Conceptual Art and the “Withdrawal from Visuality”

In an article published in The Fox (1,2 1975), the outspoken Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth declared he belonged to the first generation to openly break ties with Modernism. In his view, the 1960s marked an important passage from the Abstract-Expressionist aesthetic to a completely new understanding of art. Conceptual art is “anthropologised” in the way it tends toward an infrastructural analysis of culture, while the Formalist discourse of Clement Greenberg aimed at establishing art’s autonomy from Capitalist society. In this post, I will briefly discuss the main elements of change that characterised this new movement.

Incomplete Open Cubes by Sol LeWitt, 1974Incomplete Open Cubes – Sol LeWitt – 1974

The art historian Thomas Crow defined Conceptual Art a “withdrawal from visuality”. Indeed, artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt advocated for the dematerialisation of artistic artefacts. In “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, LeWitt refuses to use terminology such as “painting” or “sculpture” since this would imply accepting traditional definitions of what art means. Indeed, the Australian artist Ian Burn defines this new form as a self-reflective act which shifts the focus from the content of art as a language to the language itself. In this perspective, the material object becomes gradually less and less important.

No Thought Exists by Mel Bochner, 1969No Thought Exists – Mel Bochner – 1969

As the artist Adrian Piper admits in Out of Order, Out of Sight, the focus on concepts rather than material forms had a practical side too. Indeed, this new approach allowed her and her fellow artists to develop abstract concepts which would have been prohibitive in traditional media. In fact, some Conceptual artists, LeWitt among them, did not share the Minimalist enthusiasm for new industrial materials. As he claims in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, some artists confuse new materials with new ideas. In fact, this seems a direct attack against notable contemporary figures such as Donald Judd, whose notorious essay “Specific Objects” praised the qualities of industrial materials such aluminium (you can read more about this topic here).

One and Three Lamps by Joseph Kosuth, 1965One and Three Lamps – Joseph Kosuth – 1965

Conceptual Art is a broad category and it is important to avoid generalisations. Kosuth supported a “philosophical” art form, aiming at discussing complex abstract themes. His works employ permutation extensively, re-elaborating a concept in a variety of slightly changing versions. For example, the One and Three series has been replicated with several different objects such as chairs, brooms, plants, and lamps. In this instance, the material realisation of the object becomes irrelevant and the work of art is almost reduced to instructions. On the other hand, LeWitt and his Expanded Conceptual Art intended the work of art as the thought of the artist taking over the visible space. His Incomplete Open Cubes is a good example and consists of a geometrical scheme being repeated over a potentially endless surface.

Wall Drawing #368 – Sol LeWitt – 1982

Conceptual Art was an attempt to move beyond the set canon of Abstract Expressionism, which had become the standard style among the influential New York art circles in the 1960s. The individualist rhetoric built on iconic characters such as Jackson Pollock was abandoned by a new generation of artists who shared the consciousness of standing at the starting point of a new phase. In a similar way, the neglect of traditional categories and media implied a firm rejection of the Greenbergian narrative of art’s specificity. This featured is shared by Minimalism too and highlights that, beyond the particularism of labels, concerns about art and the material status of the artwork were common among the main American movements of the time. The “withdrawal from visuality” became the response of Conceptual artists to this controversial issue.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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