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It's Art, Because They Say It's Art : Conceptualism is the subject of an exhibition reopening the Temporary Contemporary. Some thoughts from the artists included in the show, about the halcyon days of the '60s.

October 08, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

One could make the case that Conceptualism started when Marcel Duchamp attached a bicycle wheel to a stool and called it art.

With that action and others like it, he declared that art should take place in the mind rather than the eye, and that anything could be art simply by virtue of an artist declaring it so. Duchamp proposed the radical notion of approaching art-making in terms of strategy rather than technique in 1913, but it took most of the art world 50 years to catch up with him.

Duchamp's heirs took the form of an international art movement known as Conceptualism, which is the subject of "1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art," a show starting next Sunday that marks the reopening of exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art's auxiliary space, the Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo.

Conceptualism burst on the scene in the mid-1960s and remained a prominent part of avant-garde discourse for 10 years, and its key ideas are central to much critically acclaimed work of the '90s. In its earliest, pure form, however, Conceptualism was an arid, rigorous movement whose audience was primarily within the art world.

"Reconsidering the Object," organized by MOCA curators Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, showcases works in a variety of media by 55 artists who stubbornly insisted that the essence of art is that most ephemeral of things: a thought.

Drawing further inspiration from John Cage's revolutionary musical compositions of the '50s, the first works by Robert Rauschenberg and the Fluxus Movement of the early '60s (Fluxus was a poetic precursor to Conceptualism that was heavily laced with Dada), the first generation of Conceptualists rejected the macho bombast of Abstract Expressionism and the slickly packaged mass culture obsessions of Pop. They looked instead to philosophy and linguistic theory and approached art-making as a means of wrestling with defiantly uncommercial questions: How is meaning constructed? Why does it take the form that it does?

Herewith, some of the artists included in the show talk about what was on their minds during those halcyon days of the '60s:


Baldessari, one of the first to use text as a raw material for painting, will be represented by seven seminal paintings from 1967-68 .

In the early '60s, I was a painter working in a vacant movie theater in San Diego. My studio was literally filling up with paintings, and one day I looked around and thought: "Do I want this kind of life?" I had the feeling I was really on the wrong track and was slowly coming to the realization that there was more to art than painting and sculpture. So in 1965 I decided to stop painting.

Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis were teaching at UCSD then, and the spirit of change was in the air--everything was being rethought and was up for grabs. I was thinking about Duchamp, John Cage and the Fluxus people at the time and had come to believe that art should have a broader definition than sixth-generation Abstract Expressionism, which was pretty much what you saw in galleries then.

I decided to try to eliminate the hand of the artist and make clear, well-explained art out of text and pictures from magazines and newspapers. The idea of using photos and text in art was completely foreign then, and when I showed some of that work at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in the late '60s, she was shocked when some of it sold.

Working this way has become so much a part of that language that it's now a cliche, and you can't make any moves anymore, because too much history has accumulated around it. In the '60s, however, I felt like a dog looking at a forest, seeing countless trees and thinking, "So little time, so much to do!" Now we're down to one tree that hundreds of dogs have already pissed on.


In a radical re-evaluation of sculpture that involved using magazines as a creative vehicle, Graham attempted to eliminate the separation between artwork, the viewer and the environment.

Conceptualism was part of the utopian fantasy of the '60s, and it had a lot in common with things like the hippies' Digger movement [a Bay Area grass-roots organization that provided free food to the public]. It was a highly idealistic style that revolved around the belief that art should be available to everybody and shouldn't be about financial reward. Needless to say, ideals of this sort faded with the end of the '60s.

It all started for me in the mid-'60s, when I opened a gallery in New York as a meeting place and social experiment. I was totally naive when I began the gallery and it only survived for a year, but during that year I learned that galleries were dependent on magazines.

So after the gallery folded, I began making artworks designed to be disseminated through magazines, as an alternative to the gallery system.

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