Formalism, Dematerialization and the Commodification of Art
Conceptual art is defined by the concepts or ideas involved in a work taking precedence over the traditional aesthetic and material concerns. It began to emerge as a movement during the 1960s, in part as a reaction against formalism as then articulated by the influential New York art critic Clement Greenberg. According to Greenberg, Modern art followed a process of progressive reduction and refinement toward the goal of defining the essential, formal nature of each medium. The task of painting, for example, was to define precisely what kind of object a painting truly is: what makes it a painting and nothing else. As it is of the nature of paintings to be flat objects with canvas surfaces onto which colored pigment is applied, such things as figuration, 3-D perspective illusion and references to external subject matter were all found to be extraneous to the essence of painting, and ought to be removed.
Some have argued that conceptual art continued this "dematerialization" of art by removing the need for objects altogether, while others, including many of the artists themselves, saw conceptual art as a radical break with Greenberg's kind of formalist Modernism. Later artists continued to share a preference for art to be self-critical, as well as a distaste for illusion. However, by the end of the 1960s it was certainly clear that Greenberg's stipulations for art to continue within the confines of each medium and to exclude external subject matter no longer held traction. Lucy Lippard, an internationally known writer, art critic, activist and curator from the United States, was among the first writers to recognize the "dematerialization" at work in conceptual art and was an early champion of feminist art. Her book Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972; a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries remains a seminal text on the subject.
Conceptual art also reacted against the commodification of art. It attempted a subversion of the gallery or museum as the location and determiner of art, and the art market as the owner and distributor of art. Many conceptual artists' work can therefore only be known about through documentation e.g. photographs, written texts or displayed objects, which some might argue are not in themselves the art. Conceptual art is sometimes reduced to a set of written instructions describing a work, but stopping short of actually making it, emphasizing the notion of the idea as more important than the artifact.
The French artist Marcel Duchamp paved the way for the conceptualists, providing them with examples of prototypically conceptual works, the ready-mades, for instance. The most famous of Duchamp's ready-mades was Fountain (1917), a standard urinal basin signed by the artist with the pseudonym "R.Mutt" and submitted for inclusion in the annual, un-juried exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York (it was rejected). In traditional terms, a commonplace object such as a urinal cannot be said to be art because it is not made by an artist or with any intention of being art, nor is it unique or handcrafted. Duchamp's relevance and theoretical influence for future "conceptualists" was later acknowledged by US artist Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 essay, "Art After Philosophy," when he wrote, "All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually. "
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain
Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal as a piece of art challenged the prevailing definition of sculpture.
In 1953, artist Robert Rauschenberg created Erased De Kooning Drawing, which was literally a drawing by Willem de Kooning which Rauschenberg erased. It raised many questions about the fundamental nature of art, challenging the viewer to consider whether erasing another artist's work could be a creative act, as well as whether the work was only "art" because the famous Rauschenberg had done it. In 1960, Yves Klein carried out an action called A Leap Into The Void, in which he attempted to fly by leaping out of a window. As with much of conceptual art, the performance is largely presented through its documentation. In 1961, Robert Rauschenberg sent a telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert which said: 'This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.' as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits. In 1969, Vito Acconci created Following Piece, in which he followed randomly selected members of the public until they disappeared into a private space. The piece is presented as photographs.
The first wave of the conceptual art movement extended from approximately 1967 to 1978. Early concept artists like Henry Flynt, Robert Morris, and Ray Johnson influenced the later widely accepted movement of conceptual art. Conceptual artists like Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, and Lawrence Weiner have proven very influential on subsequent artists, and well known contemporary artists such as Mike Kelley or Tracey Emin are sometimes labeled second- or third-generation conceptualists, or post-conceptual artists.
Contemporary artists have addressed many of the concerns of the conceptual art movement. While they may or may not term themselves conceptual artists, ideas such as anti-commodification, social and/or political critique, and ideas/information as medium continue to be aspects of contemporary art, especially among artists working with installation art, performance art, net art and electronic/digital art.