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Conceptual art

Last Updated: 2-Mar-2015

This guide is designed to provide an introduction to the literature of Conceptual art.  It also presents a selection of key primary source holdings in Conceptual art in the Stanford University Libraries.

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Family / Victor Burgin (1977) - Image by VRC / SUL

The term "Conceptual art" applies to work created during the 1960s and following which stresses not objects but ideas. What this has meant in practice ranges from the organization of object-less exhibitions (an exhibition consisting only of its prospectus and its participating artists' proposals, for example) to the production of statistics-filled publications to the photographic documentation of performances. Because so much of the work considered Conceptual exists (or survives past its creation) only in the form of photographs, exhibition catalogs, artists' books, and other ephemera, the primary sources in the field are especially rich.

Family ©1977 Victor Burgin.

Introductory texts

London : Phaidon Press, 1998.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 G63 1998
One of the strength’s of Godfrey’s approach to introducing Conceptual art is his foregrounding of the movement (if it can be considered one at all; this is certainly a subject for debate by its participants and theorists) by its predecessors: Dada, Neo-Dada, Happenings, Fluxus, Minimalism, Pop et al. Such contextual background highlights what was new and reactionary about the art of the 1960s and 1970s, and what was a continuation of earlier theoretical and stylistic explorations. Godfrey’s classification of the varieties of Conceptual art is similar to that of Anne Rorimer in her New Art in the 60s and 70s (serialism, linguistic focus, institutional critique, photograph as document, etc.), but he places more focus upon formal matters, gallerists and collectors, work by non-American artists, and parallel movements outside of the visual arts.
London ; New York : Phaidon, 2002.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 C587 2002 F
As with all of the texts in the Themes and Movements series, Osborne's includes a lengthy survey essay that is nuanced enough to provide a cursory introduction to the forerunners, practitioners, theories, and pervasive themes of Conceptual art. Its biggest value lies, however, in its large set of well-annotated images and its thematically organized compendium of [sometimes abridged] textual primary sources. It includes such iconic essays and transcribed documents as Sol LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," Joseph Kosuth's "Art After Philosophy," and Seth Siegelaub's "Artist's Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement" (The original of this last item can be found in our Locked Stacks collection; it is also addressed in detail in Maria Eichhorn's set of interviews, The Artist's Contract.).
London : Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6490 .R67 2001
Rorimer's thorough survey takes a thematic approach, dividing the topic of Conceptual art into sections treating photography, the changing meaning of "medium," the use of systems, the exploration of subjectivity, and the concept of site. She places extended focus upon individual artists and specific works as they apply to these themes and provides a comprehensive historical and philosophical background for the artistic developments she is tracing. Indeed, aside from its somewhat plodding cadence, the book provides a remarkably complete introduction to Conceptual art; it can be considered the authoritative monograph on the topic. For a more nuanced discussion of the role of women artists and of influences from the other arts (music, literature, etc.), see Tony Godfrey's Conceptual Art. See also Rorimer and Ann Goldstein's exhibition catalog Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975, which introduces the topic through individual artist entries.
1st ed. London ; New York : Routledge, 2010.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 G64 2010
This relatively brief treatise serves two main purposes: to, as the title suggests, ease the uninitiated into the discourse of Conceptual art, and to provide a relatively (and sometimes deceptively) simple discussion of its philosophical engagement. The result is an introduction to the field that very methodically and unimposingly dissects what Conceptual art is in an ontological sense and suggests how one might appreciate it. An exhaustive survey it is not, but it does situate the movement in an art historical moment, provide a sense of what Conceptual art was and is responding to and breaking from, and, through examples, introduce the work of Conceptual artists from the late 1960s to the present. For a more theory-heavy set of essays on a similar topic, see Goldie and Schellekens' edited collection of essays, Philosophy and Conceptual Art.

Focused studies

Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press ; Vienna, Austria : Generali Foundation, c2006.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 A735 2006
An anthology of original essays by authorities in the field (the first four essays, by Benjamin Buchloh, Thomas Crow, Helen Moleswoorth, and Ricardo Basbaum, have been reprinted), this volume both revisits and reevaluates earlier interpretations of various aspects of Conceptual art and extends these interpretations into contemporary practice. Several of the authors revisit old themes in order to unearth the work of important yet relatively unknown artists of the 1970s (e.g., Christopher Williams, Jaroslaw Kozlowski, and Bas Jan Ader); some seek to challenge the fixity of Conceptual art's supposed theoretical opposition to other forms of artistic expression (Neo-expressionism, design); others discuss the work of more recent artists--some outside of the United States and Western Europe--who are not only extending but complicating Conceptual art's legacy. This a challenging text, one that might best be approached after one has a solid footing in the subject.
Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494.C63 M67 1996
Art Into Ideas covers the topic quite broadly and touches upon its largest themes: its theoretical underpinnings, its subject matter, its cultural and political engagements, and its varied physical forms. As it is a collection of previously, separately published essays, however, it is by no means an introductory survey; instead, it is, in a sense, a set of case studies. Chapter titles include "Robert Barry's Return to the Visible," "The Making of Wit: Joseph Kosuth and the Freudian Palimpsest," and "Sherrie Levine: Language Games." Morgan's intention is to allow the essays' juxtaposition to illustrate what he sees as the three modes employed by Conceptual artists: the structuralist, the systemic, and the philosophical. Still, the book might be equally useful as a more straightforward anthology, a source of critical thoughts on some of the key artists of the period.
Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6490 .A58 2011
Since the late nineteenth century, magazines have served as a medium for avant-garde artistic expression.  This "site" became especially important, however, when Conceptual art began to challenge where and when and how art might be represented.  Magazines themselves became more than publications; they became virtual galleries and experimental zones.  Gwen Allen (Ph.D., Stanford University) leads a methodical tour through eight of the most influential art magazines of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (including AspenAvalanche, and FILE), with descriptions of their beginnings, their cultures, and their key, countercultural contributions to the field.  An appendix provides a thorough list of additional artists' magazines published from 1945 to 1989.  For additional coverage, see Beatriz Colomina and Craig Buckley's Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines, 196X to 197X and Philip E. Aarons and Andrew Roth's In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955.
1st ed. Minneapolis, Minn. : Walker Art Center ; New York : available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, c2003.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » TR645 .M542 W354 2003
Fogle's excellent catalog, which accompanied an exhibition of the same name, delivers critical essays written especially for the exhibition, as well as historical texts from the era (Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, etc.), with twenty-five writings in all. Fogle's "Last Picture Show" and Stefan Gronert's "Alternative Pictures: Conceptual Art and the Artistic Emancipation of Photography in Europe" effectively demarcate the issues under investigation: the questionable status of the object, the photograph as document, claims of the original, etc., or, as Louise Lawler's photograph asks, "Why Pictures Now" (1981). Extensively illustrated. Matthew Witkovsky's Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and catalog, Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977, provides a more recent analysis of the period. For additional analysis and multiple examples of photography and land art, see the Miwon Kwon and Philip Kaiser's Ends of the Earth: Art of the Land to 1974, from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Oxford : Clarendon Press ; Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2007.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » BH39 .P474 2007
This book attempts to analyze Conceptual art using the language of philosophy, asking what constitutes Conceptual art (and how it might be defined as art at all), how Conceptual art and aesthetics intersect, what intellectual value Conceptual art carries, and on what level(s) Conceptual art should be appreciated.  In compiling the essays contained in this volume, the editors argue that this art does more than illustrate philosophy; it advances it.  For background information on some of the philosophical concepts discussed in the text, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
London : Ridinghouse ; [Norwich, England] : Produced in association with Norwich University College of the Arts ; Santa Monica, CA : Distributed in the US by RAM Publications, 2009.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 R53 2009
Many Conceptual artists first came to prominence not in New York or L.A. but in Europe, in galleries, museums, and fairs such as Konrad Fischer, the Lisson Galery, Art & Project, the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach, the Kunstmuseum, Basel, and the Venice Biennale.  This publication recounts the development and promotion of Conceptual art during the years 1967-77 through place-by-place and person-by-person descriptions--in some ways, a sort of parallel to Lucy Lippard's Six Years, though created many years later and with much more contextualizing commentary (and with references to movements such as Arte Povera, which were much more well known in Europe than they ever were in America).  Appendices include photographs of key art dealers, tables visualizing exhibition histories across time and space, interviews, and other rich data.  The Art & Architecture Library holds ample primary source material relating to the development of Conceptual art in Europe, including a collection of catalog boxes from the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach and the catalog for the seminal Dutch exhibition "Op losse schroeven."

Source texts

Köln : Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König ; New York : Distribution, D.A.P., Distributed Art Publishers, c2009.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 E33 2009
Centering around Seth Siegelaub's Artist's Reserved Rights Sales Agreement from 1971, Maria Eichhorn's interviews, dating from 1996-2005, address the issues of sales, ownership, and authenticity of Conceptual art. The interviewees--all artists with the exception of Siegelaub, John Weber (and art dealer), and Robert Projansky (a lawyer who advised Siegelaub during his composition of the Agreement)--describe their experiences and opinions regarding the Agreement's usefulness, legitimacy, and legacy. Many of the conversations expand into wider discussions of Conceptual art's meaning and value (both monetary and cultural). Eichhorn's interviews are part of a larger art project (also entitled The Artist's Contract); in this context Siegelaub's document gains meaning as not only a tool, but as a work of art itself.
London ; New York : Phaidon, 2002.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494 .C63 C587 2002 F
As with all of the texts in the Themes and Movements series, Osborne's includes a lengthy survey essay that is nuanced enough to provide a cursory introduction to the forerunners, practitioners, theories, and pervasive themes of Conceptual art. Its biggest value lies, however, in its large set of well-annotated images and its thematically organized compendium of [sometimes abridged] textual primary sources. It includes such iconic essays and transcribed documents as Sol LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," Joseph Kosuth's "Art After Philosophy," and Seth Siegelaub's "Artist's Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement" (The original of this last item can be found in our Locked Stacks collection; it is also addressed in detail in Maria Eichhorn's set of interviews, The Artist's Contract.).
Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1999.
Green Library » Bender Room » N6494 .C63 C597 1999
This collection of artists' statements, interviews, essays, and commentaries ranging in date from 1966-1977 is a valuable sourcebook and introduction to the contemporary literature. The introductory essays by editors Alberro and Stimson review the critical and political contexts surrounding the writings they've selected; their summary nature, however, is augmented by argument and commentary, making it clear that the entire text is not meant to be an exhaustive and unbiased anthology. Rather, the inclusions and exclusions follow an editorial trajectory, delineating the various models and ambitions of Conceptual art. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology becomes, therefore, both a guide for further study (Alberro and Stimson's notes are numerous) and its own Conceptual document. For a collection of artists' writings that integrates Conceptual art with other contemporary practice, see Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz.
[1st ed.] New York, Dutton, 1972.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6494.C63 M45
As in Lucy Lippard's Six Years, this collection of photographs, diagrams, drawings, essays, statements, and interviews (conducted by Meyer) provides contemporary documentation rather than outright analysis. As such, the task of defining and negotiating the field is left to the artists themselves (though Meyer's editorial hand is evident, of course, in her choice of artists to represent the subject). Joseph Kosuth, for example, is represented by his iconic essay "Art After Philosophy;" On Kawara by a selection of I Got Up postcards; the Bechers by a short essay describing "the function of cooling-towers" and by a sample of their typological photographs. Meyer's text serves today as both a source of primary texts and a larger primary text itself, an artifact of the field's early critical reception.
This book contains a set of nine previously unpublished interviews of Dennis Oppenheim, Seth Siegelaub, Robert Morris, Stephen Kaltenbach, Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson, and Douglas Huebler (Carl Andre and Joseph Kosuth also participated, but their interviews are not included in this publication.). All were conducted by Patricia Norvell in 1969, a year when the interviewees were concurrently producing their own innovative works of art and attempting to define their larger, more philosophical roles in reformulating the scope of the art world (N.B., one subject was Seth Siegelaub, not an artist but rather an influential art dealer and curator.). Although each interview varies according to the personality and interests of the individual, Norvell placed her own focus specifically upon each artist's relationship to objects, presentation, and documentation.
Lippard was a primary critic and theorist of Conceptual art; this book, however, provides not commentary but, instead, primary documentation. It takes the form of an annotated, thematic timeline: the chapters list books (including exhibition catalogs) published each year, followed by articles, statements, activities, and works arranged by month. Photographs illustrate selected works. The annotations are, for the most part, as documentary as possible (transcripts, excerpts of artists' statements, etc.). Lippard's editorial hand is most visible in her inclusions and exclusions; less so in her only occasional textual insertions. As such, the book performs as Lippard had envisioned: "to expose the chaotic network of ideas in the air, in America and abroad, between 1966 and 1971" (5).

Primary sources

Every Building on the Sunset Strip ©1966 Ed Ruscha

[Los Angeles] 1966.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Locked stacks (Small): Ask at circulation desk » TR654 .R86 1966
Ruscha's iconic 1966 accordion book is a prime example of the documentary, typological turn that photography had taken in the 1960s. Presented without commentary, the images provide a snapshot of the built/commercial environment in a particular segment of a particular city (one increasingly relevant to the contemporary art world) at a particular time--no more, no less.

© 1977 Victor Burgin. Used with permission. [view in expanded book viewer]

New York : Lapp Princess Press, c1977.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Locked stacks (Small): Ask at circulation desk » N7433.35 .U6 L37 1977 V.2
Victor Burgin's Family is one of eleven volumes published in a series in the late 1970s by Amy Baker's Lapp Princess Press. Baker began the series with the aim of providing a conceptual space for artists to explore the possibilities and restraints of the book form. Meant to be affordable, portable, and easily reproducible, Baker set the dimensions of each work at six inches square and selected papers and inks that were widely available to printers.

Burgin's response to his commission was to embrace the sequentiality that a bound book demands, presenting a textual narrative, a series of images, and a progression of upper- and lowercase letters. The thick paper pages, bound with a plastic spiral, mimic the design and simplicity of children's alphabet books. Yet, as in many of his other works, Burgin appropriates this simplicity in order to draw attention to the complex, unwritten cultural messages that photographs and other cultural objects can bear. As he textually describes the submission of family structure to the dictates of capitalism, he also employs ordinary, black-and-white photos in order to illustrate his point, the neutral-seeming images "absorbing" meanings in their juxtaposition with his text. And hidden in the letters, photos, and caption words on the right side of each page are the elements of three overarching concepts: F-a-m-i-l-y (spelled by the letters at the top corners), F-a-t-h-e-r (spelled by the first letters of the objects in the photos), and M-o-t-h-e-r (spelled by the first letters of the words beneath the photos). These three roles are always highly dependent upon, and influenced by, the socio-economic forces that surround them. 

Further reading on Lapp Princess Press:
Korner, A. "Interview: Amy Baker, Editor of Lapp Princess Press Ltd., Talks to Athony Korner." Drawing 1, no. 1 (May-June, 1979): 8-10.

The Red Book ©1999 Xu Bing

[S.l. : s.n.], 1999
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Locked stacks (Small): Ask at circulation desk. (Permission required from Art Librarian.) » N7349 .X8 R4 1999
The Red Book is one component of the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing's Tobacco Project, a set of works which explores the historical impact of the importation of tobacco products from the U.S. beginning in the late 19th century, the continuing influence of Chairman Mao in contemporary China, and the manner in which media and commercialization influence the structure of life in China today. Using tins of Zhonghua brand cigarettes, Xu Bing ink stamped quotations from Chairman Mao on the sides of the cigarettes; each tin provides one complete quotation to viewers when it is opened. The Art & Architecture Library acquired two of these tins displaying two different quotations, so that viewers might gain an important sense of the books' serial quality and political scope.

[One Month] ©1969 Seth Siegelaub

New York : The Author, [1969?]
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Locked stacks (Small): Ask at circulation desk » N7433.4 .S535 1969
Seth Siegelaub was one of the key figures in the development of Conceptual art in the late 1960s, curating shows that often contained no tangible objects (and, in turn, finding a niche in the commercial art market for these same non-objects). The catalog for the exhibition "March 1969" (more frequently referred to as One Month) is a document of just such a show. Artists such as Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Richard Long, and Lawrence Weiner were each given a page on which to create an artwork--an assignment which resulted in diagrams, tables, simple statements, and photographs. The resulting calendar was itself the show: a conceptual event composed of conceptual elements.

Walls Paper ©1973 Gordon Matta-Clark

[New York?] : Buffalo Press, 1973.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Locked stacks (Small): Ask at circulation desk » N6537 .M43 A4 1973
Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) is best known for his artistic practice of carving existing buildings during the period 1972-1978. Using a chain saw, Matta-Clark treated vacant buildings as raw, sculptural material. Influenced by the land art of Robert Smithson, Matta-Clark cut into and through buildings in an urban-based sculptural practice, calling his interventions “Anarchitecture.” He documented the cuttings in films and photographs which he subsequently exhibited in galleries, occasionally with fragments from the buildings themselves. In a series of “cut drawings” (1972–6) he developed his idea of the cut as a technique. Walls Paperfunctions in a similar vein. Based on colored photographs of peeling wallpaper from abandoned buildings, Matta-Clark cut each page in half horizontally. Maintaining their top/bottom orientation, he staple-bound the split pages in two sections, the top halves composing the top half of the book, and the bottom halves the bottom portion. One can flip through the top half and the bottom half of the book simultaneously, or vary the flipping to create new combinations between the top and bottom portions of the book.