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Uni Archive: Conceptual Art During the 1960s and 1970s

Originally written circa 2008 – I was a 17 year old fresh from high school, and this one got really bad feedback but still scored well, so it's another one not to plagiarise, haha. I resisted the temptation to edit it, it’s all as-is but no in-text ref or footnotes. Clearly at this point I hadn’t got the hang of actual essay structure or quoting (gotta start somewhere) – featured image Marcel Broodthaer, The Conquest of Space (Atlas for the use of artists and soldiers), 1975

Conceptual art during the 1960s and 1970s and its challenge of traditional painting and sculpture.

During the mid-1960s to mid-1970s a new and revolutionary form of art emerged, redefining art as “a vehicle for ideas”. “Conceptual Art, as it came to be known, was one of several interrelated, overlapping alternatives to traditional forms and exhibition practices”. Conceptual Art as a movement signalled a dramatic change in direction for artists, with the ideas and works of Conceptual Artists influencing works produced and attitudes held even today. It “challenged traditional notions of art’s objecthood through its new uses of language, actions, processes and existing cultural forms, especially from the mass media, to open up artistic fields in unprecedented ways.” Conceptual Art’s radical influence on the art world can be credited to a number of ground-breaking ideas and methods of the artists who were part of this “extended free-for-all”. “Conceptual art is not about forms or materials but about ideas and meanings… [it] challenges the traditional status of the art object as unique, collectable, or saleable.” These revolutionary artists’ attitudes towards the adoration of unique art objects, and the very few media utilised in traditional art practices were not only highly influential, but highly critical of traditional art, and art institutions. This essay will discuss Conceptual Art, the attitudes of Conceptual Artists towards traditional art methods and ideologies, and how their works were linked to these feelings.

To gain a true understanding of the direction and motivation of Conceptual Art during the 1960s and 1970s, it is necessary to be familiar with the primary precursor to this radical movement. Despite the significant gap in time between Conceptual Art and its precursor, the similarities between the movement’s ideals as they were in the 1960s and the ideas of one of the movement’s primary artistic and ideological influences – Marchel Duchamp, are difficult to ignore. Perhaps the first true exploration of the ideas later to be popularised by Conceptual Art was the readymade. The readymade being a term “invented by Duchamp for an object from the outside world which is claimed or proposed as art, thus denying both the uniqueness of the art object and necessity of the artist’s hand.” Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), was a revolutionary piece – “before Fountain people had rarely been made to think what art actually was, or how it could be manifested; they had just assumed that art would be either a painting or a sculpture.” This work exemplified the ideas that were later spread by the Conceptual Artists of the 1960s and 70s. As Godfrey points out, “a work of art normally behaves as if it is a statement… In contrast, the readymade is presented not as a statement… but as a question or challenge: ‘Could this urinal be an artwork?’…” The influence of this momentous work would be felt years later as Conceptual Art developed.

According to Osborne, “The term Conceptual Art was first used in the mid 1960s to describe the diverse practices of an internationally influential group of artists who held in common the conviction that art should raise fundamental questions concerning its own definition…” Its advent “marked a major shift in the history not only of art but of ideas.” In fact Conceptual Art was considered by many to be an art more concerned with ideas than with traditional modes of creativity. “After 1966 the interest in ‘context’ and in the dispensability of the unique art object became epidemic…” – the rejection of the unique and often iconic art object being an identifiable characteristic of the Conceptual Art movement. The art object was eventually so “Dematerialised” that it was difficult to define its place within art, especially that of the Conceptualists: ” ‘Once you know about a work of mine’ said [Lawrence] Weiner, ‘you own it. There’s no way I can climb into somebody’s head and remove it.'” This statement by Weiner, a key artist within the Conceptual movement, indicates just how much the Conceptual Artists had moved away from traditional art methods and ideologies. Smith points out that “Despite the vast number of works produced, Conceptual Art… resulted in fewer museum masterpieces than any twentieth-century art movement.” The reason for the lack of physical art produced by these artists is not only their rejection of the unique art object, but their focus on the importance of ideas. “In Conceptual Art the idea of concept is the most important aspect for the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” This attitude in itself demonstrates one of the ways in which Conceptual Artists challenged the art that had preceded them. According to Osborne, Conceptual Artists used several ‘lines of negation’ in their works including: “negation of material objectivity as the site of the identity of the artwork by the temporality of ‘intermedia’ acts and events,” (linking Conceptual art to performance art as well as music and dance) “The negation of medium by a generic conception of ‘objectjood,'” (leading to a form of conceptual art closely related to Minimalism) “The negation of established modes of autonomy of the artwork by various forms of cultural activism and social critique,” (creating forms of Conceptual Art associated with the avant-garde of the 1920s, politics of the 1960s as well as Constructivism and Productivism) and finally “The negation of the intrinsic significance of visual form.” (By working with language, which produced a form of Conceptual Art closely connected to the readymade as well as academic philosophy). This linguistic method of challenging the significance of the visual form (an idea central to traditional painting and sculpture) is considered by many to be the most significant aspect of Conceptual Art.

“Despite its extreme diversity, most Conceptual activity was united by an almost unanimous emphasis on language… and by a conviction…that language and ideas were the true essence of art, that visual experience and sensory delectation were secondary and inessential…” thus, language in Conceptual Art “achieved a quasi-formal status, existing as both material and subject”. This was made possible by the Conceptual Artists’ use of aspects of popular media (a direct challenge of traditional art’s rejection of these same articles). Smith suggests that the Conceptualists found great artistic and ideological freedom in using these materials as “the very apparatus of the printed and spoken word offered a whole new spectrum of media to replace painting and sculpture.” (Again, another challenge to traditional media). Conceptual Artists manipulated language in different ways: for example Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965-67) – comprising of a folding wooden chair, a life-sized photograph of the same chair, and a blown-up dictionary definition of the word “chair”. Another example of a work which manipulates language, setting itself apart from traditional art is Lawrence Weiner’s Statements (1968) – “In 1968 Weiner realized that a construction in language could function as a ‘sculpture’ as adequately as a fabricated object…” Weiner’s statememnts included “An amount of paint poured directly upon the floor and allowed to dry” and “One quart exterior green industrial enamel thrown on a brick wall.” Conceptual Artists used language as an alternative to traditional modes of creativity – primarily painting and sculpture. This is another aspect of traditional art which is considered by some to be influenced by Duchamp, as Osborne claims: “For Duchamp, language added ‘colour’ to objects, both by complicating optical experience, with non-painterly forms…” Osborne also points out that without this Conceptual use of language, Duchamp’s Fountain would not have been the revolutionary piece it was: “When the readymade was inserted into the context of art with the famous urinal, Fountain (1917) – its ironic claim to art status registered linguistically, in its title – it was paradoxically, only via the reception of the documentation of its failure to be considered as art…that it eventually became so.” The Conceptualists’ use of language is attributed with another feature of the movement – its rapid success. Smith describes the sense of “an art movement proceeding almost by spontaneous combustion. One reason for this…lies within the nature of Conceptual Art itself, for, due to its reliance on language, the reproductible [sic] image and the media, it was easily and quickly communicated.” Conceptual Art’s use of language, as well as its attitudes towards the art object and the importance of ideas within art served to propel it into popularity as well as function as a form of challenging traditional painting and sculpture, as well as the institution of art itself.

“Art in the twentieth century had been awarded the highest accolade as something that we should admire and respect. To question it, as Conceptual art has done, is therefore to question the inherent values of our culture and society.” Meecham and Sheldon suggest that the very basis of traditional Modern art lies in “a sincere belief in the power of art to enhance, uplift and improve human life… The formulation of principles of taste and beauty in art implied that ‘beauty’…resides in the art object and that ‘taste’ is the viewer’s capacity for appreciating the beautiful.” “Conceptual Artists could no longer believe in what art, or Modernist art, claimed to be, nor in the social institution it had become.” Conceptual Art directly challenged Meecham and Sheldon’s definition of traditional Modernism and its status in the work of art and in society itself. While Osborne describes Conceptual Art as “a critique of traditional media and aesthetics,” Godfrey goes so far as to dub it “Modernism’s nervous breakdown.” However Conceptual Art’s challenge of traditional media and ideas is described, it is almost unanimously acknowledged as a departure from tradition, and a move in a different direction, both in terms of artistic creativity and ideologies. Instead of working with “shapes, colours and materials”, Conceptual Artists worked with “meaning”, and violently reacted against “Modernist notions of progress in the arts and the art object’s status as a special kind of commodity.” This motivation to disrupt “established artistic categories…dates at least as far as the Futurist evening organised by Marinetti in the years before the first World War” and found an outlet in Conceptualist performance art – described by Osborne as “anathema to medium-based Modernist critics.” These statements reflect some of the most important aspects of Conceptual Art’s challenge of traditional art – its rejection of “material objectivity, medium specificity, and visuality” – all primary concerns of Modernism and traditional painting and sculpture. “The institutional aspect of the artwork was a recurrent concern within Conceptual Art from its Duchampian beginnings.” Conceptual Artworks considered to be an “institutional critique” take on the “totality of institutional conditions that contribute to the understanding of something as ‘art’.” These works question art’s definition as regulated by art institutions as well as how artists and the public alike accepted that definition. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, artists such as Morris, Haacke, Burne and Broodthaer produced or proposed works which caused scandal in institutions and exhibitions that each artist had at least one exhibition cancelled before it had even begun. This makes clear that the Conceptualists in no way wanted to associated their art with that of traditional painters and sculptors, and that their works were an attempt to challenge these traditional forms of art as well as the institutions and the “fetishism with which [they preserve and guard their] sacred objects.”

“The purely retinal or visual nature of art, especially painting, was extolled by theorists and promoters of Modernism. This was the anathema to Conceptual artists who emphasized instead the crucial role of language in all visual experience and understanding.” Conceptual Artists sought to confront traditional art, and their core ideologies – denying the importance of the unique art object, its visual form as well as its specific medium – clashed with those of traditional art including “Greenbergian Modernism” Although many of the key Conceptual Artists from the 1960s and 70s later produced less hard-core Conceptual Art, their original Conceptual ideas and works still served to influence their later works, as well as those of other contemporary artists. Through the movement’s revolutionary new ideas, as well as their radical works and proposals, manipulating new techniques while discarding traditional media, the Conceptualists challenged traditional art and shaped the art to be produced by generations to come.


Godfrey, Tony, Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon Press, 1998

Osborne, Peter, Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon Press, 2005

Meecham, & Sheldon, Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, New York: Routledge, 2000

Smith, Roberta, Conceptual Art, in ed. Nikos Stangos, Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism, London: Thames and Hudson, 2003

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