EARLY CONCEPTUAL ART: Documents, Installations, and Related Manifestations

An Accumulation of Information Taken From Here to There

The heyday of Conceptual Art is often designated as 1966 – 1972. This is largely due to a collection of notes assembled by the critic Lucy Lippard, published in 1973 and titled “The Dematerialization of Art.” The title speculated that material objects might not necessarily constitute the ultimate reality of art; one can simplify the issue and say that the movement was originally about the art of ideas, but this too has become over-generalized. Any art could have ideas. So, what was so special about this period in Conceptual Art? It was an anti-formalist approach to artistic production that gave precedence to the concept behind a work, even without an object and in many cases without any material support. Therefore, the rationale behind such work was how the concept could be expressed through language.

Alighiero e Boetti, “Ononimo,” 1973. Ballpoint pen on card; eleven parts. 27 5/8 × 39 3/8” each. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

One of the most significant events in this history happened between January 5 and January 31, 1969, with an exhibition held in a rented office space by a Persian rug dealer named Seth Siegelaub. He was friendly with the artist Lawrence Weiner, and through Weiner, he became acquainted with Conceptual artists Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, and Douglas Huebler. Alternatively, the exhibition was called either “the January show” (because of the month of the year in which the exhibition was held), or “the Catalogue Show,” largely because Siegelaub believed that the most significant part of the exhibition was the catalogue, which he called “primary information.” Siegelaub’s point was that Conceptual Art could exist anywhere at any time and therefore did not need to be restricted to a specific time and place. Just as the office space was a monthly rental expedient in which to show the work of four artists, it was not necessary to declare it a permanent gallery space. His point was that Conceptual Art was a liberated form of art-making that could be curtailed by economics or politics.

A recent exhibition at Sperone Westwater Gallery on the Bowery employs a work by Lawrence Weiner from 1970 as its title: “AN ACCUMULATION OF INFORMATION TAKEN FROM HERE TO THERE.” It is curious that 1970 was the year of the first major museum exhibition of Conceptual Art in the United States, held at the Museum of Modern Art, and in which Weiner was included, along with many of the other artists featured in this exhibition. One might say that Sperone Westwater largely represents this history, having outlasted other important galleries who championed the genre in New York—including John Weber, Julian Pretto, Sonnabend, and Leo Castelli—all of whom operated out of SoHo, the center of the scene during the early years of Conceptualism.

Installation view, AN ACCUMULTION OF INFORMATION TAKEN FROM HERE TO THERE. Sperone Westwater, New York. May 4 – June 16 2012.

The exhibition clarifies the fact that Conceptual Art was not only an American or New York phenomenon. It was happening in Europe and, to a certain extent, was present in Japan, South America, and later—in some case rather profoundly—in Eastern and Central Europe. For example, “Perspective Correction – My Studio II” (1969) by Jan Dibbets, came from Holland; the various installation, reductive, and process works by Piero Manzoni, Giovanni Anselmo, Mario Merz, Alighero e Boetti, and Giulio Paolini came from Italy; “Stick Spiral” (1971) by Richard Long and “Photo-Piece” (1971) by Gilbert & George were by artists who graduated from St. Martins in London five years earlier.

Carl Andre—who, for many, is considered a Minimal artist—came from the Boston area (although is originally of Scandinavian descent). Andre’s striking work, titled “First – Eleventh Aluminum Candinals” (1972), makes use of a systemic ordering in which square dye-cut plates of aluminum are lined up equidistantly against the wall in the front gallery. The dialogue created between the Andre and the word work by Weiner play off one another with an elegant demeanor. Mario Merz also tended to work systemically with numbers, using the Fibonacci series in his photographic documentation, “Untitled (A Real Sum is a Sum of People)” from 1971 in which he sequentially observed black-and-white photographs of people seated incrementally in the intimate space of a restaurant, possibly in Milan. Also, in addition to the photographic works of Dibbets and Gilbert & George, there are photographs by William Wegman (who is also the subject of a recent exhibition of collage-paintings on the fourth floor of the gallery), Bruce Nauman, and Douglas Huebler, the latter being one of the most intense, ironic, yet obliquely masterful artists associated with the origins of Conceptualism. Finally, Joseph Kosuth is represented with an early tautological piece in neon in which the words we are seeing constitute the actuality of what is being read.

Another word by Douglas Huebler seems appropriate, especially in relation to another kind of tautological piece from 1971, in which the title is the statement we are reading in relation to what we are asked to do: “The point represented above exactly at the instant that it is so perceived establishes an authentic triangulation.” The meaning may seem puzzling at the outset, but in fact, is very simple, direct, and scrupulously intense. We read the statement and then look at the point above it, or vice versa. Either way we conceptualize that what we have read and what we have seen are in two proximate locations, one above the other. Where is the third point that completes the triangulation? Naturally, it is the eye of the viewer engaged in the process of moving between signifier and signified. The perceiver becomes the conduit or the catalyst that completes the work—an exercise that illustrates Marcel Duchamp’s statement from 1957; namely, that the spectator is the one delegated to complete the work of art.

257 Bowery // New York, NY


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.