Four Decades After Lucy Lippard's "Six Years," Is Conceptual Art Still Relevant?

On Kawara, "I Got Up, November 1, 1969," 1969, postcard
(© On Kawara; Photo: New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe)

If you want to understand the stakes of the “dematerialization of the art object,” look no further than the late British artist John Latham’s “Art and Culture,” the entrance piece at “Materializing Six Years: Lucy Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art” at the Brooklyn Museum. The piece mockingly takes its title from mid-century formalist art critic Clement Greenberg’s influential text: An open briefcase reveals a copy of Greenberg’s book, an overdue notice from the library, and vials containing the masticated pulp of its pages. The byproduct of a party where Latham invited guests to chew the pages of Greenberg’s book, the work takes the radical propositions of dematerialization quite literally, turning the bible of formalist art criticism into formless cud.

Casting off the cloth of the detached, Greenbergian art critic, Lucy Lippard played a crucial role, not only as a writer, but as curator and collaborator within the diverse artistic activity that’s now catalogued under the rubric of Conceptual Art. As she writes in the forward to the exhibition, Lippard and her circle “invented ways for art to act as an invisible frame for seeing and thinking rather than as an object of delectation or connoisseurship.” In their critique of the art object, they sought to remake the art world as a network of ideas to be shared, rather than a marketplace of objects to be bought and sold.

Named after her book, “Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972” (its unabridged title is a long-winded conceptual art joke), the exhibition includes the artists Lippard championed, mapping her evolution from questioning minimalist orthodoxy in her 1966 “Eccentric Abstraction Show,” to her engagement with Conceptual Art, to her turn towards feminism. In keeping with the feminist program of the museum’s Sackler Center, the scope of the exhibition goes beyond the six-year period of Lippard’s book: A curatorial epilogue summarizes her activities in 1973, the year she organized her first all-woman show.

Over 170 curatorial notes, exhibition checklists, posters, and artworks, from land artist Nancy Holt’s “Eccentric Abstraction” themed crossword puzzle, to German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies of vernacular architecture, to conceptual artist Doug Huebler’s written pledge to photograph every living person, form a densely packed, text-heavy, and mostly black-and-white husk around the Sackler Center’s permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s lush, vulvamorphic “Dinner Party.” Yet few works could be further from Chicago’s second-wave essentialist bonanza than Joseph Kosuth’s dry and logocentric “Titled (Art as Idea as Idea),” a blown-up dictionary definition of the word “word.” With his tautological dictum — “Art is the definition of art” — Kosuth’s meta-discursive brand of anti-formalism argued that art’s value lay in its capacity for self-referential commentary. In his words, “a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as a comment on art.”

Other artists were invested in expanding art’s parameters, bringing “art” to an asymptotic tango with “life.” In his “Live Airborn System,” Hans Haacke — now known as an outspoken practitioner of institutional critique — threw breadcrumbs off a Coney Island pier, imagining the flight-patterns of the ensuing flock of seagulls as an ephemeral artwork. A poster from the British art collective Art & Language’s “Air-Conditioning Show” proposed an objectless exhibition where an air conditioner would match the temperature of the gallery to that of the world outside. Bruce Nauman documented his friend William Allan catching a fish in the deadpan three-minute video “Fishing for Asian Carp.”

Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, an awakening antiestablishment counterculture, and the waning of the world order of the WWII generation, the dematerialized, soft Marxist strategies of Conceptual art make a certain sense. A stoner-hippie ethos can be read in Nauman’s goofy “Thighing (Blue),” — a four-and-a-half minute video portrait of the artist massaging his thigh — and in Lee Lozano’s “No Title (Grass Piece)” (1969), in which the artist followed a directive to “stay high all day, every day, [to] see what happens.”

Nevertheless, the byzantine pedantry of so much Conceptual Art seems at odds with Lippard’s activist streak. The impenetrable erudition of Agnes Denes’s “Dialectic Triangulation” module and the maddening obscurantism of Bernar Venet’s “Relativity’s Track” — a recorded performance featuring three physicists lecturing simultaneously on different topics — seem to hold their viewers in contempt. When projects touch upon thorny political issues, they do so with the 10-foot pole of detached neutrality. Take, for example, Vito Acconci’s well-known “Following” piece — wherein the artist stalked random strangers around New York City. Speaking about the work, Acconci has said, “I am almost not an ‘I’ anymore; I put myself in the service of this scheme.” What might have been an experiment with surveillance and criminality becomes a textbook example of the decentered, antiauthorial subject of Conceptual Art. Of all the works made before 1972, only the Art Workers’ Coalition’s notorious “And babies” agitprop poster and Graciela Carnevale’s “Entrapment and Escape” wear their politics on their sleeve. Carnevale locked unsuspecting participants inside a storefront gallery until they smashed the storefront windows and escaped, orchestrating an allegory of political oppression and organized resistance.

The final chapter of the exhibition reflects Lippard’s critical shift from mandarin Conceptualism towards her engagement with a more explicitly political, subject-oriented feminism. Notes and ephemera from Lippard’s 1973 all-women show, “.c 7,500,” held at CalArts in Valencia, suggest a different, socially engaged Conceptualism. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Fluxus-like rehearsal of mundane household tasks critiqued the devaluation of women’s labor. Athena Tacha took a pseudoscientific inventory of facial expressions. What the Bechers did for blast furnaces, Martha Wilson did for breast shapes.

In a 1977 article in the feminist journal Lippard co-founded, “Heresies,” she vehemently critiques the art she once promoted, writing, “Conceptual Art’s democratizing efforts and physical vehicles were canceled out by its neutral elitist content and its patronizing approach. From around 1967 to 1971, many of us involved in Conceptual Art saw that content as pretty revolutionary and thought of ourselves as rebels against the cool, hostile artifacts of the prevailing formalist and minimalist art. But we were so totally enveloped in the middle class approach to everything we did and saw, we couldn’t perceive how that pseudo-academic narrative piece or that art-world oriented action in the street were deprived of any revolutionary content by the fact that it was usually incompressible and alienating to the people ‘out there,’ no matter how fashionably downwardly mobile it might be in the art world.”

By 1973, the attenuated politics of conceptual art had become clear. Replacing painting and sculpture with instructions and documents wasn’t going to short-circuit the art market. Conceptual art became assimilated into the art historical cannon, and many conceptual artists became rich and famous. Ironically and inescapably, the Brooklyn Museum exhibition testifies to Conceptual Art’s absorption into the economy that it attempted to circumvent. Photography is verboten and index cards, mimeographs, and faxed correspondence are enclosed in glass vitrines like precious reliquaries. As the French conceptual artist and critic Daniel Buren sagely warned in his essay “Beware!,” a concept is reified as soon as it’s exhibited in an art context. Instead of doing away with the irksome art object, “the exhibited ‘concept’ becomes ideal-object. Ideas — like objects — can be commoditized, privileged, and consumed as art.

In her exhibition forward, Lippard poses a vexing question: “Why is the work documented here of any interest in 2012?” Almost 40 years after the Lippard argued for art’s dematerialization, we don’t seem to have moved past our anxiety over the art object. We are dubious of art for art’s sake, equally dubious of academic austerity and visual impoverishment. A particularly sketchy answer to this stalemate is so-called “object-oriented ontology,” a fashionable anti-anthropocentric metaphysics that attempts to scrutinize the existence of inanimate objects. As a major organizing theme of the recent Documenta (13), object-oriented ontology puts objects on level footing with humans, suggesting, as Modern Painters’s Steven Henry Madoff put it, “that things, not just humans, speak; things feel, are violated, and voice their wills.” This magical thinking unintentionally echoes Marx’s surrealistic description of the paranormal workings of commodity fetishism on a mundane household table: “So soon as it sets forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.” Lippard, it turns out, may have been too harsh in judging Conceptual Art’s limitations. We can accept that it’s impossible, even undesirable, to transcend the art object, without succumbing to commodity fetishism wrapped in the bacon of seductive metaphysics. The positive legacy of “Six Years,” then, might be healthy dose of skepticism.

To see images from the show, click on the slideshow.