Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Conceptual Art and Photography

In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, a number of painters developed strategies that extended the life of painting while simultaneously pointing to its inevitable demise. Jasper Johns’s flags and targets were epistemological cul-de-sacs—the image they portrayed could not be separated from their material qualities, literally, as flag or target (1998.329). Like his colleague Robert Rauschenberg, Johns revived concerns of the prewar avant-garde in a postwar context, but in a more conceptually provocative manner in his fusion of two previously antithetical paradigms, that of Duchamp’s readymade with notions of abstraction and the grid from Malevich and Constructivism. Slightly later, Frank Stella created paintings from programmatic arrangements of lines that radiated outward to determine the overall shape of the canvas; all compositional and expressive decision making had been suppressed in favor of the execution of an idea. As the artist’s famous tautology went: “What you see is what you see.”

By 1962, the idea for a linguistic work of art had been proposed by artists associated with the Fluxus collective, particularly in the event-structures of George Brecht, where a simple phrase or directive (one piece was entitled and consisted of the word EXIT) could be enacted by the viewer in an infinite variety of ways. In that same year, the California painter Ed Ruscha used this principle to create the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, in which he first came up with the title, then proceeded to photograph the subject on one of his road trips from Oklahoma City (his hometown) to Los Angeles, his adopted city. The work of art was to be the book itself, simply but carefully designed, whereas the photographs inside showed no traces of aesthetic decision making at all, as if the artist had merely pointed the camera out the car window in order to fulfill the requirements of the textual phrase. In another book from 1966 entitled Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha joined together separate photographs of each structure to create a fold-out version of the street itself. With characteristic humor and elegance, Ruscha had extended Jasper Johns’s notion of the completely self-referential object into the realm of mass-produced commodities.

Ruscha’s books of photographs (1970.590.5) introduced the medium as a central aspect of Conceptual Art. Bruce Nauman’s Photograph Suite (popularly known as “Eleven Color Photographs”) of 1966 were comic enactments of puns and wordplay such as “Waxing Hot” (showing hands moving over a bright red sculpture of the word) or “Bound to Fail” (showing the roped torso of the artist from behind) that combined sculptural form, linguistic content, and photographic staging. Dan Graham’s Homes for America, published in the December 1967 issue of Arts magazine, looked at first sight like a bland sociological tract on postwar cookie-cutter housing, but was actually a sly comment on the industrial coloring and geometric structures of then-current Minimalism; like Ruscha’s books, the work was inextricably tied to its status as an article in a mass-produced and circulated publication. This idea of attaching the work of art directly to the channels of distribution and publicity that constituted its inevitable fate as a commodity reached its most pointed use by Martha Rosler for her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, in which she hijacked lifestyle magazine photography to devastating effect (2002.393).

Another example of Conceptual Art’s uniquely self-critical tendencies can be seen in the predilection for bureaucratic forms by artists such as Robert Morris and Douglas Huebler. In works like Cardfile (1962) and Document: Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal (1963), Morris avoided all traditional signifiers of the work of art; this turning away from the viewer served as a darkly effective counterbalance to the more affirmative gestures of Happening and Fluxus artists, who envisioned the total liberation of the viewer from the restrictive codes of society. Douglas Huebler (2004.51a,b) grouped his works into preestablished categories—Duration (involving the passage of time), Location (involving specific sites), and Variable (such as verifying the existence of every living person on the planet via photography), pieces consisting of typed statements combined with deadpan photographs that documented the results of the linguistic directive. Each work was a unique instance of dipping into the vast ocean of measurable data—people, places, and their transformation over time—that only highlighted the absurdity of the attempt.

On Kawara’s work represents perhaps the purest strain of Conceptualism, in that he most fully and consistently erased the boundary separating art production and everyday life. His most famous project is his Today series (begun 1966), paintings that consist solely of the date on which they were made, in the language of the city in which they were painted, against a monochrome background; each painting had to be completed by midnight of the day it commemorated or it was destroyed. In these seminal works, process, form, and content become one, reconciling existentialist notions of present-ness with a Zen-like erasure of self through meditative, repetitive acts. He also created a series of “autobiographical” works that chart the daily events and rituals so carefully excised from the Today paintings, including I GOT UP, I READ, I WENT, I MET, and telegrams responding to professional inquiries that read simply I AM STILL ALIVE. Tracing his passage through the ubiquitous, yet usually invisible, systems of measurement (map, calendar, clock) and communication (postcard, telegram) that structure everyday life, the artist accumulates abstracted signs of his own presence—an archive of the self—to test the limits of self-expression within the structures of modern society.