Sam Francis

Untitled, 1984

106.7 X 73 inch


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A Guide to Print Editions Acronyms

Understanding Conceptual Art and how to appraise it


Conceptual art is an art movement that brings cynicism and trust issues. For some people, it is the end of creativity and sensible thinking. That’s because it involves making a piece of art from a concept alone without requiring an artistic object. And this to many people doesn’t sit well.

However, despite having that reputation, it still does have its appeal. But, as it can be ambiguous, those new to the art world can find it difficult to understand. Keep reading this guide to know what conceptual art is, its origins, and how you can appreciate it, among other things. 

What Is Conceptual Art?

Conceptual art focuses on the concept of the art instead of the finished art pieces. It was defined by Sol Lewitt in 1967 in his groundbreaking essay. He says that this art makes the idea the art.


Many people describe it as a set of strategies. But, this isn’t straightforward and can be confusing.  Generally, artists that use a conceptual art form have to make the planning and decisions before executing their art pieces. This planning is what is referred to as a set of strategies.


Here is a list of things that can be described as conceptual art:

•   Body art

•   Architectural drawings

•   Documents

•   Performance art

•   Photography

•   Sculpture

•   Music

•   Movement

•   Happenings

•   Installation

•   Earth and land art

Note that when defining conceptual art, the medium an artist uses doesn’t play a significant role. It’s why a physical form, while many would think it is conceptual art, may not be considered as it. 


An artist can use any medium to show his vision under conceptual art. The main goal is usually to challenge those seeing the piece to notice different characteristics of it or create art from controversial topics. 

What Are the Characteristics of Conceptual Art? 

Although all art cannot be the same, some traits are unique to a certain art style. Conceptual art mostly includes:

  •  Humor - many conceptual artists will use humor to convey their concept. They mostly poke fun at an idea.
  • Thought - conceptual art is a thought-provoking style. It makes viewers question the idea behind the art, the piece of art itself, its reflection on society, among other things.
  • Time - conceptual artists mostly want to express how the idea, space, people, etc., can change with time. 
  • Space - the aim usually is to make the viewer pay attention to the space surrounding a piece rather than the piece itself. Or make them concentrate on a specific space containing the piece of art. 


The reason behind developing conceptual art was to challenge the perception and standards of traditional art. However, note that a piece of art mustn’t display the above characteristics to be considered conception. It may be considered conceptual art even if it doesn’t display any characteristics above. 

Origins of Conceptual Art

Fountain was Duchamp’s first work, which he made in 1917. It featured other things apart from porcelain urinals and was referred to as a ‘readymade’ sculpture. That was to mean that it was a sculpture where the artists chose an existing piece of art and did some modifications. 


Duchamp made very few changes to this object. The most notable was turning it on the side and signing with an 'R.Mutt' pseudonym. He then submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists in New York as a piece of art.

But this art didn’t have anything that individuals expected in a gallery. It’s not a sculpture or a painting. The artist only picked an object and put it on a plinth. Therefore, it used very minimal skill, and worse, is that Marcel didn’t sign it with his name. Instead, he used R.Mutt as a joke as Mutt was a company that manufactured sanitary equipment.

He intended to test how the Society of Independent Artists would react to the exhibition. He was aware that he’d broken the society’s rules when he submitted Fountain to the exhibition.

However, note that Duchamp wasn’t competing with traditional art. Instead, he wanted to make a disruptive claim about art, that is, if an artist claims that the piece is art, it qualifies to be art.

From then on, many pieces were made under conceptual art. Now from this, we can see that, while conceptual art was first seen in 1917, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that many people started embracing it. However, since it took root, many artists have developed several art styles and movements afterward. 

Movements That Inspired Conceptual Art
Several movements and styles took place that inspired the birth of conceptual art. These include:
•    Minimalism
•    Fluxus
•    Neo-Dada
•    Pop Art
•    Surrealism
•    Abstract expressionism

Although some of these movements occurred co-currently with conceptual art, all started before this art type was defined and developed as its artistic expression.

Also, note that when conceptual art was accepted, many people changed their view of art and an artist. Therefore, it influenced the creation and evolution of many different styles and movements of art. 

Here are some art styles and movements that were inspired by the conceptual art movement:
•    Feminism Art
•    Social Issue Art
•    Found Object Art
•    Pictures generation Art
•    Identity Politics
•    Institutional Critique
•    Installation Art 

Minimalism and Conceptual Art
There are a few movements conceptual art is based on. However, minimalism is the most significant. That’s because as this art type was rejected, it needed a conventional medium to produce worthy and incredible installations.

The minimalism concept used here aims at reducing a piece of art to a minimum. The art could be so minimum to a point that it is only the concept that’s developed and it’s not released in a tangible form.

Note that all art, in one way or the other is conceptual as it is based on a concept. However, artists practicing conceptual art say that the concept itself is art. 

Breaking Down Conceptual Art into Categories
A few subcategories developed as art continued to grow. Most conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s can be assigned into three main subgroups. But note that you can define conceptual art more easily using several different categories, like: 

  • As an Idea - this installation or piece questions its purpose continuously
  • As Language and Words - it expresses texts, whether through painting, digital art, or mixed media artistically. 
  • Ideas as Photographs - most conceptual art is based on ideas or concepts. Artists combined it with performance modality to speak their vision. Thus, they documented the performance through films either photos or videos. 

An example of these subcategories includes Living Series by Jenny Holzer that expresses art as a language. In this piece, the artist describes life necessities using bronze plaques with short phrases. Another example is called Statements developed by Lawrence Weiner. Here, the art represents art as an idea as he explains ideas and concepts in short statements. 

The example of art as photography is seen in Every Building on the Sunset Strip done by Edward Ruscha. He mounted his camera on his truck and used it to take photos, then he documented this piece. 

But we should mention that conceptual art is vaguely defined. Therefore, it can be anything outside these three subcategories we have discussed. If a person wants to call their piece art, it is art. Because of this, appreciating conceptual art is hard. 


6 Masterpieces of Conceptual Art

#1. Red Square, White Letters (1962) - Sol LeWitt
According to Sol LeWitt, color in a piece of art drew attention to the art’s physical properties instead of the idea. Therefore, he released this piece that places color names on it.

So, instead of viewers responding to their perception of a certain color, they are forced to think about their idea of that color and how language delimits them. His 1967 publications, Paragraphs of Conceptual Art that was in the Artforum magazine, expressed the views of many conceptual artists.

Sol LeWitt explains here that the concept or idea is the most crucial element of conceptual art. Therefore, the artist makes planning and execution even before working on the piece of art. 

#2. One and Three Chairs (1965) - Joseph Kosuth
In this piece, Kosuth displays a physical chair and the definition of a chair and asks viewers to identify the real chair. Both the physical chair and the definition of the chair could be a reproduction of each other. So that’s the same thing as art as an object as it manifests the concept of art.

#3. Measurement Room (1969) - Mel Bochner
In 1940, Bochner started his measurement series that documented museum walls and doorways dimensions. He displayed these measurements using tape and Letraset stencils to full scale from the rooms that were measured.

In this art, the foreground has a black line and 82” measurement along the wall above the floor. You can spot the same lines on the floor-to-ceiling walls and the frame. Although Bochner doesn’t create the space, he forces viewers to have a different thought about it.

He focuses on space as a conceptual concept and analyzes art-defining institutions in this piece. 

#4. Following Piece, 1969 - Vito Acconci 
Following Piece documents an activity that happened every day in New York between 3rd-25th October 1969. It was among conceptual events and performance under the Architectural League of New York sponsorship. 

Acconci followed individuals around and wrote about his experiences following them. He used the body as his art’s object to explore a specific concept. This piece of art mainly focused on our body language but in a public manner instead of private. 

Acconci would select a random passerby, following his/her movements in public until they entered a private area. Then, he used these findings to demonstrate that our bodies are subjects to external forces, which sometimes we may not control. 

#5. 18. Feb 1973 - On Kawara

Unlike Bochner who focused on measuring space, On Kawara’s focus was on measuring time. He painted on a canvas the date 4 January 1966. Then he repeated this action on subsequent days in his series 'Today' or 'Date Paintings.' His paintings are stored in handmade cardboard boxes using newspapers in the days that they were designed. Some even have subheadings of an event or a thought that took place that day.

#6. Rhythm 10, 20 Knives, Tape Recorder (1973) - Marina Abramovic
Abramovic is known for her great contributions to performance art. This piece was among the first forays that she based on sound installation. However, she also used her body, which left her with some injuries. Marina here uses 20 knives to stab spaces between her fingers quickly. Whenever she pierced her skin, she would pick a different knife and not from those that were in front of her.

Conceptual art disrupts the claim of the traditional standards and ideas of art we are accustomed to. It shows us different creations and perceptions of art. The idea behind the conceptual art movement was inspired by minimalism.

Since it was defined, artists have been using different styles to create their pieces. Therefore, we can conclude that conceptual art is a big deal and although controversial, it’s not stopping soon.

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