Conceptual Art: An Introduction

Tom Marioni, My First Car, 1972, De Saisset Gallery, Santa Clara, California (photo from Performance Anthology: Source Book of California Performance Art, eds. Carl E. Loeffler and Darlene Tong)

Tom Marioni, My First Car, 1972, De Saisset Gallery, Santa Clara, California (photo from Performance Anthology: Source Book of California Performance Art, eds. Carl E. Loeffler and Darlene Tong)

In 1972 the De Saisset Art Museum at Santa Clara University in the San Francisco Bay Area gave the artist Tom Marioni several hundred dollars to help cover expenses for mounting an exhibition of his work at the institution. Instead of using the money to purchase art materials, Marioni bought an older model used car, a Fiat 750, which he carefully maneuvered into the museum for the opening of his show. The vehicle, parked on top of an oriental rug, formed the centerpiece for this exhibition, titled My First Car. Was this really art, or was it a scam to get the museum to pay for a car the artist wanted? After learning about the show, the University President concluded that it was more of the latter and ordered the show closed. Presumably he was put off by how My First Car profited Marioni without involving any technical skill or hard work on the part of the artist.

Not just a prank

Marioni’s work was in many ways typical of the late 1960s and early 1970s art practices that came to be known as Conceptual art. As the term suggests, Conceptual art placed emphasis upon the concept or idea, and deemphasized the actual physical manifestation of the work. Thus an artist did not need manual skill to produce his work, and in fact could get away with not making anything at all. Rather than being a mere prank (as many dismissed it at the time), Marioni’s work was a proposal for a new kind of art that deliberately disavowed art’s traditional role as a showcase for the creative genius and technical abilities of the artist.

Mel Bochner, Measurement Room, 1969 (The Museum of Modern Art)

Mel Bochner, Measurement Room, 1969, tape and letraset, dimensions variable (The Museum of Modern Art)

Marioni’s appropriation of a car is only one example of a number of very diverse art practices that are grouped under the term Conceptual art. Refusing to work in any one medium, and especially hostile to the painting and sculptural traditions in Western art, Conceptual artists would broaden their approach to art-making to include just about any material: text, photography, found objects, and even the physical space of the gallery, as long as there was a conceptual dimension that emphasized a set of principles or process involved in producing a given artwork, rather than a finished product.

Take the artist Mel Bochner’s Measurement Room, for example, a work that consisted of labeling gallery walls with numbers to indicate each wall’s dimensions. In the place of attractive objects and captivating imagery, Bochner presented emotionless, mechanical text overlaid onto a pre-existing space. Art’s new role, as proposed by Conceptual artists, was to convey information in the most straightforward, objective manner as possible and to engage the viewer within their immediate environment (instead of presenting a transcendent and imaginary world that accentuated the pleasures of looking).

Minimalism as precursor

Carl Andre, 144 Aluminum Square, 1967, aluminum, 144 units, 1 x 365.8 x 365.8 cm (Norton Simon Museum)

Carl Andre, 144 Aluminum Square, 1967, aluminum, 144 units, 1 x 365.8 x 365.8 cm (Norton Simon Museum)

Conceptual art constituted a dramatic departure from traditional art-making, but it did not come out of nowhere. Minimalism, the movement that directly preceded Conceptual art and the style that dominated the 1960s, conceived of art not as something internally complete and detached from the everyday world (a view that had been strongly held by the Abstract Expressionists throughout the 1950s), but rather as something that related to both its site of display as well as the viewer’s body. A Minimalist work like Carl Andre’s 144 Aluminum Square, for example, offered a spare, industrially-produced, geometric installation that was radical because it made spectators think of the floor on which it was placed and how their bodies related to it (by trampling on it!).

Emerging out of Minimalism, a Conceptual work like Bochner’s Measurement Room also made viewers aware of the proportions of the physical gallery space and encouraged them to compare how they measured up to the room’s dimensions. Minimalism, however, always maintained a reliance on a physical object, which was, in many cases, a highly finished and aestheticized form that lent itself to being traded on the art market and shown on gallery circuit. By contrast, Conceptual works like Measurement Room and My First Car not only departed from the conventional media of painting and sculpture, but moreover, their unusual forms prevented them from being easily sold or collected.

The art market

With the explosive expansion of the contemporary art market in the 1960s that included high auction prices for living artists (previously it was only dead European masters who fetched such prices), one of the main concerns of artists in the 1960s was that art had become increasingly commodified, and yet artists weren’t the ones benefiting from the growing market. At the mercy of dealers, collectors, and museum trustees, artists felt they had little control over their own work and careers. So it is not entirely surprising artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s began to reject technical artistic skill and material objects altogether. To make an object the essence of the artwork was to be in thrall to the concerns of the market and art institutions.

A radical era

The 1960s and early 1970s was tumultuous and divisive era defined by the Vietnam War, passionate social liberation movements (including the Black Power, Feminist, Chicano, and Gay Liberation Movements), as well as a massive countercultural youth rebellion. The emergence of such a radical practice as Conceptual art should be understood as part of this oppositional culture that envisioned a radically new world. To the new generation of Conceptual artists, the old rules of art making and the traditional art establishments could feel just as oppressive as the institutions of the state or police felt to the youthful protester on the streets.

Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, c. 1967-72, pigmented ink jet print (photomontage), 44 x 60.3 cm (The Museum of Modern Art)

Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, c. 1967-72, pigmented ink jet print (photomontage), 44 x 60.3 cm (The Museum of Modern Art)

The backdrop of immense social upheaval in the 1960s and early 1970s relates to another important aspect of Conceptual art: the sense that it was entangled with larger social and political realities. In a series of collages called House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, Martha Rosler combined graphic images of the Vietnam War from the popular news journal Life with those of upscale interiors from the home decorating magazine House Beautiful to make direct reference to the Vietnam War.

In one collage, a middle-class housewife vacuums billowing drapes whose window reveals helmeted, rifle-wielding American soldiers in the trenches of war. This jarring juxtaposition not only commented on the war’s insidious effects on the home front, but also signaled a sense that art should engage with and could reshape the social world. Likewise, My First Car employed a similar technique of inserting a temporal, everyday object into a sacred space of high art in order to highlight the connectedness of the art sphere to the social, physical, and economic world. Not afraid to embrace the mundanity of the everyday world, Conceptual artists polluted the museum space with commerce, contemporary images of war, and even leaking motor oil.

Conceptual goes mainstream

Conceptual art had its precursors, notably early twentieth-century Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp, whose “readymades” (mass-produced objects like a urinal or bicycle wheel that he designated as artworks) also questioned the tenet that art be solely a demonstration of an artist’s creative and technical abilities. In the 1950s and early 1960s, movements such as Fluxus, Happenings, Neo-Dada, and Nouveau Réalisme also employed techniques we could categorize as Conceptual art from today’s vantage point. Embracing ephemeral and performative practices, and provoking viewers with sometimes aggressive assaults upon “good taste,” they, too, let go of the notion of art as refined object. In the decades following, Conceptual art strategies were taken up by feminist as well as postmodern artists, and today conceptualism has become a global phenomenon, with artists from around the world deploying video, photography, text, body art, performance, and installation, often interchangeably. Ironically, the strategies of Conceptual art, once a challenge to orthodox, mainstream modern art, have now become so fundamental that they are taken to be a given of contemporary art practice.

Cite this page as: Dr. Thomas Folland and Dr. Leta Y. Ming, "Conceptual Art: An Introduction," in Smarthistory, January 10, 2018, accessed July 13, 2024,