Thursday, May 1, 2008

Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art, ALEX KLEIN

In 1972 Ursula Meyer published her classic
compendium Conceptual Art—a slim paperback
that is remarkable not only for the currency it held
at its time of publication, but also for its cover
design. Set in white-on black, uppercase Helvetica,
the phrase “Conceptual Art” is repeated seventeen
times, bleeding from top to bottom as if ad infinitum.
Meanwhile, the book itself, which predated Lucy
Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the
Art Object by one year, features the work of some
forty artists, including Vito Acconci, Victor Burgin,
Dan Graham, Adrian Piper, and Ed Ruscha. Instead
of framing each project with explanatory texts
or contextualizing essays, Meyer juxtaposes the
work with a selection of quotations from the likes
of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Roland Barthes,
reserving her remarks for the blurb on the back cover.
For Meyer, this new, idea-based art eliminated the
need to distinguish between artist and critic, thus
untethering the artist from the art historian’s analysis.
Instead, the book’s cover stands in—formally at
least—as the primary framing device, underscoring
the fact that even as its history was still being written
the aesthetic that we associate with Conceptual
Art had already been codified within the popular
imagination: that is, black-and-white, stripped down,
serial, bureaucratic and textual. The design of the
book’s cover thereby distilled the heterogeneous
practices of the artists included, acting as a harbinger
of what we now think of as the “look” of classic
conceptual practice.
While it is not the purpose of this essay to map out
the different branches and legacies of Conceptual
Art, it is important to point to the way this distillation
elides complex nuances if we are to begin to
think through conceptualism’s implications for
photography. The dismantling of representational
signifiers in Conceptual Art resulted in works that
were seemingly immaterial (systemic, performative,
text-based, ephemeral, amateurish, etc.) when
compared with the more traditional formalism of
the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists.
However, as Benjamin Buchloh has noted, because
of the “range of implications of Conceptual Art, it
would seem imperative to resist a construction of
its history in terms of a stylistic homogenization,
which would limit that history to a group of
individuals and a set of strictly defined practices and
historical interventions.” 1 Moreover, even within
these stylistic similarities, it is necessary to make
distinctions between the key players. For example,
the implications of conceptual works varied even
within the select group of artists associated with Seth
Siegelaub (Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph
Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner), not to mention
between artists working outside of the small New
York scene.
As demonstrated by Liz Kotz’s research and other
recent scholarship on the use of photography by artists
in the 1960s and 1970s, Conceptual Art’s turn to the
ordinary or quotidian was multifaceted. The impulses
behind these works ranged from differing reactions
to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism combined with
investigations that were both anticipated in the work
of John Cage and Fluxus and concurrent in modern
dance and experimental poetry. Which is just to say
that the form, in this instance, should not necessarily
be mistaken for the whole, as it is only one variable in
a rather complex equation of influences, pedagogies
and ideologies. By reducing what we have come to
understand as Conceptual Art to a uniform movement
or style we run the risk of conflating the influence
of aesthetics with that of ideas. Further, if we are to
resist the rigid categorizations and market-driven
dichotomies of artists using photography versus art
photographers, we must also resist the temptation to
collapse different critical strategies and investigatory
concerns into aestheticized, nostalgic narratives.2
Nevertheless, with the integration of photography
into art schools and Master of Fine Arts programs and
the imminent obsolescence of analog photographic
printing, a bleeding and blending has occurred.
For a generation of young photographers who
might never print their own work or have to justify
their medium, the distinctions between conceptual
practice and more traditional documentary modes
have become increasingly malleable. That said, the
pedagogic hodgepodge of the art-school environment
is only part of the equation, for one might also look
to the lack of adequate art histories that integrate
photography as more than a footnote within surveys
of twentieth-century art.3 For many students today,
art history is fluid and pluralism is a given, creating
a tendency to sample freely. As Thomas Crow has
pointed out in his essay “Unwritten Histories of
Conceptual Art,” consciousness of precedent has
become very nearly the condition and definition of
major artistic ambition in today’s arena.4 However,
the process of identifying and citing previous
generations is necessarily enmeshed with an element
of misrecognition or even paramnesia. That we read
our own desires and historical conditions onto the
past seems obvious, but this continuing process of
remembering and misrembering is very different
from the conversations, generational anxieties or
ideological clashes at play in and between artistic
movements. The stakes are different when the process
functions more like a personal archive from which
histories are constructed at will among seemingly
disparate elements and time periods. (Allan Sekula’s
comparison of the archive to a toolshed is apt in
this regard.)5 However, just as one can build from
the archive, the archive is also itself a destructive
container. As Derrida would have it, the original
memory disappears, replaced by the structure
imposed by the archive; memory necessarily entails
a replacement of one image by another through a
repetition of impossible originals.
The way we historicize artistic influence is also part of
this condition and offers an opportunity to reevaluate
the stakes of even our most foundational critical
narratives. To date, Jeff Wall’s account in his essay
“‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography
in, or as, Conceptual Art,” although often contested,
has stood as one of the decisive voices in tracing the
ramifications of Conceptual Art for contemporary
photographic practice. In Wall’s account, the
modernist concerns of self-reflexivity and medium
specificity are ultimately realized in conceptual artists’
deskilling and amateurization of the photograph. For
conceptual artists, photographic depiction is detached
from representation and thus points to what Wall
calls the “experience of experience.” In this account,
conceptual artists’ images are consciously employed
and constructed as the antithesis of the highly skilled
modernist photograph. It is precisely because they are
produced outside of the “History of Photography” that
they distill the medium to its essence, thus opening
the door for the reintroduction of picture-making in or
around 1974.
To be sure, this summary risks an over-simplification
of Wall’s argument. Still, if this moment truly
represented the furthest limits of modernist selfreflexivity
in photography, why should it inevitably
lead the medium back to painting— pictorialism,
pastiche, and tableau? Perhaps there are other ways
to think about this story other than the way Wall has
narrativized it. That Conceptual Art was reacting
against the craft of fine art photography is only one
possibility. As we know from the writings of many
conceptual artists working at the time, their use
of photography was, for the most part, detached
altogether from a consideration of photographic
histories.6 Rather, the employment of a deskilled
photographic process was less an outright rejection
of one kind of photography in favor of another than
it was an embrace of particular representational
strategies made possible by photography. It is the
conceptual artists’ approach to the photograph—
using it as an image that stands in for an idea—that
offers some of the greatest significance for our
understanding of the potential for photographic
representation. Furthermore, conceptual artists’
reduction or amateurization of the photograph must
also be acknowledged as an aesthetic decision, no
matter how much it may be tied to chance operations
or deconstructive procedures. Wall’s proposition that
Conceptual Art was the catalyst for photography’s
transcendence of its own medium, making possible
a return to pictorial strategies, thus suggests that
Wall may be more invested in distancing himself
from modernist photographic practice than were the
conceptual artists themselves.
Indeed, just as Wall posits 1974 as the year of a
new order of picture making, Buchloh argues that
1975 is when Conceptual Art goes on a brief hiatus.
It is worth considering the significance of these
years, which mark the resignation of Richard Nixon
and the end of the Vietnam War. As it happens,
1974/75 is also the moment when Martha Rosler
produced The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive
Systems. While I would be hesitant to burden this
oft-cited work with too much significance, Rosler’s
juxtaposition of typewritten text and straightforward,
black-and-white photographs can be seen as a
bridge between a certain conceptual practice and
documentary photography (even as it critiques it). In
turn, 1975 was also the year of the New Topographics
exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester,
NY—a seminal collection of work by photographers
who had made their mark using large-format cameras
to depict the landscapes of suburbia, industrial
decline, and the American West, including Lewis
Baltz, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, and Bernd and
Hilla Becher.
For William Jenkins, the curator of that exhibition,
these photographs were characterized by their
banality and lack of style. Although this remark
might seem strange from today’s perspective given
many of the photographers’ critical success and
massive influence, at the time the photographs were
discussed as empty and anonymous, echoing early
descriptions of Conceptual Art. It should come as
no surprise, then, that in his catalogue essay Jenkins
highlights Ed Ruscha’s deadpan photographs as an
inspiration for at least some of the photographers in
the exhibition. However, for Jenkins, this deadpan
quality is where the similarities end, the distinction
being that for Ruscha the photograph was a means
to an end, a comment on representation and art as
opposed to an exploration of photographic meaning.
That is, Ruscha’s photographs of parking lots and
gas stations are only partially concerned with their
ostensible subject matter. For Jenkins, the distinction
between Ruscha’s photographs and the pictures in
the New Topographics exhibition is the difference
between what a photograph is “about” versus what
it is “of.” The photographers included in New
Topographics were drawing from and reacting to a
variety of photographic influences, among them street
photography, Andy Warhol, and Neue Sachlikeit. In
particular, as Jenkins suggests, the formal qualities
of conceptual projects like Ruscha’s books and
photographs were separated from their critical
context, adopted, and transformed.
Given this ability to separate a certain photographic
formalism from its ideational underpinnings, we
might also consider how such strategies inform
practices outside Conceptual Art’s conventions of
photographic vision. Here, it is helpful to recall Wall’s
account of Conceptual Art’s use of photography, in
which he posits two modes of photographic reportage:
the performative and the parodic. One functions as a
document of an event, while the other eludes, refuses,
or trumps depiction. It is this second instance that
interests me, because it highlights certain problems
posed by representation in photography. To take the
work of one of Wall’s primary examples, Douglas
Huebler, as a case in point, there seems to be a shift in
the onus of meaning away from the subject depicted
in the photograph. For instance, in Location Piece
#2, New York City – Seattle, Washington, July 1969,
Huebler assigned the same task to a person in each of
the three cities: to photograph a place that he/she “felt
could be characterized as being (1) frightening (2)
erotic, (3) transcendent, (4) passive, (5) fevered and
(6) muffled.”
The photographs were then scrambled, so that in the
final piece the intent of the photographer vanishes and
the viewer is left to project his/her own psychological
condition on the images. In his statement
accompanying the work Huebler writes:
“I would define art as an activity that extends
human consciousness through constructs
that transpose natural phenomena from that
qualitatively undifferentiated condition that we
call ‘life’ into objective and internally focused
concepts. Since Impressionism most art has
been based on an inference that our experience
of natural phenomena necessarily calls for its
transposition into visual manifestations. My
work is concerned with determining the form of
art when the role traditionally played by visual
experience is mitigated or eliminated.” 7
There are several other works in Huebler’s
oeuvre from this period that gesture to the limits
of photographic representation with ever greater
poignancy. For instance, when Huebler photographs
in the direction of a birdcall heard in Central Park,
the viewer is only shown a tangle of trees; when
he attempts to photograph every person alive, we
are confronted with the impossible nature of such
encyclopedic taxonomic endeavors. While we could
also consider the impulse to point the viewer outside
of the photograph’s frame through the lens of Robert
Smithson’s non-sites, it was through Huebler’s
pedagogic legacy that such strategies have gained
currency within contemporary photographic practice:
Sarah Charlesworth, Mike Kelley, and Christopher
Williams were all his students.
Instead of arriving at a dematerialized object,
I would argue that such work engages in a sort
of masking in which images, even when utterly
depictive and seemingly objective in nature, betray
an opaqueness of meaning that is derived precisely
through photographic representation. For all of
the textual apparatus that accompany Williams’s
images, his viewers are nevertheless left with a
catalogue of factual information that conveys little
about the modes of production and systems of
exploitation and consumption behind the objects
depicted. Ultimately, the photograph withholds
meaning even as it discloses itself entirely. Similar to
Huebler’s investigations of subjective or perceptual
experiences that must necessarily lie outside of the
photograph, in Williams’s work meaning is always
located elsewhere. For Williams, the inability of the
photograph to communicate fully
“[A]ctually reflects or could represent a viewer’s
relationship to the world outside of the pictures.
Every object around us is at once very present and
identifiable, but also the representative of multiple
historical trajectories, economies and desires
which you barely have to scratch the surface to
get into. The coffee you’re drinking is obviously a
product that had a rich history here in Europe, but
it’s also just a cup of coffee. And that’s something
inherent in all objects.”8
A similar archaeology of the image or object is being
explored by younger artists such as Simon Starling,
for whom the object—whether a photograph, Eames
chair or bicycle—is only one point in a series of
interconnected material histories. For all three
—Huebler, Williams, Starling—the photograph
operates as a document whose meaning is contained
not primarily in what it depicts, but in the myriad
associations that it mobilizes.
This is but one thread that we might follow when
discussing how the strategies of Conceptual Art
have come to inform contemporary photographic
practice. As artists continue to quote the aesthetics
of Conceptual Art we might ask whether this is
indicative of a continued investigation of ideational
concerns or an appropriation of style as an empty
signifier for criticality. With regard to photography
in particular, we might on the one hand consider
the recent turn to seemingly immaterial models of
distribution and accumulation that speak increasingly
to the way we use and understand images, while,
on the other, reconsidering how works in socalled
“conventional photography” skirt the edge
of conceptual strategies or have been informed
by them. In this light, how do we situate a work
such as Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site, which at
once points to the potential for historical trauma
behind every photograph while at the same time
producing important photographic documents in
and of themselves? When an artist makes reference
to “conceptualism” is it based on a furthering of
the ideas of autonomy or an aestheticization of its
components? 9 At what point do we call a work
conceptual—does it begin with an idea or
an aesthetic?
By way of conclusion, I would like to return to
another book cover of sorts, this time from the March
2008 issue of Artforum, on which a full-frame,
medium-format color photograph is reproduced at
the center of a white field. The image is from Zoe
Leonard’s project “Analogue,” and it depicts an
array of used items such as shoes, a crucifix, and
eyeglasses. Amassed over nine years, the larger
project is comprised of approximately four hundred
such photographs, in color and black-and-white, of
subjects like small storefronts, independently owned
businesses, outdoor markets, secondhand sales, and
homemade signage. Exhibited at Documenta this
past summer, “Analogue” is especially remarkable
precisely because of its obvious indebtedness to the
history of traditional documentary photography. For
Mark Godfrey, writing in the accompanying article,
“Analogue” is a document of an economy that with
globalization and increasing corporatization will soon
be outmoded, if it does not disappear entirely—an
analog photographic gesture in a digital world.
Still, despite its unabashed embrace of the language of
the vernacular subject within a clearly documentary
photographic practice, for Godfrey Leonard’s
project is best understood in a conceptual lineage
that includes the Bechers and elements of Pop
Art.10 By describing “Analogue” as an “allegorical”
project, Godfrey is thus able to situate Leonard
more comfortably among her immediate peers in
New York’s early eighties downtown scene and
the postmodern works of the Pictures Generation.
However, to reclaim this ostensibly documentary
project as an “allegorical impulse” shifts the valence
and perhaps the poignancy of the work from the
legacy of Evans to that of Rauschenberg. But this
is not necessarily a case, as we have seen, of clear
distinctions. Whatever terminology might ultimately
be employed as a framing device, it is clear from
Leonard’s diverse oeuvre that her influences are rich
and multiple. Indeed, for much of the work being
produced today we must acknowledge something
deeper than stylistic quotation, but rather a kind of
double indebtedness—both to Conceptual Art and to
photography as a conceptual practice.
1 APRIL 2008
1. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962 – 1969: From
the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,”
October, Vol. 55 (Winter, 1990), p.107.
2. The recent exhibition Romantic Conceptualism is a case in
point. In particular, the curator of the exhibition singles out Bas
Jan Ader as one of the founding fathers of a certain emotive brand
of conceptualism. As Thomas Crow observed over ten years
ago, there is a danger in making “Ader into a retrospectively
romanticized cult figure.” This “romanticism” or sentimentality
in Ader’s work is quickly deemphasized once his work is couched
in the terms of European post-war trauma and displacement.
3. Although History of Photography courses are common in art
history programs, photography is rarely fully integrated into 19th
and 20th century art survey courses. Thus, there is little opportunity
to contextualize the different strands of photography as they relate
to the broader sphere of artistic practice.
4. Thomas Crow, “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,” in
Art After Conceptual Art, ed. Alexander Alberro and Sabeth
Buchmann, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p.59.
5. Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive” in Brian Wallis (ed).
Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary
Artists. (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987),
pp. 114-127.
6. While these works implicitly stand in opposition to the
aesthetics or social initiatives of the art photography of the same
era, the photograph was utilized more often as a tool or means to
an end, employed as an objective, mechanical, recording device.
Joseph Kosuth, for example stated “I didn’t consider the Photostat
as a work of art; only the idea was art.”
7. Douglas Huebler, Location Piece #2, New York City – Seattle,
Washington, July 1969
8. Christopher Williams, “Christopher Williams in Conversation
with Mark Godfrey,” Afterall, No. 16, (Autumn/Winter, 2007),
9. Liz Kotz observes, “While critics continue to argue that
the conceptual use of language as an artistic medium propels
something like a ‘withdrawal of visuality’ or ‘dematerialization’
of art, and a current generation of artists often seems intent on
trawling the 1960s for remnants of ephemeral practices that
can be turned into commercially successful objects...” Words
to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge: MIT Press,
2007) p.98.
10. Mark Godfrey writes “Leonard has managed to produce an
allegorical work with straight-on photography, something more
astonishing when we consider that the ‘allegorical impulse’
has usually been associated with postmodern photographic
strategies of quotation, appropriation, and collage. Analogue’s
clearest connections are to other archival projects (the Becher’s,
for instance) whose focus has been disappearing objects and
buildings, but the work should also be contextualized within
the history of Pop art.” Artforum (March 2008), p.300.

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