, but ideas, ideas can last forever.

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