Conceptual Art

February 18, 2009 at 12:15 am (Uncategorized)

A performance by Yves Klein, accompanied by an orchestria and viewed by a live audience.

A performance by Yves Klein, accompanied by an orchestria and viewed by a live audience.

Conceptual Art is a movement where the idea or concept behind the work is fundamental, the aesthetic becoming secondary and only of any importance if the idea evokes it as part of the concept. Conceptual Art began in the early 60’s, although it was heavily influenced by the Dada movement of the early 20th century and the work of Marcel Duchamp. It can be argued Duchamp was the first conceptual artist, and was the creator of “ready made” conceptual art, such as ‘The Fountain’, he was a great believer that art should be free and whatever you want it to be to get your message across.

Post war America saw a prosperous and powerful reign, the US dominated global affairs, and many artists reverted to painting or self-reflective art as well abstract expressionism. But the early 60’s marked a new era, many factors in the US helped push the idea based principles of concept art. There was the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, counter culture, expression through humour, irony and criticism; this, combined with peoples newly acquired sexual and political freedom fuelled the right of expression of concepts and ideas in the art world. As would be assumed, this freedom allowed for many different mediums and channels to be used for portrayal of these concepts. And thus the 60’s also saw the rise of Fluxus and Land Art, as well as Conceptual Art.

Conceptual Artists

Henry Flynt is a philosopher and muscisian. Flynt was an extremely intelligent man, at 17 years old he gained entry to Harvard College where he enrolled in a philosophy of science course. Finally he was amongst intellectual equals and he met many companions who would later be very influential friends. It was also at this time that Flynt started composing “serious modern music” and after two and a half years he decided education had nothing more to offer him and he left to pursue his artistic life. Devoting himself first to the monograph ‘Philosophy Proper’ which was analytic philosophy and logical positivism (philosophical system founded by Auguste Comte, concerned with positive facts and phenomena, and excluding speculation upon ultimate causes or origins.) It was then that Flynt coined the term ‘cognitive nihilism’ which would have strong input into all of his work.

'Concept Art' the text written by Henry Flynt

'Concept Art' the text written by Henry Flynt

In 1961 Flynt coined the term concept art in the Neo-Dada proto-Fluxus book ‘An Anthology of Chance Operations’ Concept Art he claimed had devolved from cognitive nihilism and was thought to display Flynts insights into the vulnerability of mathematics or logic, therefore conceptual art had to be critical of these things.

Henry Flint worked mainly as a violinist and composer but his circles of friends was very much artists and philosophers. For seven years Flynt lived within the art world and displayed some of his work in Yoko Ono’s loft.

Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language” -Henry Flynt

Sol LeWitt's assemblage of cube structure modules.

Sol LeWitt's assemblage of cube structure modules.

Sol LeWitt was a minimalist and conceptual American artist born in 1928.

In the 1960’s LeWitt rose to fame with both his two and three dimensional works; his wall paintings and ‘structures’ a ‘more appropriate’ term he used to describe his sculptures.

LeWitt’s work is very geometric, having produced a large body of work concentrating on cubes, that lie open with fragments missing but are all connected. These works are very much structural, having names such as ‘Module Wall Structure’ and ‘Double Modular Cube’ these are also linked to LeWitt’s early wall drawings which, due to his love for modules and systems are very grid based.

LeWitt’s work is often described as being very minimal, although much of his more recent work is extremely colourful and often complex, showing beauty and passion. Many of LeWitt’s huge scale wall painting are bright and jazzy his use of shape and line was aimed to test the viewer’s psychological and visual boundaries, “See a line, see that it can be straight, thin, broken, curved, soft, angled or thick. Enjoy the differences.” This should be an easy test to pass if the viewer possess’ an open mind, which was a message of LeWitt’s art.

A common theme in LeWitt’s work was reducing art to its most basic shapes, (spheres triangles, pyramids, cubes etc) colours, (mainly the primary colours and black) and lines, he organised these rules into guidelines for himself. Although he was eventually able to break free and bend these rules. Sol Lewitt had a huge team of assistants working under him. What he devised with these sets of rules was instructions, instructions that could be carried out by anyone which was LeWitt’s intention. The instructions were sometimes very specific but often purposefully vague to allow for subtle differences and individuals interpretation to interfere with the results. LeWitt would then merit the end results of the said wall painting on the assistant that carried out the work.

One of Sol LeWitt's wall paintings practically executed by a team of assistats

One of Sol LeWitt's wall paintings practically executed by a team of assistats

This could sometimes be seen as a sort of game, but in doing so LeWitt brought to light the notion that an architect, songwriter or composer is still an artist even though they do not build their own house or play their own music, just coming up with the concept makes them so. Having said that the input of the assistant or team of, was extremely important to LeWitt, their joy, boredom or frustration becoming an element to the art.

Piero Manzoni was an Italian artist, born in 1933, he was best known for his both iconic and ironic conceptual art. A self taught artist, Manzoni favored the use of ‘out there’ raw materials, such as faeces, bread or rabbit fur.

Manzoni was directly influenced by the work of Yves Klein, who influenced many young Italian Artists of the time.

'Merda d'artista' or 'Artist's Shit' by Piero Manzoni

'Merda d'artista' or 'Artist's Shit' by Piero Manzoni

In this piece ‘Artists Shit’ contained ninety cans of freshly preserved shit, Manzoni calculating the value of each 30g tin in comparison to the current market value of gold. This work was highly critical of the mass production and consumerism taking the west by storm following WW2. I suppose what Manzoni was trying to tackle was the market of an artists name being worth more than the work itself, the content becoming irrelevant to the extent that canned shit could be worth as much as gold. It is this idea that makes ‘Artist’s Shit’ a brilliant piece of conceptual art.

All importantly it was the ‘idea’ that Manzoni wanted to emphasise, particularly the notion that simply “being” created art. Manzoni was drawn to purification and reduction of his work, drawing inspiration from Rauschenberg’s minimal white paintings or Guy Debord’s film without images, Manzoni eliminated all “useless gestures” to create ‘pure’ work free from dissection through aesthetic, but rather his intention was that one’s mind would then be open to see the powerful thoughts and idea’s he had to offer through the concept behind his work.

'Living Sculpture' by Piero manzoni

'Living Sculpture' by Piero manzoni

Manzoni went on to create living sculpture, which was literally a person onto which the artist had signed, therefore proclaiming them to be art, along with balloons filled with ‘Artist’s Breath’ or Eggs stamped with Manzoni’s fingerprints, which he handed out as food. All of these pieces contain strong conceptual attributes. It is clear looking into the content of Manzoni’s work that he held Marcel Duchamp in quite high acclaim, links can be made between signing a person and calling them art or canning your own shit compared to the Duchamp’s signing of that urinal so many years before. Basically anything that was at Manzoni’s fingertips was fair game for him to claim so long as his ideas permitted it.

Sadly Piero Manzoni died in 1963, only thirty years old, although his impact on the art world has been strong, and his efforts ensure he’ll be remembered not only as the man who canned his own shit.

'God is great' comprised of glass, books and silicone by John Lathem

'God is great' comprised of glass, books and silicone by John Lathem

John Latham was a pioneer of conceptual practice, born in Zambia to English parents. Latham had clung to no one particular style, he was a painter, sculptor, filmmaker and performance artist, and boasts to have developed the technique of spraying paint using a spray gun in his work. As he matured, the relevance of creating an art object became less important to him than the processes involved in making it. He worked a lot using books, symbolic to most people as education, open mindedness and enlightenment, Latham also saw books as a window for error. In 1958 Latham displayed over painted, torn and slightly burnt books, challenging and poking fun at this system of gaining knowledge.

In 1966, whilst teaching at St. Martins School of Art, Latham invited a party of students and friends round for a feast of Clement Greenberg’s book ‘Art and Culture’. The guests chewed up the book and then spat it out. Lathem then bottled and distilled, the fermented mash bottles poured into testubes and returned to the St. Martins School of Art library. Latham was subsequently fired for failing to return a library book in adequate condition. The piece was named ‘Spit and Chew: Art Culture’ the viles placed in a leather suitcase and owned but rarely displayed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Latham again fuelled controversy with his work ‘God is Great’ which displayed the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Talmud encased together in a sheet of glass and again on the floor surrounded by shards of broken glass. Latham wanted to display the concept of all three religions stemming from one source, but this was met with questions by a minority of people at the gallery who deemed it too insensitive and the work was removed from the exhibit at the Tate Britain. This angered Latham greatly.

'God is Great' by John Lathem

'God is Great' by John Lathem

In 1951 Latham married Barbara Steveni and together they set up the Artists’ Placement Group, an attempt to involve artists in local government and industry. It wasn’t very successful, but that was not through any fault of the artists who struggled to overcome the old habits of petty government officials.

Latham’s filmmaking began as a means of recording the evolution of his bookworks ‘Unedited Material From Star’ 1960, but developed to embrace collaborative works with the Event Structure Research Group, abstract animation in the 1960s, and works made for television in the 1990s.

In 2007 John Lathem died aged 83.

Key Artist

'Blue' by Yves Klein

'Blue' by Yves Klein

Yves Klein was a French conceptual artist born in 1928, in Nice, France. Although both of Klein’s parents were painters, Yves had no formal art training but was extremely influential on the post-war avant-garde art scene. In the 1950’s Klein started to exhibit large canvases of single colour, mainly blue at first, applied with a sponge, which is what he is most famed for. He developed his own pigment of paint and lovingly named his colour ‘International Klein Blue’ or ‘IKB’. For Klein the colours blue pink and gold all possess special meaning or symbolism, as does the sponge he would apply them with. Blue was a very important colour and predominant in Klein’s earlier work, blue representing sensibility, it was Klein’s more mature work that saw the rise of the gold and pink monotones also.

“Blue, gold and pink are of the same nature. Any exchange at the level of these three states is honest.” –Yves Klein

'Ex-voto for Saint Rita of Cascia' a highly religious and symbollic piece by Yves Klein

'Ex-voto for Saint Rita of Cascia' a highly religious and symbollic piece by Yves Klein

To Klein these three colours were linked, blue symbolizing bodily fluid or blood, pink representing flesh, and gold signifying transition into immateriality. The three themes, “Impregnation”, “Illumination of matter” and “Incarnation” Klein also associated with these colours, Blue represents impregnation, Illumination of matter is gold “at the gates of eternity lie the monogolds” and pink, the incarnation represents the return to the body. Grouping these three colours together was religious as well as symbolic for Klein, in his piece ‘blue, gold and pink’ he saw this as the link uniting the body and the spirit and ensuring the transition from one to the other. I myself see this very much as symbolic of life, you’re conceived, you shine, and then you burn.

'Untitled Blue Sponge Sculpture'

'Untitled Blue Sponge Sculpture'

The sponge to Klein, as well as blue, represented impregnation. The sponge was impregnated with pigment, and it in return it impregnated something else (eg. a canvas). Klein also sculpted with the sponge, pleased with the sense of freedom the sponge could achieve within a space, sculpted colour offered the possibility of placing objects in space, thereby acquiring the independence that the monochrome paintings sought with the wall. The sponge also represented the viewer to Klein, in 1957, Klein declared that visitors to his exhibitions, viewing the Monochromes, must be “totally impregnated with sensibility like sponges”. Undoubtedly inspired by the special characteristics of the sponge, soaking up anything, was for Klein, a metaphor for an open mind and communication of an artistic concept. Although this represents Klein’s main body of work, there was more to his work than just his monotones. In 1957 Klein released 1001 blue balloons in Paris, he published manifestos indicating that his work should be interpreted as a quest for immateriality. And so the blue monochromes represent the most solid evidence of his art, beginnings of a more fundamental work that remains to be discovered, or, as Klein himself said, “My paintings are but the ashes of my art.” A year later Klein shocked the art world by exhibiting an empty gallery painted white entitled ‘Le Vide’ or ‘The Void’ exploring the impregnation of space, although he did not shy too far away from his beloved blue as subtly it remained, the curtains, exterior building, flyers and even cocktails on opening night were all tinted blue. Klein continued to be controversial by dragging nude women smeared in blue paint over a floor canvas in 1959. This was accompanied by the tune ‘Symphonie Monotone’ a single not that was played for ten minutes alternated with 10 minutes silence. blue-chick

Then in 1960 Klein continued his exploration of space with one of his most famous pieces of work ‘Saut dans le vide’ or ‘Leap into the Void’ A photograph of himself leaping off a building through space. This type of work; Air Architecture was a term Klein coined to describe his short lived works concentrating on earthly elements and space. Using materials such as air, fire, water and space represented using the female body, Klein used flame throwers for his fire paintings, nude body printing using a variety of media, and spraying to display the shape, mass and space of the human body. The works he dubbed “Cosmogonies” were exposed to rain. Many of these works were performed in front of a live audience and also filmed. Ensuring that Klein’s legacy and spirit lives on.

'Leap into the Void' by Yves Klein

'Leap into the Void' by Yves Klein

Similarly to Manzoni, Yves Klein had a short lived life and died of a heart attack aged 34. Having not known much about Klein or studied conceptual art previously, I feel I have learnt a lot from studying his work. His concepts of colour and space, their meaning and symbolism I find fascinating, and I ponder as to how he reached such conclusions on colour and their associations. I think the way Klein’s mind must have worked was extremely intricate and it was these thought processes and links between his mind and what he produced that makes him a respected and influential conceptual artist.

(I wasn’t able to put any of Yves Klein’s video work on my blog, tried but failed! If you copy paste this web address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJV0n4A_6-M you can see his work using both firepainting and bodypaint techniques)

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