In the visual arts and in art history, the term “conceptualism” has acquired a meaning distinct from its usage in other fields such as philosophy. Where art is concerned, conceptualism refers to a tendency toward a highly intellectualized mode of artistic practice that has grown particularly pronounced in the art of the world since the decline of modernism around the middle of the 20th century. Though the term is rather loosely applied and there exists no rigorous set of criteria for distinguishing conceptualists from other kinds of artists, a number of characteristics recur in much conceptualist art: a proclivity to downplay the importance of the discrete and unique art object, extensive use of language rather than conventional visual imagery, an anti-aesthetic inclination and a related rejection of traditional artistic mediums in favor of various new media, a critical attitude toward the discourses and institutions of art worlds, an analytical questioning of the concept of art as it has historically been defined, an interest in information and communication, interdisciplinary borrowings from various academic disciplines, and a propensity to seek social and political ends through art. During the 1960s and 1970s in North America, western Europe, and Australia, as well as in Latin America and eastern Europe, a distinct and recognized movement called conceptual art flourished and received considerable attention from art critics, curators, and, somewhat later, art historians. In other parts of the world, conceptualisms emerged more or less independently of this movement (and sometimes prior to it), usually in response to the local cultural and social concerns of each nation or region. Writing on conceptualism has grown steadily since the 1960s, beginning largely with statements by conceptual artists and initial impressions of conceptual art from art critics. The late 1980s through the late 1990s witnessed a surge of retrospective interest, pronounced among art historians and curators, in the early manifestations of conceptual art. Around the same time appeared the first intimations that conceptualism is a global phenomenon and perhaps the first artistic tendency to emerge roughly simultaneously around the world. Art historians who write on conceptualism tend to stress its deep significance for the larger transition from modern to contemporary art during the second half of the 20th century as well as its pervasive influence on the art of the present.
This section lists up-to-date introductions to conceptual art and conceptualism that endeavor to provide comprehensive coverage of the movement or the wider tendency. Historical efforts to account for conceptual art in a similar manner are treated in other sections. Rorimer 2001 locates conceptual art within more wide-ranging accounts of contemporaneous art and is helpful for placing the movement within this broader context. Crow 1996 is similarly framed but also considers the social history within which conceptual art and related movements emerged. Other books focus more tightly on the movement itself. Godfrey 1998 is a well-illustrated survey that frames conceptual art as part of a broader counterculture. Osborne 2002, similarly well illustrated, takes a thematic approach to parsing the movement and contains a helpful appendix of primary-source materials. Wood 2002 is helpful for being an especially concise introduction that is focused on key figures and groups, and Marzona 2005 is organized around a representative sampling of works. Mariani 1999 marks a shift in thinking about conceptual art by locating it within a plurality of global conceptualisms. Šuvaković 2007 is similarly global in scope and provides an exceptionally broad overview of conceptualism.
Crow, Thomas. The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent. Perspectives. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
An overview of European and American art in the 1960s that situates conceptual art within its broad artistic and social-historical contexts.
Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art. Art & Ideas. London: Phaidon, 1998.
A thorough and well-illustrated survey of conceptual art that locates the movement within histories of experimental art in the 20th century as well as contemporaneous popular culture.
Mariani, Philomena, ed. Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s. New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999.
The catalogue to a landmark exhibition that explored conceptualisms of the world. Contains numerous essays on conceptualisms in various regions or nations as well as a chronology, artists’ biographies, and extensive bibliographies. Remains a seminal reference and the single best resource on the conceptualist tendency as a global phenomenon.
Marzona, Daniel. Conceptual Art. Edited by Uta Grosenick. Cologne: Taschen, 2005.
A brief and cursory examination of conceptual art. Contains an introductory essay as well as short discussions of thirty-five important works of conceptual art. Several color illustrations.
Osborne, Peter, ed. Conceptual Art. Themes and Movements. London: Phaidon, 2002.
A wide-ranging survey of conceptual art that contains a framing essay by the editor, thematically organized discussions of works of art by conceptual artists, and excerpts from key texts by conceptual artists or about conceptual art. Profusely illustrated and a helpful resource.
Rorimer, Anne. New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
A broad overview of developments in European and American art during the 1960s and 1970s that situates conceptual art amid other contemporaneous movements. Well illustrated.
Šuvaković, Miško. Konceptualna umetnost. Novi Sad, Serbia: Muzej Savremene Umetnosti Vojvodine, 2007.
Encyclopedic in scope, this massive volume, published in Serbian, is perhaps the most comprehensive single-volume overview of conceptual art in print. It is especially useful for its investigations of eastern European artists and groups, though it is global in scope and also examines preconceptual art that influenced the development of the movement.
Wood, Paul. Conceptual Art. Movements in Modern Art. New York: Delano Greenidge, 2002.
A focused, well-written introduction to conceptual art and its main practitioners.
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