Conceptual Artwork: Writing an Artwork

I’ll just throw you straight into the deep end; What does conceptual art mean? I know it as an artwork with an idea, or a deeper meaning behind the painting. This is clearly not a traditional category as the idea is the finished piece. Anything created from this idea, such as a sculpture or a painting, is classified as a piece of documentation or an artifact.

An incredibly well known conceptual artist that I have looked at recently is Tracey Emin.

Language and words is the main medium. I don’t think I could make that more clear even if I wanted to.


Source: Joseph Beuys, Capri Battery, 1985

Another famous artist and artwork is that of Marcel Duchamp and his Fountain. This was quite the revelation in 1917, when Duchamp turned up to an Independent Artists show with a urinal (nowadays, this is probably one of the most famous urinals). All of this fuss, as he was rejected first time round, was all to showcase the idea that anything can be art. This is especially true when artwork is in galleries, as even the smallest thing will be looked at as if it is a piece of artwork when it is placed into a gallery. The piece was also put under a fake name of R.Mutt, and when you translate this into French, you get the rather comical meaning of ‘ready made’.


Source: Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Duchamp sort of started this revelation in the fact that anything could be art. This challenged a lot of work, and a lot of artists themselves in the sense of would they still be classified as the professionals? The revelation, however, started off artists such as Robert Rauschenberg to make their conceptual artwork.

Rauschenberg was asked to create a portrait of Iris Clert, the owner of the Iris Clert Gallery in France. The reply for this, was to simply send a telegram telling the viewer of the telegram that this was a portrait of Iris Clert.

This I find a little frustrating as when you go to a gallery, you do not wish to see words, but rather a painting as you wish to see the artists interpretation of the person of whom they are painting. And yet, at the same time, this is the interpretation of Rauschenberg. This conceptual artwork also interacts the viewer in the sense of that they have to imagine the piece, much like all conceptual artwork gets you to do.


Source: Robert Rauschenberg, Iris Clert

Sol Lewitt made a very valid point in that:

The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

Sol Lewitt himself made instructions which he would send off to galleries and they would create his artworks for him. This for me, raises the question of who is the artist if one person had the idea but another made it. And although some of Lewitt’s pieces are understandably ‘easy’ to reproduce from instructions (as long as the instructions were written in a clear and coherent manner), this question about who is the artist still sits at the back of my mind. One of the better known reproductions of his instructions is the Untitled from Squares With a Different Line Direction In Each Half Square, 1971. 


Source: Sol Lewitt, Untitled from Squares With a Different Line Direction in Each Half Square, 1971

He also wrote Paragraphs on Conceptual Art in Artforum 1967. These are several mechanical, philosophical and also contradictory sentences that make up almost the rules of how he thinks conceptual art should be made;

  • Conceptual art is only as good as the idea it is conveying.
  • Ideas in art are not illustrations of philosophical concepts.
  • If this art uses math or philosophy, it is only very simple arithmetic or ideas. The simpler the better. Words and numbers can be materials just like 2D and 3D ones.
  • The idea is like a machine that makes art, which doesn’t rely on skill.
  • The art should be mentally interesting, and to do so needs to get rid of extraneous emotion.. This does not make it boring unless you are in the habit of expecting an emotional kick.
  • Since the idea is the important thing, so you need to get rid of distracting features and irregularities. Make the units as simple as possible, make intervals regular so that the irregularities stand out.
  • Avoid subjective judgments as these will only introduce arbitrary considerations of taste that have nothing to do with the artwork.
  • New materials are risky, because they might distract you from the lazy thinking in the work: they are not new ideas.
  • This art is not rational, but it follows irrational concepts to their logical conclusion, not interfering with the changes of heart midway through execution.
  • Conceptual art is the opposite of perceptual art, because it is totally planned, not made and then perceived, this way it doesn’t have to look well: it just needs to be made with commitment and not compromised by decisions and judgments of taste.

Conceptual art has lead on to many more art movements, such as that of land art and body art that Robert Smithson, Richard Long and Ana Mendieta create.


Source: Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970


Source: Richard Long Land Art


Source: Ana Mendieta Body and Land Art

In the 1960’s, due to the conceptual artwork helping other movements, people started to reject the traditional methods of art. These included painting and drawing. Lucy Lippard said it was;

The dematerialization of the art object.

This is seen in a lot of Giuseppe Penone and Tony Cragg’s work where they use materials that are often overlooked, the materials that you find in and around homes and the materials that are not often engaged with by more ‘traditional’ artists.

Ursula Meyer challenged the concept of conceptual art. She says that artists are becoming anti-capitalist and art is no longer a commodity (1915 – 2003);

The shift from the object to concept denotes disdain for the notion of commodities – the sacred cow of this culture. Conceptual artists propose a professional commitment that restores art to artists, rather than to the “money vendors”.

Starting a little fight between artists and critics, Lippard fought back at this statement by saying that even though they are attempting to defy that they are commodities, the artworks that they create are still susceptible to becoming commodities (1973);

Art and artist in capitalist society remain luxuries, and conceptual art has proved susceptible to commercial exploitation just like other forms of art, with dealers selling the documentation of conceptual works to collectors and museums.

Robert Barry quickly diverted from this and instead of continuing this fight, just created his own conceptual artwork. He created his Telepathic Piece in 1969 in which he communicated his artwork the viewers in a rather unique way.


Source: Robert Barry, Telepathic Piece, 1969

This does raise the rather large question of how to experience things without language or image. I considered through sensation, as you often do not need language or image to convey this, but anything else requires some part. Please tell me if you think of any more ways to convey something without the use of language or image!

This leads me onto the use of words and Lawrence Weiner, A rubber ball thrown on the sea, 1969. I have to admit, this sentence annoys me because normally someone would say that they thrown a ball into the sea, or into water, but not on. Moving away from grammar, this piece allows each person to thin of a different image. This means that if each individual person walked away from that text and created a piece of artwork, no two would be the same due to the way in which we have interpreted it.


Source: Lawrence Weiner, Rubber Ball, 1969

Weiner also wrote the “Deceleration of Intent” in 1968 as three little rules that conceptual artists can follow;

  1. The artist may construct the piece
  2. The piece may be fabricated
  3. The piece may need not be built

So for every piece of conceptual artwork (for every idea), the artist basically can go and make that, or they don’t have to. it is literally as simple as that.

What isn’t simple is the question; What is a chair? This would make more sense if you look at the work of Joseph Kosuth in 1965.


Source: Joseph Kosuth, Chair, 1965

This can lead to a whole essay from me about which one is the chair, but don’t worry, if I do that not only will I warn you, but I will save it for another post, just so you can skip through it if you wish! But seriously, which chair is the real chair or the most accurate description for a chair? The physical one, the photo or the definition. A lot of people do not choose the photograph as it is very static and never changes. You cannot use it either, however chairs are not supposed to change and warp, just like a photograph. On the other hand, you have the real chair. This can be used, walked around and physically touched. For both the photo and the physical chair, this is one type of chair. Think about all the different types of chairs you’ve seen, used, had in your lifetime. Not all chairs look like this do they? And then lastly there’s the definition. And yet again, do all chairs fit into this definition? I’m sat on one of those office chairs as I type this and I’m pretty sure that is not under the standard definition of the chair. So my question to you is the same question that Kosuth asks his viewers; which is the chair?

I’ll give you a bit of a break now with some ‘pretty’ conceptual artworks;


Source: Luis Camnitzer, Landscape as an Attitude, 1979


Source: Cildo Meireles


Sources: Maker’s MealScottish Sculpture Workshop

The last two images have depicted an artwork by Nuno Sacramento and the Maker’s Meal with the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Part of this workshop was that the idea, the experience, the participatory and the social aspect were all the artwork. They had to make everything from scratch from the table to the chair to the cutlery to the food, and all on a minimal budget. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind having a sit round that table to enjoy the food.

Moving on to something slightly different is the use of Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation in 2007. This was another movement that conceptual art has inspired.

Conceptual art in Latin America tried to move art from its normally expected place. Art was meant to be a way to allow the audience to participate in a decision-making process that it was hoped would lead to social and economic liberation.

Another movement occurred across the oceans in Japan – the Mono-ha movement, which when translated means the ‘school of things’. This links in very well to their artwork of mixed natural and industrial materials in order to make sculptures. For example, the Kishio Suga Soft Concrete sculpture made in 1970 and 2012 out of concrete, oil and steel plates.

Photo- Joshua White 2012-7568

Source: Mono-ha, Kishio Suga Soft Concrete, 1970/2012

Back to Robert Barry and 1969, where he makes an incredibly valid point about conceptual art and its place;

We are not really destroying the object, but just expanding the definition.

Keith Vaughan, 1970, contrasted to this by saying that it has thrown and descaled artists and considered them conservative because they want to make emotional artworks. The term is a contradiction in itself. For the first time abstract painters and sculptors, find themselves cast as conservatives because of their attachment to purely visual qualities.

Conceptual artwork reached its peak in the 1970’s, and from here, it began its slow descent, to where it is today.

A very worth while video to watch is a letter that Sol Lewitt wrote to Eva Hesse about how she should just stop agonizing over her work, and how she should just make it. This is a message that every artist needs at some point in their lives, and if I were you, I would save it and watch it again in a few months time.

Sol Le Witt to Eva Hesse – YouTube – Read by Benedict Cumberbatch

The last artist that I will mention in this post is the most recent one of Gabriel Orozoco and his work Atomist: Making Strides, 1996, Gouache and ink on newspaper clippings. 20.9 x 20.9 cm. Just as Sol Lewitt did with his work, Gabriel Orozoco sends over instructions in a chat to his French studio, where they produce the works that he describes.

So I shall raise this question again: what is contemporary art?


Imagine a work of art that does not yet exist and describe it in 150 – 300 words. This could be a potential image, an object or time-based piece in any dimensions, made in any medium and about any subject matter. Try to include as much (or as little) detail as possible.

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