Home Magazine What do we mean by using the word "Conceptual" in Art?

When the object and its physical presence have been rejected, what remains is the process, a series of stages that if understood, can help us in the definition of conceptual art. These are moments of contemplation and intellectual realization, instants in which the object acts as a mere gateway to the abstractness of thought and allows the observer to get in contact with its intrinsic essence. The vagueness of the term conceptual art has many different connotations, although it is usually used referring to the art movement that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States. How can we now define this particular tendency? 

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What is conceptual art? 

How can we categorize the vastity of conceptual examples that have been brought up by some of the finest minds of the 20th century? Ever since this term was used by Sol Lewitt in 1967 in his Paragraphs on conceptual art, it has been a key argument in the aesthetic world, due to the numerous attempts that have been made to give a substantial definition of this particular form of expression. As far as Lipari and Chandler said, conceptual art embedded any artistic output that tried to emphasize dematerialization, ephemeral presence and most importantly that gave importance to the idea and the concept relying in it, rather than caring about the realization and beauty of the outcome.

What stood out was the philosophical content and the focus on the artist’s subjectivity, rather than the forms and shapes that were used to explain all the conceptual examples brought up by artists. If we spend some time thinking about how painting had evolved ever since impressionism, changing in all of it’s aspects while trying to undermine and overcome ancient rules and dogmas, we can finally see how conceptual art can be placed at the end of this process, as a statement of separation from academic and standardized forms of expression. 

The origins of Conceptual art

Marcel Duchamp

While searching for the origins of this movement, we immediately recognize Duchamp as a pioneer of conceptualism. When in 1917 he created the ready-made method by submitting a urinal as sculpture for an exhibition, he intended to delete any type of boundary between what can or cannot be defined as art. His critique of the art establishment created a pathway for future generations to follow, that had its peak point in the 1960s with the birth of conceptual art. 


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917), porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt.



Another conceptual example was given in the early 1960s by a group of artists that called themselves “Fluxus” and aimed to create open-mindness in response to modernist exclusivism. This movement was created by artistic personas that were gathered from around the world, from Asia, to Europe, to America. Personalities like Yoko Ono, Henry Flynt and Joseph Beuys blended in a collective that had the purpose of widening the range of possible aesthetic references to sound, objects and actions. Their way of expressing art was a strong influence to the later definition of conceptual art, even though Fluxus itself was not entirely conceptualist. 


George Maciunas, Street Theatre (1963), Fluxus Group.


Frank Stella

His Black Paintings from the late 1950s, where a point of disruption between modernism and conceptual art. In this series of works Frank Stella emphasized atypical three-dimensional settings by using black paint to create space and give importance to the canvas’ shape. As well known, this statement was the beginning of Minimalism and opened a whole new territory for the artists to explore. Painting was no longer about forms and colour, it had just become about actions and ideas. 

Sol Lewitt: Paragraphs on Conceptual Art

It was then in 1967 that Sol Lewitt published his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, which is recognized to be one of the most relevant writings about this subject. In this article we can see the term Conceptual being used for the first time to define what Lewitt as a new form of avant-garde. As he stated: “In Conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a Conceptual form in art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”.

The blooming of Conceptual Art: America, Britain and Europe

Joseph Kosuth 

Besides this historical definition, the word conceptual was earlier introduced in the contemporary art scene by Joseph Kosuth, when he created “One and Three Chairs” in 1965, to satisfy the need of abstraction that content had and the philosophical urge that the art world was feeling due to a general misunderstanding of beauty, which had become vague and superficial. This specific work aimed to create analogies and dialogue between images and words, by combining a conceptual photography of a chair, the chair itself, and a print of the dictionary’s definition of the word “chair”, giving the observer a clear relation between representation, standardized form and common-sense definition. We can see how this moment is recognized as the birth of what we define as conceptual art.


 Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965)


Art & Language Group

Simultaneously in England, artists gathered in groups to investigate the complex and vast range of objects that could be defined as art. In the late 1960s, the Art & Language Group experimented within this range of artistic subjects and gave birth to many conceptual art examples, such as a column of air, the French Army and Oxfordshire. This group was formed in 1966 as an example of conceptual art in Britain and gathered different personalities like Terry Atkinson, Michael Baldwin, David Bainbridge and Harold Hurrell, but it later expanded to the USA. A proof of the importance of this collective was the Art & Language Index 01 that was made for Documenta V; an installation which created a conceptual art example through the usage of eight filing cabinets containing 87 writings from the Art-Language journal. 

Conceptual art around the world

Conceptualism did not involve only England and the USA. It was also widely spread around the globe and developed in many other forms, that were often politicized due to the different situations of the countries where it evolved. For instance, in France, the movement absorbed the feeling of dismay produced by the institutions and flourished into Daniel Buren’s artistic production, which aimed to focus on the expectations created by the context these works where placed in. In Italy, instead, Arte Povera gave voice to those artists trying to create distance from traditional dogmas by adopting atypical and “poor” materials to produce works that stood up and confronted directly with the past and its restraints.

Latin America

The Latin American derivation of conceptual art had a more political response compared to the American and European cases. A clear example is given by Clido Meireles’ work, which was characterized by the reintroduction of the readymade technique in his Insertions into Ideological Circuits series (1969). The subjects Meireles studied were often symbols like Coca-Cola bottles, which were implemented by the insertion of political messages stamped onto them before their reintroduction in the system.

Soviet Union

The Russian experiments were quite different from the other conceptual art examples. During the 1970s a group called “Moscow Conceptualists”, created a mixture of Socialist Realism, Western Conceptualism and American Pop, which was analyzed by art critic Boris Groys. 

Contemporary Conceptual Art development 

Nowadays, Contemporary Conceptualism has become a practice in which different media and interdisciplinary approaches are combined with an audience, in order to create responses that give space to political responses and, often, to artistic hierarchies. The scenario we find ourselves in, is characterized by the usage of both conceptual art strategies and various techniques. Within the vastity of artists approaching this field, we can find personalities like Jenny Holzer, with her sensible use of language, Barbara Kruger and her use of both writings and conceptual photography, Cindy Sherman with her game of identity and Sherrie Levine with her usage of photography to critique originality. 

Read more about female contemporary art artists: A Spotlight on Women in Contemporary Art-21 Black Female Painters


Jenny Holzer, Blue Purple Tilt (2007-2018), courtesy of the Tate Modern Gallery.


Barbara Kruger, I Shop Therefore I am (1987).


As widely analyzed throughout the previous paragraphs, Conceptual art is an example of those movements that generate diversity and create a series of different approaches from the same index. A movement that was born as a response to traditional dogmas and as a resistance to the dominant order, has now become itself a field in which rules and hierarchies have taken control and dominate the art scene. What was disruptive has now become habitual, often demagogic, even though it was born as a response to critical situations, whether they were political, sociologic or merely of artistic matter. In Contemporary Conceptualism we can once again find a reaction to standardized settings and techniques, which are expressed through a creative usage of new media and contemporary philosophical patterns, giving this movement a fresh and innovative appearance and opening new fields for this artistic expression to investigate. 


Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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