Conceptual Art

I had prepared this post a few weeks ago and meant to write more on the subject before posting it. It’s been a month now and I haven’t had the chance to sit down and develop my ideas further. I am afraid that if I don’t post it now it will never see the daylight, so here is at least the embryo of what could have been.

This all started with typing the name “Gerald Ferguson” on Google. He is one of the artists that caught my attention at the National Gallery of Canada two weekends ago and I decided to do a search on him. The Wikipedia page calls him a conceptual artist, I was about to dismiss this categorization and continue reading the short note but then I realized that I’m not really sure what they meant by “conceptual artist”. Sounds like a simple, self-explanatory term; concept + art = conceptual art, right? Well yes, but it is also much more complex and interesting.
I should point out to the freshman in art terminology like myself that conceptual art and concept art are two very different things. Concept art refers to the sketches and other visual aids made to visualize ideas for film, game design, comic books, etc. I am not concerned with concept art in this post.

To me it seems intuitive that behind a work of art there should be a concept. In fact I had assumed, apparently incorrectly, that concept is intrinsic to art. Moreover I tend to place a lot of value on the conceptual aspect of art (any art not necessarily conceptual art) and it seems surprising to me that the history of conceptual art is so recent, originating in 1917 with the work of Marcel Duchamp.

Concept Art Marcel Duchamp

Concept Art Marcel Duchamp

One definition of conceptual art by the artist Sol LeWitt is as follows:
“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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 perfunctory affair, the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Another beautiful and illuminating quote by the same artist goes:
“Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.”

The idea of ideas as art (excuse the redundancy) rather than ideas behind the art is quite provocative. It is an extreme example of trying to reduce art to its essence. The artist Yoko Ono is quite successful in creating concepts as art (rather of concepts of art), here are some example from her book Grapefruit:

Cloud Piece:

Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.

1963 Spring

OR

Painting to exist only when it’s copied or photographed:

Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.

1964 Spring