Conceptual art first came to widespread attention as the art of an information age dominated by communications, technology, and data during the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, the term “information art” is one of the many labels that Conceptual art attracted before consensus was reached on its name. As a watershed moment in the history of 20th-century art, Conceptual art occasioned new ways to think about what a work of art is, what an artist does, and how audiences respond to art. Most of these new ways of thinking had something to do with the activity of thinking itself, which Conceptual art prioritized as a core concern. “Idea art” is another name that circulated around this art as it first emerged. By placing less emphasis on the way art looks and more emphasis on the thought processes that go into and come out of it, Conceptual art deskilled the production of art objects and opened art both to unprecedented kinds of participation from viewers and to new contexts for its appearance in public.
In so doing, it also helped usher new mediums like video, performance, and installation into existence. Moreover, its artistic radicalism was in sync with radical political developments of the time, including the student movement of the 1960s, the New Left, and second-wave feminism. Outside of the United States, Conceptual art or something analogous to it arose more or less simultaneously around the world, and scholars now speak of a global conceptualism, which can be found not only in New York but further afield in Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Moscow, and beyond. Initially, the pioneering efforts of the dealer Seth Siegelaub, who showed the artists Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner at his New York gallery, attracted private collectors to Conceptual art. A few intrepid museums, most of them in New York, where the movement had its epicenter, were quick to follow. The Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum mounted exhibitions of Conceptual art in 1970. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis gave a retrospective exhibition to the Conceptual artist Mario Merz in 1972 (well before his 2008 inclusion in Life on Mars: 55th Carnegie International). However, most museums, Carnegie Museum of Art included, were not so forward thinking at the time and, for reasons as diverse as the institutions are numerous, neglected Conceptual art.
Today, the museum possesses a strong and varied collection of Conceptual art, and artists working within the movement’s expansive legacy are frequent participants in the Carnegie International. For instance, the museum owns three of On Kawara’s date paintings, one each from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These deceptively simple paintings are small monochromatic canvases save for Kawara’s inclusion of their date of creation on their surface. They stand as markers of time and of Kawara’s passage through it. The dates of these three—19 Jul. 68 (1968), Apr. 27, 1978 (1978), and Feb. 29, 1988 (1988)—correspond roughly to Conceptual art’s initial emergence, eventual dissipation, and first historical reassessment, but none entered the collection until 1991, when Kawara participated in the Carnegie International and won the Carnegie Prize. This retroactivity is indicative of how the museum has collected and exhibited Conceptual art. (There is, however, one noteworthy exception: Michelangelo Pistoletto and James Lee Byars, two artists frequently included in the ranks of Conceptual art, exhibited in the 1964 Carnegie International—before Conceptual art was identified as a movement.) The museum did not acquire work by a Conceptual artist until 1980 (a drawing by Sol LeWitt), and its first exhibition to prominently feature Conceptual artists was the 1985 Carnegie International. The first solo exhibition it dedicated to a Conceptual artist was held in 1989, when Marcel Broodthaers became the subject of a retrospective, and a work of his, Untitled (Les Portes du Musee) [The Doors of the Museum] (1968–1969), entered the collection in 1997.
Robert Bailey is assistant professor in the School of Art & Art History at the University of Oklahoma. He is writing a book about the Conceptual art collective Art & Language.