Conceptualism and Global Neo-Avant-Garde
In 1989 a special edition of Art in America announced the arrival of global art, its cover adorned with a nasa photograph of the Earth taken from lunar orbit. Yet inside, Martha Rosler warned that the new fetish of the global threatened to obfuscate the material shape of the art world—its circuits of communication, distribution and exchange—where a capitalist restructuring was in process.footnote1 The term ‘global art’ took hold as the Cold War drew to a close, through years when broader discourses of globalization also came to flourish. While the meaning of this term continues to trouble artists and critics, a normative imperative to ‘think global’ has come to structure the practices of art institutions, framing the endless drive for recognition of new artists and regions, as biennales and art fairs proliferate.
Conceptualism has always had a special relationship to the question of the global. The issue of its geographical mapping is linked to that of the determinate bounds of artworks and practices—something often explicitly thematized in conceptual works themselves—and a conscious orientation to this question was evident within the movement by the late 1960s, when tensions emerged over whether it constituted an American or an international phenomenon, a reductive formalism or a radically inclusive ‘free-for-all’.footnote2 Dominant figures in the United States, such as Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub and Joseph Kosuth, presented it as fully international, as facilitating global connectivity and artistic reach. Yet for Luis Camnitzer, a Uruguayan artist working in New York at the time, such claims obscured the exportation of ‘contemporary colonial art’.footnote3 From the late 1970s, German art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh effectively defined Conceptualism as proper to the European and American hegemonic centres, though Siegelaub disputed Buchloh’s emphasis on Manhattan.footnote4
Then in the early 1990s, as a lucrative Neo-Conceptual movement consolidated its position in an expanding global art market, Conceptualism was proclaimed the first global art form. In a series of articles and exhibitions—mostly on us soil—Mari Carmen Ramírez presented Latin America as the exemplar of Conceptualism’s global character. Ramírez became a core reference for inscriptions into an emerging narrative of global conceptualisms, cementing an image of Latin America as radical other to the us’s formalism.footnote5 The landmark 1999–2000 exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s was decisive in extending this story, inviting eleven international curator-essayists to formulate accounts of their respective regions.footnote6 The unifying idea was that Conceptualism had spontaneously proliferated worldwide in two waves—1950–73 (in the us, Japan, Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Canada, Australia), and 1973–89 (in the Soviet Union, South Korea, China, Africa)—as a set of strategic responses to the socio-political effects of the consolidating global economy.footnote7
In its drive for inclusivity, the exhibition stretched the definition of Conceptualism to the verge of indeterminacy, and the regional accounts in its own catalogue were sometimes in tension with the unifying idea. In relation to 1960s–70s India, Apinan Poshyananda explained that anti-American sentiment had brought resistance to Pop and Conceptual Art and, citing Siva Kuma, that experimentation had been inhibited by entrenched colonial pedagogy.footnote8 Okwui Enwezor denied the existence of anything like a Conceptual movement in 1970s Africa, citing a few ‘isolated’ and ‘scattered’ examples.footnote9 Regional studies of conceptual practices have since proliferated, with some attempts to return to more determinate analyses of the artistic landscape, seeking to qualify—rather than deny—the clear dominance of the hegemonic centres.footnote10
The conceptual moment
The indeterminacy of Conceptualism as a movement may be grounded in certain generic aspects of artistic modernity. As John Roberts has claimed, ‘the most fundamental shift of modernism was less the move to painterly abstraction than the subsumption of art under the logic of art’s conceptual and formal conjunction’.footnote11 If modernist art practice is schematizable into two moments, or modes of response to the crisis of the art object—on the one hand, a ‘Greenbergian’ self-interrogation within existing terms; on the other, avant-garde experimentations in Peter Bürger’s sense, which throw into question the artwork as such, and thereby the status of art as social institution—much of the latter can be construed as ‘conceptual’ in some sense.footnote12 Thus the globality of ‘conceptualism’ may partly be that of a generic aspect of modernist art, itself already quite geographically dispersed by the time a self-identifying Conceptualist movement emerged in the 1960s.
Those aspects were sufficiently prominent within the widespread neo-avant-garde tendencies of the postwar period, particularly amid Abstract Expressionism’s global capita mortua, that it is plausible to identify numerous practices that—with the prejudice of hindsight—can appear at least proto-conceptual. These were indeed globally ‘spontaneous’, in the sense that they lacked any single organizational pole or conscious referent, but it took the emergence of a hegemonic, New York-centred scene from this broader moment for these to be ranged under, and read through, a single term. What follows is an attempt to sketch the crystallization of ‘Conceptual Art’ in this ambiguous structure, whereby local neo-avant-gardes both provided preconditions for, and were mediated by, determinate transnational networks centred on the global metropoles. Since these structures were themselves often thematized in the artworks and exhibitions around which they were constructed, we should also be attentive to the peculiar function of ‘the global’ in the neo-avant-garde imaginary. If such structures are often obscured by what Pamela Lee has termed the art world’s ‘global state of mind’, looking at the question in this way we may hope to break out of the endless play of antinomies between abstractly boundless extension on the one hand, and reductive concretization on the other.footnote13 But since these structures pivoted upon the metropole, it is there that we should start.
I. UNITED STATES
The landscape in which us Conceptualism emerged was shaped by the particular ‘internationalism’ of postwar reconstruction and the Cold War. With the transfer of the cultural centre from Paris to New York, a self-conscious programme was developed of mobilizing us modernism—of which Abstract Expressionism was of course the emblem—as a tool of soft power.footnote14 New transnational networks for the circulation, distribution and exchange of artworks were established, parading American art throughout Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, India, Japan, Yugoslavia and Australia, while us institutions sometimes bought up art from around the world—especially where resonances with Abstract Expressionism were perceived. The terms of Clement Greenberg’s dispute with Harold Rosenberg over the nature of modernism supplied the dominant theoretical framing: a counter-Enlightenment programme of medium-specific self-interrogation vs. the free act of painting over and against the art object itself.footnote15
Some famous early harbingers of the us conceptual turn appeared in the early 1950s, specifically as repudiations of Abstract Expressionism and its attendant ideologies. Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) were pitted against the dogma of expressive artistic processes; his Erased de Kooning (1953)—a literal description of the work—signalled a rejection of the Abstract Expressionist’s personalized signature. The aim was a de-reification of the artwork, to allow new kinds of meaning to appear. Significant in the cultural ambience at this time was a burgeoning interest among American artists in Zen—exemplified in D. T. Suzuki’s 1950s lectures at Columbia—which helped promote a certain mysticism of the negative.footnote16 Then in the mid 1950s a Duchamp revival began, in which the readymade would be interpreted as revealing art’s conceptual nature and the institutional underpinnings of its alleged autonomy.
In 1961, Lithuanian-American George Maciunas formed Fluxus, rekindling the Dadaist hope for an inclusive transnational artistic collectivity. Through it, a loose international network of artists would flow, producing concerts, theatre, performance, publications and mail art. It was a Fluxus-associated artist, Henry Flynt, who first used the term ‘concept art’, in 1961, to define ‘an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of e.g. music is sound’.footnote17 A ‘non-movement’, claiming ‘everything is art and anyone can do it’, Fluxus sought universal accessibility for art across geopolitical and class boundaries, aided by an erasure of distinctions between objects and words, visuality and language.footnote18 It aimed to dissolve the art object and to implement the universal artistic event. The Yam Festival (1962–63)—a year-long event of daily performances—would, according to Robert Watt, enable ‘an ever expanding universe of events’. Fluxus epitomized the liquefaction of the artwork into process and performance—a ‘neo-Dada’ tendency for which Greenberg placed the blame on Rosenberg’s privileging of action over object.footnote19
Though Peter Bürger would later dismiss the work of this period as a derivative after-image of the early twentieth century ‘historic avant-gardes’, its concerns with the dissolution of art into life, with art as social institution, and with the paradoxes of art’s supposed autonomy, often resemble his definition of avant-garde more literally than the original.footnote20 Sometimes this was under the influence of the earlier avant-gardes—Dada especially—but the more important influence was negative: opposition to the core assumptions of Greenbergian modernism—material objectivity, medium-specificity, opticality and autonomy—loomed large throughout the period.
In the context of the Duchamp revival, artists were inspired to reflexively flood the developing void of the artwork with its externalities. Robert Morris’s Card File (1963) was a filing cabinet of notations about the economic, social and biographical contingencies of the work’s production. His Document (1963) was a typed ‘Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal’, in which he denied that another work—purchased but never paid for—had aesthetic content. Meanwhile, Minimalists were troubling the Greenbergian programme by displacing painting’s reduction to the ‘medium-specific’ flat plane into what Donald Judd called ‘specific objects’, made of standardized materials, eradicating visual illusion, effacing the hand of the artist, and collapsing the distinction between painting and sculpture. In the us, the first phase of Conceptual Art developed out of these tendencies, brought together in the 1966 New York exhibition Primary Structures, which had direct spin-offs around the world.
Much early us Conceptualism was concerned with the market, bureaucracy and cultural institutions—perhaps because it was especially feeling their grip. Through the 1960s, state promotion of the arts was being formalized and the first federal arts institution—the National Endowment for the Arts—was set up in 1965, with an internationalist agenda.footnote21 The 1960s also saw a flourishing art market permeated by speculative logics and fuelled by injections of private and corporate sponsorship. Modern art collecting, which had hitherto barely stretched beyond the Impressionists, now opened up to new forms. The relation between Conceptual Art and business was double-edged. While many artists aspired to be anti-commodity, some—notably Seth Siegelaub and Joseph Kosuth—courted business.footnote22 The influx of speculative capital encouraged the development of new entrepreneurial forms, a new breed of gallerist and collector, as well as artist-run spaces—developments often championed as a de-hierarchization and hybridization of roles, an erosion of the status of the expert.
Between 1967 and 1969, Sol LeWitt set out a programme positioning the nascent movement against Abstract Expressionism. With Conceptual Art, ‘the concept is the most important part of the work’ and the execution ‘a perfunctory affair’.footnote23 Cynicism about the cultural language of the postwar era—freedom, will, ego, spontaneity, expression—was evident in his claim that ‘the idea becomes the machine that makes the art’.footnote24 The artistic idea, initiated by intuition, became a system that, once set in motion, should be followed absolutely—an attitude common among international neo-avant-gardes.footnote25 While there were varying attitudes towards the material, a ‘dematerialized’ strain now emerged, both facilitating and in accordance with the changing political economy of art.
For Kosuth, materials were an obstacle, and art need not be made even of linguistic material—though he invariably produced it. Inspired by Logical Positivism, his art was an ‘analytic proposition’. Echoing Greenbergian notions of autonomy—albeit now released from the tie to physical media—art was to refer only to itself; the auto-interrogation of the medium had become that of art as such, as mere idea. In the 1966 Art-as-Idea-as-Idea series, Kosuth ditched all other elements to identify art with the concept alone, albeit presenting this identification in a post-painterly fashion on the gallery wall. Similarly, after spending the early 1960s blowing craters in the Californian landscape—an inverted land sculpture—Lawrence Weiner began his ‘Statements’, describing pseudo-artistic gestures that may or may not be enacted, such as One Pint Gloss White Lacquer Poured Directly on the Floor and Allowed to Dry (1968).
As us-based artists reduced their work to mere information in the years after 1968, they also emphasized a global interconnectedness. As Lucy Lippard told Ursula Meyer in 1969:
Some artists now think it is absurd to fill up their studios with objects that won’t be sold, and are trying to get their art communicated as rapidly as it is made. They’re thinking out ways to make art what they’d like it to be, in spite of the devouring speed syndrome it’s made in. That speed has not only to be taken into consideration, but utilized.footnote26
Gallerist Seth Siegelaub was promoting new exhibition and distribution formats that attempted to do just that. Dissolving art’s presentation into its distribution, he wanted to facilitate a geographical and institutional decentralization of the art world. ‘I think New York is breaking down as a centre’, he enthused in 1969, ‘Not that there will be another city to replace it, but rather, where any artist is will be the centre.’footnote27 This vision resonated in much post-68 practice, especially that of Siegelaub’s clique, who withdrew into producing ideas for circulation. Kosuth gave up making photostats, anonymously publishing his works as posters, flyers, magazine adverts and billboards, to be circulated worldwide. Weiner substituted his industrial-style removals with descriptions of past actions, typed in minimal, emotionally-neutral language, circulating them in catalogues.
Robert Barry’s famous Inert Gas Series consisted of a mailshot with a phone number connecting to an answering service, which reported that Barry had ‘returned’ noble gases to the atmosphere in various locations—most notably the desert. Due to the colourlessness and chemical inertia of noble gases, their release had neither visual nor chemical effect, expanding forever in an imperceptible environmental sculpture. This may be taken as emblematic of a tendency to toy with the abstractly universal as both content and form, gesturing towards an infinity of potential inclusion at the level of communication, ideas, even physical reality: the many negatives—inertia, invisibility, non-presence, unconfinement, desert—may be read together positively as conjuring an abstract globality. Similarly, Barry’s All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking—1:36 pm, 15 June 1969, New York, posed the idea of a work transcending ‘all space and time’.footnote28 Such withdrawals forced exhibition organizers to enact the limits of institutional spaces in order to present the conceptual artwork, implicitly measuring up the particular exhibition against a potential universal extension beyond it.
From 1969, exhibitions were increasingly reduced to catalogues, with surrounding texts citing informality, equality of participation, global connectivity, and an anti-commodity intent. ‘Catalogue shows’, of which Siegelaub held a series between 1969 and 1970, were a convenient way of collating the work of geographically dispersed artists. In March 1–31 (1969) he ignored the gallery altogether, asking thirty-one artists to respond swiftly with ‘any relevant information regarding the nature of the “work” you intend to contribute’, the catalogue of which would be distributed worldwide, free of charge. This format was repeated in the trilingual—English, French and German—July–August–September (1969), which had eleven artists, all in Siegelaub’s clique, positioned at locations around the world. Kosuth’s 15 Locations (1969–70), in which thesaurus categories were published in local newspapers, took place ‘all over the world’—in North America, Western Europe, Argentina and Australia. In July/August (1970)—the last of Siegelaub’s catalogue shows—he asked six critics to select artists to fill eight pages of Studio International. As Alexander Alberro has noted, this insertion of art into pre-existing circuits of distribution rendered it equivalent to its advertising.footnote29 These modes of circulation gave international currency to us Conceptualism, and to specific artists. But for Siegelaub, it was a matter of embracing a world without boundaries—institutional, national, ideological. By reducing presentation to publicity he had ‘eliminated space’ and turned the whole world into his gallery.
This extension of the space of art to the world at large was not the avant-gardist dissolution of art into life. If Kosuth’s ‘art as idea as idea’ displayed a lingering Greenbergianism, even Siegelaub’s attempts to dissolve the artwork into an unbounded communication could be construed as so many instances of autonomous art’s self-interrogation. In the dialectics of artistic autonomy, Conceptualism’s vacuous universalism was always at risk of challenge in the name of a more concrete one. From the late 1960s, the aspect of institutional critique in neo-avant-garde practice was increasingly allied with radical social and counter-cultural movements, and issues of race and gender were forced onto the agenda. The Art-Workers Coalition, a heterogeneous group of 300 artists, demanded less hierarchy and centralization in the art world, an end to institutional complicity in corruption and to the suffering of Vietnam. By the 1970s, Kosuth’s tautological formulations were being rejected, and more personal, social and directly political practices, using bodily performance or photo-text combinations, were pushed to the foreground. Adrian Piper—who describes being marginalized within the Conceptual Art scene, despite the rigorously analytical bent of her earlier work—began her Catalysis series (1970), redefining art as a catalytic agent which could bring about transformations in the viewer or artist.footnote30 Piper walked New York streets promoting ‘non-pragmatic human confrontation’ of people with their desires, fears and prejudices. By forgoing the institutional space, she aimed for an art that could become a tool of direct social transformation. Such approaches sometimes crossed over into grassroots community organizing, as with the 1971 exhibition and collective of the same name, ‘Where We At’: Black Women Artists.
While American artists proclaimed the decentralization of art and reached out to the Third World, and while the world was becoming significantly more connected, us Conceptualism’s global imaginary remained an abstract projection from artistic centres. And while many works and exhibitions employed telecommunications—such as the Simon Fraser Exhibition (1969)—these were typically restricted to North American and Western European participants.footnote31 The art market was dominated by Western artists and sellers, as it has remained to the present.footnote32 But the us was of course home not only to an ‘indigenous’ Conceptualism; it functioned as a nexus for artists from around the world. According to Terry Smith, Conceptualists often defined the movement as a practice ‘for travellers between the peripheries and centres of cultural power’.footnote33 Such travel was largely that of a set of metropolitan intellectuals and artists, enabled through governmental or institutional grants, or compelled through exile, and migration was primarily one-way—‘periphery’ to ‘centre’—with countries or regions represented by a narrow set of figures. New York, Paris and West Germany were where most international conceptualists gained recognition—Yoko Ono, Yutaka Matsuzawa, On Kawara, Liliana Porter, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Eduardo Costa, Roman Opałka, to name a few.
Key Conceptual Art exhibitions from the late 1960s, largely organized by North America- or Western Europe-based artists, presented an increasingly global vision. Kynaston McShine’s Information (1970) at moma—the first ‘international report’ on Conceptualism—exhibited 150 artists from 15 countries, adding Argentina, Brazil and Yugoslavia to the usual set.footnote34 ‘Peripheral’ representatives were handpicked, and exhibitions and symposiums conducted by telephone, through catalogues, or held in scattered locations around the world. But almost all participants were either born or based in North America or Western Europe (and very few were women). Lippard made efforts to connect Latin American and us artists after her ‘numbers’ exhibition in Buenos Aires (1970), opening a genuine dialogue with a handful from Argentina and Brazil, some of whom spent time in New York as a result, but the exhibition made few ripples in Latin America itself.footnote35 As Lippard reflected:
Communication (but not community) and distribution (but not accessibility) were inherent in conceptual art. Although the forms pointed toward democratic outreach, the content did not . . . Contact with a broader audience was vague and undeveloped.footnote36
A Japanese modernist tradition had existed since the mid-nineteenth century, though artistic identities were troubled. In 1947, art historian and painter Kunitaro Suda described Japanese oil painting as ‘cut-flower art’—a stream of imported styles that never took root—envisaging a ‘pure’ Japanese painting of the future.footnote37 Many post-war artists wished to resist cultural westernization, but grew sceptical about visions of an authentic Japanese form.footnote38 While us modernism circulated in the 1950s, most Japanese artists identified with Europe. And while Japanese buyers had entered the art market in the early twentieth century, the Great Depression had forced their exit; a significant presence was not to be seen again until the ‘bubble economy’ years of 1986–91. Japan’s commercial gallery system was thus slow-growing in the first half of the 1950s, and government salons dominated, but several key spaces, such as the Yomiuri Independent (1949–65) and Gutai Art Association (1954–72), emerged as channels for experimental art, including proto-Fluxus, Anti-Art and Neo-Dada. As in the us, these heterogeneous neo-avant-garde tendencies provided a local seedbed for subsequent Conceptualism.
Gutai were international in outlook but drew upon traditional concerns of Japanese art in their critique of modernism, which they thought had suffocated art under ‘false significations’ of the intellect. Through ritualistic performances, the artist could release the ‘scream of matter itself’.footnote39 Identifying as ‘experimental painters’, they aimed to enact Rosenberg’s understanding of the painting as an arena of action. Saburo Murakami’s At One Moment Opening Six Holes—performed in Gutai’s first Tokyo exhibition in 1955, in a public park—preceded European destructive art and theatrically paralleled Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases (1949–68). In Challenging Mud (1955), Kazuo Shiraga wrestled a pile of mud to make a ‘painting’, seemingly instantiating Jean Dubuffet’s idea of an art consisting only of ‘monochromatic mud’.footnote40 Following Rosenberg’s instructions to avoid the paintbrush—which they interpreted as an injunction to liberate paint itself—Gutai utilized cannons, paint bombs, bicycles, umbrellas and vibrators, before abandoning painting for theatre.
By the late 1950s, Japanese art was gaining recognition abroad. From 1958, Sogetsu Art Centre in Tokyo served as a hub of international collaboration, whose central coordinates were symbolized by the monumental Abstract Expressionist and Art Informel paintings adorning its hallway.footnote41 Initially dominated by Sakkyokuka Shudan (Composers Group), and frequented by Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono, the centre hosted John Cage and David Tudor in 1962 and Rauschenberg, Cage and Merce Cunningham in 1964. In 1962, Ono, visiting from New York, exhibited Instructions for Painting, a series of canvases of written instructions for An Imaginary Piece. Such ‘recipes’, with their capacity to unsettle the roles of artist, audience, exhibitor, can be found in avant-garde practice as far back as Tristan Tzara’s 1920 ‘How to Make a Dadaist Poem’, but they loomed particularly large in Conceptualism, and Ono’s may be viewed as one of the first emphatically Conceptualist pieces.
Art as agitation
A 1958 Yomiuri Independent exhibition had marked the consolidation of Japanese Anti-Art and Neo-Dada. Signalling a move beyond Gutai’s attachment to painting, artists began turning to junk-based or Surrealism-inflected sculptures, often alluding to the disfigured body.footnote42 But when Yomiuri’s host site, Tokyo Metropolitan, attempted to exclude Anti-Art’s ‘offensive content’ in 1962, terminating the event two years later, this helped precipitate a turn away from institutions, paralleling tendencies elsewhere towards institutional critique and art-activism as Japan entered its turbulent 1960s.footnote43 The traditional outdoor setting of Japanese performance art soon gained a political twist, as art became public and agitational. Following the 1960 protests against Anpo—the Japan–us security treaty—the streets of Tokyo saw performances and provocations, in which artists used the body as an instrument of critique, targeting the aspirations that accompanied economic growth, the persistence of oppressive social mores and state control.
In 1963, Zero Jigen Group began ‘ritualistic happenings’, involving over 300 eruptions of ‘anti-social’ behaviour in city spaces deemed respectable. In 1963–64, Hi Red Center—the former Neo-Dadaists Genpei Akasegawa, Jiro Takamatsu and Natsuyuki Nakanishi—held street ‘agitations’, documenting them on a giant map of the city. Before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in Cleaning Event they dressed up in surgical masks and lab coats to scrub Tokyo’s tourist areas with toothbrushes, satirizing gentrification and Japan’s jubilation at being a world player. In Shelter Plan (1964) they created single-occupant nuclear fallout shelters, with unopenable cans of food for invitees, signifying the ironies of us protection and growing urban atomization. The group accumulated anonymous contributors, who carried out guerrilla actions around Tokyo, decentralizing art practice and mirroring the broader wave of ‘citizen activism’.
According to critic Toshiaki Minemura, by 1970 three tendencies were evident: a shift from production to presentation, which deskilled art and uncoupled it from its institutional and professionalized form; a ‘de-hierarchization’ of visual perception, which dismantled the artwork and revealed its relations; and a ‘refusal to make’, which ‘de-historicized’ the medium, splitting it into opposing poles of idea and thing (mono).footnote44 This trajectory—shaped by and accelerated through social unrest—de-reified the art-object in the first half of the 1960s, only to re-reify it in the late 60s and early 70s, through a split into Conceptual Art on the one hand, and post-Minimalist sculpture on the other.
Several famous Conceptualists—notably Yoko Ono and On Kawara—worked in the us, and others had followed by the mid-1960s after the end of Japanese Anti-Art and Neo-Dada. Many were attracted to Fluxus, and there was some overlap between this and Conceptualism in figures such as Ono. Works by these émigré artists often adopted a style closer to Western Conceptualism. Prefiguring the later cognitive mappings of the British-origin group, Art & Language, Arakawa’s pencil diagram, Sculpting No. 1 (1961–62), drew attention to the mental processes in art production: arrows led out of the frame, indicating the work’s conditions—an utterly dry statement about art’s autonomy. In Kawara’s date paintings (1966–2014), he laboriously hand-painted the date onto a monochrome canvas every day in the language of his location (which was typically New York), and placed it in a box lined with a local newspaper.
Prior to studying in the us from the mid 1950s, Yutaka Matsuzawa had composed increasingly abstract poetry, eventually formed only of ‘+’ and ‘-’ signs, believing that by transcending linguistic parameters the predicament of ‘discommunication’ and self-destruction could be overcome in a ‘universal language’.footnote45 It was actually in the us that Matsuzawa became interested in Shingon Mandala, a form of Japanese Buddhism, and decided to shift his practice from poetry to ‘art through words’, but unlike Ono and Kawara he returned to settle in Japan. In 1964 he claimed to have heard a voice telling him to ‘Vanish Objects!’ and started using language-based conceptualism, performance and mail art to prompt ‘non-perceptual’ works, whose completion required contemplative visualization.footnote46
The imaginary work
As with much American Conceptualism, this movement beyond the art object was associated with a mystical universalism. Echoing Fluxus, Matsuzawa conceived ‘vanishment’ as a dissolving of barriers, claiming that artists should withdraw from the world of destructive things and move towards undifferentiated universal space. He sought a form of art that was insubstantial, spatially and temporally unlimited and accessible to all, his favoured medium being telepathy.footnote47 An advert for Independent 64 instructed, ‘Don’t believe in materials, don’t believe in sensations, don’t believe your eyes / Leave behind your artwork and bring the formless work (the imaginary work) to the venue.’ The work, ¥ Dead ¥ Body ¥ Remains, consisted of thousands of leaflets displaying Shingon textual configurations, which served as portable prompts for visualization. In Anti-Civilization Exhibition, he instructed viewers to evacuate the exhibition’s content—eyes closed or open—and replace it with their own. Disappearing Material Ceremony (1966) invited people to sit facing a canvas and watch it reduce in size day-by-day until it disappeared.
As tensions mounted over Vietnam and Anpo—due for renewal in 1970—artists began evaluating the effectiveness of recent practice, including Conceptualism. Mono-Ha (School of Things) emerged in 1968 from Tama Art University, a central site of student struggle, though its artists refrained from political radicalism in their work—a point of contention for younger students.footnote48 Disillusioned with the New Left and with the anti-institutional pretensions of Anti-Art, Mono-Ha expressed fatigue with the avant-garde’s admiration of industrial society, its logic of competitive novelty, a perceived anthropocentrism, and an imperialism of ‘creating’.footnote49 Conceptual Art—understood as the ‘creeping colonization’ of the material by the idea, and the work by the artist—epitomized the imposition of human consciousness, and thus appeared a quintessentially modernist practice. Also lacking hope in any pure Japanese art form, Nobuo Sekine declared: ‘a movement is viable only if it lacks a prospect or vision. We must start from that.’footnote50 Mono-Ha rejected Conceptualism, seeing transformative potential in the construction of a new philosophy of perception, which could forge a ‘third way’ between divisions of East and West, left and right, in which the world appeared stuck.footnote51
Other artists were more negative still. Bikyōtō (Artists Joint-Struggle Council), founded in 1969 by Hori Kosai and Naoyoshi Hikosaka, questioned the role of the radical artist, and their complicity with institutions they sought to criticize; drawing on the student slogan Jikohitai (self-negation), they encouraged artists to negate their own bases of expression. Grappling with the limit-point of avant-gardism, Bikyōtō advocated a direct dismantling of ‘the power structure of art’ by shutting down exhibitions, but the group splintered following the student movement’s defeat. Though opposed to Mono-Ha’s inward-facing practice, subgroups like the Bikyōtō Revolution Committee also abandoned direct politics after 1970 to focus on institutional critique.footnote52 Bigakkō, an alternative art school where many conceptualists taught, emerged in 1969 as a refuge and site for the formation of freethinking artists fit for political action. Matsuzawa’s 1973 seminar series Final Art consisted of discussions and contemplations: students stood on the spot all day with ‘nothing’ written on them. But after the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973, the mass movements with which Japanese neo-avant-gardes had been closely connected lost their unifying focus.
III. WESTERN EUROPE
With Western Europe’s post-war artists facing an obliterated landscape and wilted avant-garde, Abstract Expressionism was symbolic of reconstruction by the us. While the new American art circulated through the 1950s due to us cultural policy and connections between artists, its generalization in private galleries did not come until the 1960s. Art Informel emerged as a European counterpart, abandoning geometric abstraction to express spontaneity through gestural techniques of dripping, blotting, spraying. But as in the us and Japan, from the late 1950s an exhausted abstract painting gave way to a range of antagonistic neo-avant-garde activities. Along with the personal networks connecting these regions—which had developed through the post-war era—these established a base for later Conceptualism.
Zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility
The famous trajectory of Yves Klein—child of Art Informel painter Marie Raymond—may serve as a microcosm for broader tendencies here. Returning to Paris in the mid-1950s from travels in Western Europe and Japan, on which he had encountered Rosicrucianism and Zen, Klein began exhibiting monochromes, which signalled the immaterial by eradicating textural particularity.footnote53 But like many proto-conceptualists, Klein playfully revealed the conditions of art’s autonomy: a book, Yves: Peintures, documented the production of various fabricated works. His display of eleven identical but differently-priced monochromes in 1957 extended the investigation to the realm of value. 1958’s Le Vide was a white room displaying an empty cabinet, which thousands of guests queued to be shown.footnote54 His final step, Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (1959–62), was to sell ‘zones’ of immaterial space to willing collectors, offering certificates of ownership in exchange for gold. He gave each the option to burn the certificate, at which point he would throw the gold into the Seine.
Economic growth stimulated the art market, and dealer galleries multiplied throughout Western Europe, some of which engaged with key us dealers, importing Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, sometimes with two-way exchanges. But tensions around the burgeoning market and limitations of abstraction surfaced within the Nouveau Réalisme movement, which Klein joined in 1960, and which used various approaches to return to ‘real things’. In 1960, responding to Klein, Arman stuffed the Iris Clert Gallery with objects, creating a material inversion of Le Vide which retrospectively illuminated the spatial dimension of Klein’s work and extended his critique of institutional space to commodity culture.footnote55Nouveaux réalistes created sculptures in Paris streets, often out of rubbish, while removing paintings from the Musée d’Art Moderne, declaring it an institutional ‘void’.
As with Japan, the aesthetics of abstract globality were less widespread than in the us. In West Germany, Joseph Beuys opposed avoidance of the fascist past by ritualistically evoking the national. In Vienna, rejection of the art object had a performative rather than conceptualist character, with the Actionists first creating ritualizations of ‘action painting’ that echoed those of Gutai, then from the mid-1960s abandoning abstract painting altogether for social and public events which sought to purge a repressed fascism through bodily debasement.footnote56valie export’s late 1960s agitational feminist performances had some resonances with Adrian Piper’s challenges to mainstream us Conceptual Art, but the critical object was Actionism, whose motif of debasement she extended by forcing the public to enact it within everyday situations.
In the uk, Minimalism was in the air by the mid-1960s: while working as a civil-engineering draftsman, Rasheed Araeen had independently developed a kind of sculpture that incidentally resonated with work in New York, while some of the artists who would go on to form the Art & Language group were engaged in simple deconstructions of conventional artistic media—and attacks on Greenberg. Antipathy towards Greenbergianism was also in evidence in John Latham’s event-oriented work. Still and Chew (1966) famously had St Martin’s students masticating a library copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture, which was then fermented—apparently punning on the word ‘culture’. In a gesture that recalled Duchamp’s 1930s Boîtes-en-valises, Latham later exhibited the jar inside a briefcase with relics of the event—chemicals, powders, Greenberg’s book, and the resulting letter of dismissal from his teaching post at St Martin’s.
But the first emphatically Conceptualist exhibitions from 1967 lagged shortly behind—and took impetus from—New York, with Serielle Formatione (1967) in Frankfurt giving nods to the Minimalist-influenced Primary Structures. Private collectors from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands were early supporters of Conceptual Art, acting as a hinge between artists and public museums, which endorsed Conceptualism in the early 1970s. Among these, Konrad Fischer (Dusseldorf), Yvon Lambert (Paris) and Gian Enzo Sperone (Milan) were key in spreading and consolidating it in the region and securing the reputation of many artists, including some from the us. Most conceptual artists and exhibitions had direct relations with these dealers, and with New York.footnote57
The German conceptualist Hanne Darboven lived in New York in 1966–68, mixing with LeWitt, Kosuth and Carl Andre. After this she began her serial drawings: numerical sequences derived from the Gregorian calendar through formulas that produced endless variations. Following LeWitt’s mantra that ‘the idea is the machine that makes the art’, Darboven’s laborious mental performances evacuated subjective expression. Although she was working in New York, her first solo exhibition actually took place at Konrad Fischer Gallery in 1967, launching her into the centre of the Western European conceptual scene. Following Michael Baldwin’s trip to New York the previous year, 1968 saw the formation of Art & Language in Britain; they were exhibited at New York’s Dwan Gallery shortly after. By the early 70s they had a New York branch, and Kosuth was involved with the group’s journal.
Art as idea as eagle
But while Conceptualism spread at this time, resistances to it tightened. zock—an inflammatory collaboration of the actionist Otto Muehl and Vienna Group writer Oswald Wiener—declared Pop Art, Minimalism, Land Art and Conceptualism enemies of their now anti-cultural gestures.footnote58 An anti-institutionalism was developing amid student uprisings and general strikes, with protests against the Venice Biennale and Documenta 4, and an occupation of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. In 1968, Marcel Broodthaers, at one time a member of the Belgian Groupe Surréaliste-revolutionnaire, began his travelling exhibition, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles—a many-faceted work of institutional critique that managed to be ‘conceptual’ while playfully sketching the aporias that art faced in the dawning conceptual moment. The eagle here was both an emblem of Conceptualism—Broodthaers would affirm the ‘identity of the eagle as idea and of art as idea’—and a metaphor for the prospect of art taking flight as it encountered the limits of traditional media.footnote59
In 1969, three key exhibitions consolidated Conceptualism in Western Europe, all organized by Fischer. Op Losse Schroeven opened at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam before touring Europe, and When Attitudes Become Form: Works–Concepts–Processes–Situations–Information was curated by Harold Szeeman at Kunsthalle in Bern and then Charles Harrison at the ica in London. Both reflected the diversity of the moment, displaying Minimalist, Arte Povera, Land Art and Conceptualist works alongside one another. As its title suggests, Konzeption–Conception, at the Städtische Museum, Leverkusen, took a clearer Conceptualist turn, exhibiting no three-dimensional works, only the idea, sketch or description.
The commercial capacity of this new art was now indisputable. When Attitudes Become Form was a landmark event in art-based marketing, sponsored by us tobacco firm Phillip Morris, which praised its ‘innovation’.footnote60 Fischer’s ambition was to bring together the best international art of the moment, his trilingual catalogue—English, German and French—indicating the proposed audience. But as in the us, this internationalism was limited: artists were either from North America or Western Europe, or else had studied, lived and exhibited in these regions for several years. The commercial success of Documenta 5 in Kassel (1972) was the climax of the initial conceptual period in Western Europe. Again, of the 164 artists exhibited, only one described himself as residing outside the us and Western Europe—Michael Buther, from Morocco. By 1973, with most major museums having presented solo shows and large group exhibitions under the banner of Conceptualism, it had been firmly institutionalized.
IV. SOVIET UNION AND EASTERN EUROPE
In the ussr and Eastern Europe, autonomous art faced more opposition from officialdom than from radical artists. Currents of Surrealism, Cubism and Expressionism were tolerated but ignored by official Soviet media, but audiences for experimental art—which typically walked a legal tightrope—were small.footnote61 Such conditions led many artists to emigrate to the us or Western Europe, where some became key conceptualists.footnote62 But restrictions on cultural production, presentation and travel of course varied between states and over time, and in some areas control was relatively light. Some ‘alternative spaces’ had emerged in the late 1950s, where artists generated and exchanged ideas, held critical seminars and exhibitions, and for most of the 1960s there would be little direct censorship of experimental art in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Although artistic production was regulated—with ‘unofficial’ artists (i.e. those not working for the state) having to submit work to Unions of Visual Artists—these permitted some forms, as did those in Yugoslavia, which remained more connected to the European art scene.
If Greenbergian modernism was not at stake, familiar neo-avant-garde tropes were in evidence. Localized actions and quasi-ritualistic demonstrations, seeking to collapse art into life in the name of individual freedom, were common in the 1960s. Against state control and instrumentalism they emphasized the pointless and playful, aiming to puncture the passivity of participants and spectators through unexpected situations. In Walk Around Nový Svět (A Demonstration for All the Senses) (1964), the Czech group aktual led a small group around Prague, where they encountered staged events that stimulated different senses—a sculpture made of dresses; a closed space full of potent smells.footnote63 Affinities with Fluxus sparked direct relations from 1965, in which Milan Knížák played a central role, strengthening the region’s international connections.footnote64
While there was a rejection of the art-object, of conventional technique and of institutions, this was driven in part by a need to be covert and anonymous, and by the inaccessibility of materials. Much work was less professionalized than Western Conceptualism, and less routinely documented, marked by ambiguous, flexible and makeshift activities, but there were clearly parallels. In 1965’s Happsoc 1, Slovakians Stano Filko, Alex Mlynárčik and Zita Kostová sent invitations to an imaginary exhibition in which all life in Bratislava from 2–8 May would be the artwork. The cards indexed the work’s material: 138,036 women, 128,727 men, 49,991 dogs, 18,009 houses, 165,236 balconies, 40,070 water pipes in homes, 35,060 washing machines, 1 castle, 1 Danube, 22 theatres, 6 cemeteries and 1,000,801 tulips.footnote65 And a familiar utopian universalism was in evidence in Fluxus East’s Keeping Together Manifestation (1967): March was declared the month of ‘worldwide togetherness’, and thousands of letters were sent out asking for the cooperation of states, embassies, militaries, factory committees and priests in spreading ideas of human solidarity.
From 1965—preceding both Kawara’s more famous date paintings and LeWitt’s pronouncements on the art idea as a ‘machine’—Roman Opałka began the Infinity Paintings in which he would effectively turn the rest of his life into a conceptual artwork.footnote66 Every day for eight hours he painted sequences of numbers in white paint onto black canvas, starting from the top left and allowing the paint to trail off before he reloaded the brush. Over a period of 46 years he made 233 such canvases—conceived as ‘a single work, a single life’—ending on 5,607,249, before his death in 2011. From 1972 onwards he began making each canvas one per cent whiter, adding a more pronounced visual dimension to his progression towards numerical infinity and his own finitude. Opałka’s desire to reach ‘white/white’ before he died—he succeeded in 2008—indicates the meditative function of the work, binding his accelerating labour to the passing of his life.
Following the Soviet invasion in 1968, some Czechoslovakian artists withdrew into meditative practices, paralleling inward-turns seen elsewhere. Permitted to go to New York—although temporarily incarcerated en route—Knížák abandoned disruptive action to analyse the transformative potential in negating conditions of everyday experience. In Lying Ceremony (1968), he instructed students to lie silently on the floor blindfolded for long durations. In the Sartrean Difficult Ceremony (1969), small groups were to occupy a deserted space together for 24 hours without eating, drinking, speaking or sleeping, exiting silently afterwards. Prompted by a deflating sense that anything could be art, he was seeking forms of thought that could not be conventionally communicated or interpreted, regarding introspection as transformative; the adequate response to repressive control.footnote67 Questions of collectivity now began from the assumed separation of individual participants.
Instances of Conceptual Art proper occurred increasingly in the 1970s, when its ‘pure’ form was being challenged in the us. A rare exhibition—In Another Moment—took place in Belgrade in 1971, showcasing local artists alongside us-based Conceptualists. But restrictions on travel made publications and mail art more important: postcards, pamphlets and books were to communicate ideas throughout East and West, and major Conceptualist texts circulated—language and the idea taking on a particular charge under conditions of censorship. In Imagination (1971) Hungarian artist László Beke sent requests to 28 Eastern Europeans to submit ideas for artworks on paper with the prompt, ‘An artwork is nothing but the documentation of an idea’; much like us-centred catalogue exhibitions, the work was only accessible as a publication of proposals.footnote68 From 1970 Endre Tót, another Hungarian and hitherto an Art Informel painter, began paring his work back to the most minimal possible content to get it past the censors, thematizing such reductions while satirizing bureaucracy for a Western audience: My Unfinished Canvases (1971) was a catalogue of empty rectangular frames giving only dimensions, printed in the West; I am glad that I could have this sentence printed (1971) was just that sentence illegally printed onto card in Pest and reprinted in the West. Despite the empty, tautological quality of this gesture, Tót refused any identification with Kosuthian Conceptualism; the object here was less art as such than the difficulty of its production under specific political conditions.footnote69
In the Soviet Union itself some key figures were ‘official’ artists who also experimented with other forms. Officially an illustrator, Ilya Kabakov ran into trouble with the state in the 1960s for drawings exhibited in Italy by a pci member. In the 1970s he turned in an increasingly conceptual direction, exploring questions of authorship in fictitious artist biographies. This practice—which seems in part to have been a way of reflecting on the frustrations of the artistic career under Soviet conditions—also occurred around the same time in the work of advertising designers Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, originators of Sots (Socialist) Art—a kind of Pop Art stemming from cynicism about Socialist Realism. By the mid-1970s the poet Lev Rubinstein was filling ring-binders with library cards bearing the abstract imperatives of a textual form that Boris Groys has compared to machine algorithms, resonating with both Western Conceptualism’s ‘aesthetics of administration’ and the instructions for pieces from figures such as Ono.footnote70
Universal art history
Unofficial artists had no galleries, museums, media or art market.footnote71 Thus themes of institutional critique or opposition to the commodity were of little relevance, and formally similar practices had different meanings. Given the difficulty of gaining any audience, the issue of art’s public itself loomed particularly large. In 1976, Andrei Monastyrski organized the first of many Collective Actions. In these the focus of artistic activity was shifted from objects to the creation of fleeting events, to the active construction of a public, to documentation and to discussion. In a typical example, an audience was assembled and driven to a snow-covered field—the white of which, it seems, inevitably recalled Malevich—on the edge of a forest a couple of hours outside Moscow. There an event was staged, which the audience would be invited to interpret, the results of which would then be compiled and circulated among participants.footnote72
In 1979 Igor Chelkovsky, an artist who had emigrated to Paris, started the journal A-Ya, published in both Russian and English with copies to be smuggled into the Soviet Union. Groys introduced the first volume with a piece on ‘Moscow Romantic Conceptualism’, presenting these Soviet artists to the West—though he was criticized by some for using this term, with its apparent suggestion of derivation from Western forms.footnote73 But if us Conceptualism in particular was often oriented to the abstractly universal, this found a counterpart in the altogether different conditions of the Soviet Union. According to Groys:
The place in which Russian unofficial artists situated themselves as artists was neither the Western art market (because they had no access to it) nor the Soviet official art system (which they despised). Rather, they situated themselves in universal art history—a space that included all past and present artistic practice but at the same time was transcendent in relationship to any past or present art institutions. This universal art history existed, of course, only in the imagination of the Russian unofficial artists—it was purely a utopian space.footnote74
V. LATIN AMERICA
In Latin America—the key test-case in the ‘global conceptualism’ narrative—neo-avant-garde art practices were concentrated in the emerging centres of São Paulo and Buenos Aires. Suppliers of food and raw materials during the Second World War, Brazil and Argentina had begun experiencing high growth rates, population explosions, urbanization and an expansion of education. With modernization came a flurry of new institutions with internationalist agendas, such as the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, which—funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations—began to transform itself from a private modernist painting collection into a major site of experimental practice, offering artists funds for travel. São Paulo’s Biennale was established in 1951, the second in the world after Venice. While many Latin American artists remained tied to the European scene, with the relocation of the artistic centre to New York, discourses increasingly hinged on the hegemony symbolized by Abstract Expressionism and its false universalism.
In 1959 a coalition of Brazilian artists broke with the Concrete Art in which they had been working, criticizing its rationalism, redefining art as an existential strategy and calling for a harmonization of sensory and mental experience. ‘Neo-Concretism’ rejected pictorial representation and two-dimensionality, conceiving of artworks as living organisms, and turned increasingly to the human body.footnote75 Lygia Clark’s Nostalgia of the Body (1964) abandoned the art-object to examine the bodily sensations experienced in collective processes. Often seen as paralleling interventionist and participatory strains of Conceptualism, due to its proposals for the reinvigoration of the spectator, Clark’s work was also in tension with ‘purer’ forms.
The dominant narrative about Latin American Conceptualism—suggested in the 1970s but consolidated in the 1990s—has been simple: it inverted the North American version.footnote76 Against the alleged formalism of us Conceptualism, it has typically been presented as uninterested in formal considerations; seeking direct political intervention; characterized by collective strategies and community-building; unmediated by cultural institutions. This narrative was partly motivated by a desire to uncover the radicalism and particularity of certain 1960s and 70s practices in the face of their neutralization by the 1990s art market. But reducing the real tensions of us-based work to formalism risks essentializing both poles, as Miguel López has argued.footnote77 After all, there was plenty of radical art activism in the us too, often at the fringes of Conceptualism, while at the time, most artists working in Latin America rejected the Conceptualist banner, identifying it with the hegemonic culture.footnote78 The practices that crystallized in the region in the 1960s echoed as well as diverged from those elsewhere. Here too, artists focused on circuits of information, distribution and exchange. In 1966—three years before Siegelaub’s catalogue shows—Argentinian artist Roberto Jacoby produced a catalogue for a non-existent exhibition. But just as Soviet ‘conceptualism’ had other resonances under tight state control, so did these Latin American tactics under military regimes: artists were concerned with censorship, the centralization of information, and the hegemony of often inaccurate narratives.
Ontologies of media
Jacoby’s 1966 manifesto, ‘A Media Art’, written with Eduardo Costa and Raúl Escari, proposed using mass media to create a new art with the modernist goal of thematizing mass media as such, while echoing the McLuhanism of the time, and the Situationist notion of ‘spectacle’. The newly omnipresent media had ‘de-realized’ objects, rendering them ‘pretexts’ for the operation of the media apparatus itself. Through an ontological inversion, the very form of mass media had assumed logical primacy and the act of transmission had gained priority over the constitution of the object, until what was said no longer mattered. The role of art was to reveal this. Thus the group enticed the press to publish a report of a made-up event, Happening for a Dead Boar (1966), before denouncing its falsity, and thereby highlighting the unreliability of mass media, while signalling their potential as alternative sites of practice. Responding to this, Argentine essayist Oscar Massota’s 1967 text ‘After Pop, We Dematerialize’ used the concept of ‘dematerialization’ before Lippard’s famous 1968 identification of this word with Conceptualism.footnote79 The meaning, however, was distinct, registering not a formal choice—an emphasis on thought-process—but a deeper social logic. Opening with an epigraph from El Lissitsky’s ‘Future of the Book’—reprinted in these pages the same year—Massota perceived a tendency of material accumulation, characteristic of the age, to be accompanied by ‘dematerialization’.footnote80 Cycles of material expansion and consumption are eventually ‘relieved’ by the arrival of a dematerializing technology, just as the telephone relieved us from an overaccumulation of paper. The artist must utilize these tendencies to bring about change, which, for Lissitsky, meant radicalizing the book form—ideas that Massota saw crystallized in Jacoby’s art.
In 1968 artists became involved in provocative practices. In Confinement Action, Graciela Carnevale of the Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning) group publicized an exhibition in Rosario, a hotspot of Argentinian artistic radicalism. After assembling the audience she locked them inside the gallery, until a passer-by smashed a window to release them; the police banned further exhibitions on the premises.footnote81 The Experiences exhibition at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella marked a turning point. In Bathroom, Roberto Plate installed some toilet cubicles, inviting people to cover them in anti-state graffiti, which resulted in a police guard over the work, inscribed into it as a symbol of censorship. In protest, the artists destroyed their works on the pavement outside while distributing statements denouncing state repression. The same year, artists in Rosario staged a kidnapping of the Institute’s director. Their statement denounced bourgeois artistic autonomy, redefining art as the transformation of social reality and declaring that ‘the life of “Che” Guevara and the actions of the French students’ were ‘works of art of greater significance’.footnote82
After 1968, as military rule hardened in both Brazil and Argentina, many artists went into exile, gravitated back to painting, or gave up making art altogether. Following the removal of ‘subversive’ work from the Bahia Biennale, the closure of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio and the arrest of its director, a boycott of the 1969 São Paulo Biennale gained widespread support in the us and Western Europe. Some artists were gaining recognition abroad at this time: since 1965 there had been a conscious promotion of Latin American art in New York through the Rockefeller-founded Center for Inter-American Relations, and connections were increasingly developing with North American and Western European artists. After Lippard’s ‘awakening’ in Buenos Aires and Rosario, the museum curator Kynaston McShine’s survey of the area led him to select several artists for the 1970 Information show in New York.
But significant activity continued in Brazil, where Cildo Meireles—sceptical about the possibility of appropriating a centralized mass media—sought to extend artistic interventions into circuits of commodity exchange. He collected batches of empty Coca-Cola bottles, onto which he transferred (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) anti-imperialist messages which could only be seen when the bottles were full, such as ‘Yankees Go Home!’ above an initialled and dated statement of intent. These were returned to be refilled—presumably mechanically, so undetected—and distributed. He hoped receivers would redistribute their own messages, creating a participatory system of counter-information.
For Information, Meireles submitted only a photograph of three bottles, insisting that the work itself existed only in circulation. While he was critical of reductive forms of Conceptual Art—which appeared to celebrate a shift from manual to intellectual labour—he understood his work as a continuation of the deeper logic of Duchamp’s readymades.footnote83 By inserting a urinal into the bourgeois museum, Duchamp had materialized and demystified the institutional context supporting the aura and autonomy of the artwork. Extending this idea, Meireles sought to materialize existing circuits of distribution through gestures that would bring to the surface their political meaning, operating outside the gallery to forge a connection with the public, yet highlighting the separation of this relation, and its mediation through power structures. If, that is to say, in conceptual tendencies from Duchamp down to 1960s and 70s institutional critique, the modernist self-interrogation of art had crossed over into an avant-garde probing of art’s institutional conditions, here such activities were undergoing a further shift towards a kind of general social critique, in which art as such was no longer the fundamental stake. Yet, as long as they were residually identified as art, such practices could always be somehow reclaimed by art markets and institutions ever hungry for something new—a general aporia of avant-garde or critical art that is still with us today, as art’s status as a financial asset class deepens and the art bubble grows.footnote84
If a certain ‘conceptualism’ can be identified in global art practices from at least the 1950s, it is because neo-avant-garde practices in general tended to probe the bounds of artworks and institutions, and this often involved a foregrounding of the ideational as opposed to the traditionally aesthetic. Rather than simply inverting the priority of aesthetic and cognitive within an otherwise unaltered art-object,footnote85 such practices displaced that object and its swarm of institutional experts, recoding its presentational format as information; snippets of documentation; instructions or imperatives. With this came a potential for the work to be communicated and distributed widely, rapidly, cheaply, and in its very form it thus harboured a potential to be the global art par excellence.footnote86 Conceptual Art proper was a specific crystallization—and later, institutionalization—of this broader tendency, in the identity formations of transnational artistic networks centred on New York, and it was surely at least in part their hegemonic position that enabled this term to become the eponym for a whole global period in art practice.
Conceptual Art’s serial negations often involved the conjuring of an abstract universalism, projecting an infinite potential inclusion, sometimes mediated through the deepening telecommunications infrastructure, often mystical. Its ‘melancholic modernism’ sought to redeem the radical utopianism of avant-garde abstraction by projecting an imaginary collectivity.footnote87 This global imaginary offered itself up for the contestation proper to a hegemonic pole: sometimes the Conceptualist identity was refused outright, and sometimes its boundaries and content were disputed. The pushes for a maximally-inclusive retrospective definition in the 1990s were fitting extensions of this logic. But the fact that these took place in the altered context of a restructured capitalism meant that the question of ‘the global’ had become altogether different. From utopian projections of a global unification in the abstract space of art to the actual unity of a single world market, scoured by art institutions.footnote88 This is the great irony in the history of Conceptualism’s reception.