September 14, 2006

Art Practice of the 1960s

As the décollagist works of Jacques de la Villeglé attest, artistic practice in post-World War II Europe would be relocated in urban, collective, consumerist space as his grifted street posters embodied artistic intervention via the appropriative act. The random vandalizing of the ubiquitous posters by anonymous Parisians gained a new life of gestural repetition in Villeglé’s hands, as his disintegration of the pictorial relationships in the cinema /concert /product adverts gained a seriality and structure that also implied a cancellation of a “completed” work. Further, the torn text of the posters was subject to an erasure of its semantic context, expressing different significance in fragmentation.

Benjamin Buchloh has distinguished Villeglé as one of those post-WWII Parisian “New Realist” painters who would seek a “total dispersal of a centered Cartesian subjectivity and the discrediting of conscious control”(1) by making paintings beyond their intentional composition. Further still, these paintings would “refute the last residues of a visual hedonism, seducing its viewers either by the virtuosity of its graphic, gestural, or chromatic execution or by an enigmatic iconography that pretended to lead to the deepest recesses of the mythical and the pre-linguistic unconscious.”(2)

This search for an “enigmatic iconography” would prove to be relentless and fruitful for the next twenty years or so, producing innumerable unintentional compositions, perhaps none as thrilling or nuanced as the Frenchman Yves Klein’s anthropometries. Klein’s actions transformed his models’ nude bodies into “living brushes,” in a kind of Duchampian disengagement from the “hand,” through a series of prophetic and public performance works, putatively as the logical extension of Pollock’s “choreography.”

Essentially problematic for abstract expressionist painting was how to maintain an equal emphasis throughout the surface of the painting. Back in New York, Jasper Johns’ solution was simple; cover the canvas with alphabets or numbers, sustaining this “all-over” emphasis but also reinforcing the Duchampian “thingness” of the paintings. Eventually, representation would become further intertwined with advertising and consumerism. That great French iconoclast, Francis Picabia, “had already submerged drawing and painterly design within the vulgarity of the mass-cultural photographic matrix,”(3) while the American Andy Warhol used repetition as motif; commodity objects reiterated as codified representation. But throughout the 1960’s it would be the German, Sigmar Polke, who would fully exploit and develop the idea of transgressive, codified citations of commodity culture. Often utilizing the “ben-day” dot pattern of industrial reproduction, he would then negate this commercial representation technique through his manual execution, in an ironic snubbing of Duchamp’s “detachment.” Even more brilliantly, he stretched “found” printed fabrics (bed-spreads and sheets) as his “canvas,” subversively juxtaposing the consumer codification structures with painterly gestures of Modernism.

Readings for 20 September: From Ch. 2: Ad Reinhardt’s Twelve Rules for a New Academy, 25 Lines of Words on Art, The Black-Square Paintings and Frank Stella's Pratt Lecture; from Ch. 9: Sol Lewitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art.


1. Benjamin Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, MIT Press, 2000, p. 250.

2. Ibid., p. 250.

3. Ibid., p. 249.


chris said...

After reading Ad Reinhardt's "Twelve Rules for a New Academy", I'm feeling a sort of resentment towards his view on the academy of art. I understand the notion that you can't teach something as personal as art and that rules and guidelines in which to teach it cannot exist, but the purely technical side of art can be learned and studying and working alongside peers who are into the same things can definitely help the artist grow and become stronger.

patrickjdonovan said...

I agree with Chris' comment. Artists ought to be able to grow and be better able to develop art through technical skills etc.

Continuing the class discussion this afternoon, it seems that there may be a risk of accepting an overinclusive definition of conceptual art. Taking conceptual art as any art that has some idea behind it could include a great deal of pre-twentieth century art. For example, let's consider a portrait of the 18th century in the "grand manner." Such a painting might include a person with the various accoutrments of his or her social position such as houses or land in the back ground, horses, fine clother servants etc. Such a painting was presumably intended to convery the idea of the person's social status. Or what about a still life showing decaying fruit? These are frequnetly interpreted as memento mori, a reminder of mortality. Or what about soviet social realism that what intended to convey the worthiness and heroism of socialism. Do not these paintings have an idea behind them? But, I doubt that we would consider them conceptual art, however. Maybe conceptual art should be confined to a narrower set of artists that present their written designs or plans for making an art object as the art, rather than the objewct itself.

It seems to me that Lucien Freud has more in common with Ingres than with Sol Lewitt.

onesock said...

Taking conceptual art as any art that has some idea behind it could include a great deal of pre-twentieth century art.

Exactly! Art has always been conceptual!

Rebecca Jones said...

I think there are at least two different definitions of "conceptual" art that are being discussed, in my opinion. On the one hand, every piece of art that has ever been made has to have an idea behind it because no product or creation comes from nothing or exists completely independent of a human mind or environment. Therefore, yes art has always been conceptual on different levels of complexity. On the other hand, artwork created based more or equally on and with a concept than on the phsyical making and appearence of is what has first appeared in the 20th century. I think the latter definition is more commonly referred to when speaking of conceptual art. I think that a progression towards conceptualism started with Impressionism and Expressionism because these movements were the beginning of paintings about painting itself rather than about the imagery, opening the possibilities of art wide open in terms of the conceptual bases they could hold.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Chris: Yes, the “purely technical side of art can be learned and studying and working alongside peers who are into the same things can definitely help the artist grow and become stronger.” It just drifts in and out of fashion. (See the Leipzig School.)

Patrick: Thank you for introducing a formidable topic, i.e., linguistics. There is great “risk” indeed in the assumption of an absolute “definition” of a word. Your example of 18th Century painting plays well at “debunking” the myth of conceptualism as a 20th Century modality. However, in a consideration of the “past” we are necessarily grounded in our own episteme (era), thus our “interpretations” of what those 18th Century painting examples truly mean is our own epistemic construct. As many museum directors propose, in order to comprehend the “meaning” behind an artifact or artwork of the past we must have first understood the people that made it and how they used these objects or works. By the same token, we would be remiss in “post-loading” conceptualism into their eras.

(In coming weeks, we will further unpack the “meanings” and possibly “definitions” of conceptualism as we look at the artists who created it.)

Becky: Thank you for your incisive clarifications. Clearly there is confusion about whether an “idea” is a “concept” or not. Let Sol close the argument for us:
"The concept and idea are different. The former implies a general direction while the latter are the components. Ideas implement the concept."

joyce said...

i thought this was relevant to this posting:
its last fridays ny times and mentioned some of the artists we've been talking about like lichenstein and judd.