Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2001
Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology MIT Press, 1999. 569 pp.; 36 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (0262511177)

This century’s second great period of artistic invention lasted from around 1944 to around 1972—from Abstract Expressionism, that is, to Conceptual art. Artists since then have basically been involved in digesting the implications of that earlier period—a serious task for work that remains unfinished. Art historians have been at it too, at least as far as revisiting the ‘40s and ’50s. Now we’re starting to see the ‘60s and early ’70s in historical perspective as well, and part of the essential groundwork for this effort has been rediscovery and republication of significant early documents in anthologies like Pop Art: A Critical History, by Steven Henry Madoff, ed., (University of California Press, 1997) and the “Themes and Movements” series initiated by Phaidon Press in 1998 with a volume on Land and Environmental Art edited by Jeffrey Kastner—a series that has more recently been continued with anthologies on Arte Povera, body art, and Minimalism. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s anthology of texts on Conceptual art is part of this same effort to form a basis for coming to terms with a complex and contested period in recent art history.

The editors have arranged the anthology chronologically, with six sections devoted to first-hand documents from 1966 through 1977, followed by a selection of “Memoirs of Conceptual Art” and a group of “Critical Histories of Conceptual Art.” But this distinction becomes difficult to maintain when so many of the “critical historians” were in fact part of the scene they would now historicize, as is the case with Charles Harrison, Adrian Piper, and (to a lesser extent) Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. It would be better to say that these writers are still providing materials for the historian; however much they may aspire to making genuine contributions to the historiography of Conceptual art, their various parti pris must still be weighed with a colder eye. It should also be said that the selection of viewpoints included in the “Critical Histories” section is to narrow for a book of this type.

In any case, it is the book’s chronological sequence of primary texts from the mid-‘60s through the mid-’70s-particularly the writings by artists themselves, which make up the bulk of the selections—that artists, critics, and students will be reading most carefully. In fact, the editors’ decision to focus on artists’ writings at the expense of the immediate critical reception of their work—compare their selection to that in the book it is essentially intended to replace, Gregory Battcock’s 1973 Idea Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton)—essentially reproduces one of the most questionable assertions of certain Conceptual artists as well as their supporters, that the transformation in art represented by their work was such as to render obsolete the practice of art criticism. In part, the Conceptualists’ disdain for criticism was tactical, motivated by the apparent domination (fragile as it appears in hindsight) of what has become known, rightly or wrongly, as Greenbergian formalism. Thus, Joseph Kosuth’s contention that “the conceptual level of the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski. . . et al. is so dismally low, that any that is there is supplied by the critics promoting it” (176). But symptomatic of a more thoroughgoing diffidence toward criticism are Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s suggestion that “the dematerialization of the art object might eventually lead to the disintegration of criticism as it is known today” (49) or the lament of Harrison, who after all is himself a critic as well as an art historian and a collaborator with artists, that “Alas…the spectator’s experience of the work of art will come to include information imposed upon the work by writers and others. Mud does stick” (206) and his self-consoling admonition, “The only alternative to criticism is art” (207). Seth Seigelaub, the primary promoter of Conceptual art, felt that because such art “just goes from mind to mind as directly as possible”—presumably telepathy would have been its ideal medium—"the need for a community of critics to explain it seems obviously superfluous" (202).

With hindsight, it has become obvious that Conceptual art no more obviated the role of criticism—since art still exists with respect to a public sphere of reception—than it did the validity of traditional modes of art making like painting and sculpture (since what Conceptualists dismissed as mere “presentation” turned out to be indissoluble from art as such). As Stimson observes in his introductory essay, although Harrison would observe that Art & Language, the group with which he was and continues to be affiliated, “could identify no actual alternative public which was not composed of the participants in its own projects and deliberations” (xlvi), it is too little understood just to what degree this was really an active (if normally unstated) aim of much Conceptual art activity, theirs included. This is the autonomy of art pushed to the extreme. This was the same era, after all, when the serialist composer Milton Babbitt wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen?”—a time when it seemed to make sense to consider advanced artistic practice as something comparable to basic research in the natural sciences or logical analysis in philosophy: something done purely for the use of professionals in the field. Of course, the simultaneous but contradictory demand for a sort of political efficacy for art was hard to reconcile with this insistence on autonomy, leading to a good deal of anguished self-examination in the selections from the ’70s. (The writings by Latin American artists included here suggest that the demand for political engagement there was much stronger than the demand for artistic autonomy—thus the sense of the idea “Conceptual art” was quite different there from that in New York, England, and France.)

Today, veterans of Conceptual art sometimes castigate young artists for betraying the radical aspirations of the ‘60s and ’70s. Thus the Austrian artist/curator Peter Weibel recently suggested that art is becoming subordinated to the “entertainment industry” in a Faustian bargain that gives up “epistemological and social significance” to simply maintain an audience (NU: The Nordic Art Review I 5, 2000, p. 22). But the ethos of present-day artists—a climate of sensibility in which critical theory and, indeed, Conceptual art mingle with hip-hop and Hollywood, not to mention pornography, Sunday painting, and the art of the museums—is one according to which this extreme autonomy is viewed as an outdated point of honor rather than anything essential to the project of art in its essence. What will readers of this generation find in Alberro and Stimson’s anthology? A good bit of disappointment, I expect. “An artist may perceive the work of others better than his own,” as Sol LeWitt observed (107), and what today’s artists are likely to observe of Conceptual art—just as they do of its putative opposite, color field painting—is that the art is always different and often better than the theory that surrounded it, no matter that in the case of color field painting the theory came from professional critics like Greenberg and Michael Fried while in Conceptual art it came in great part from the artists themselves.

This is not the ideal anthology on Conceptual art. That anthology would have a broader geographical and intellectual reach, and would, as I have suggested, give more space to the often skeptical, curious, sympathetic or obtuse views of critics representing (whether poorly or well) the idea of a “public. . .not composed of the participants” because this art did not come about in a vacuum, although it may have seemed that way to some of the artists at the time and will do so now to readers of this anthology. It might also have been worthwhile to make an extensively illustrated anthology, not unlike those in the Phaidon series, in order to bring out the parallels and differences between a highly textualized art and the texts that frame that art without likewise claiming artistic status.

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