The Shallow Conceptualist

John Haber
in New York City

We now think, for example, that we possess knowledge both of how Bach performed his concerted vocal music and of how he wished to have it performed. The two are not the same. Which one gets the privilege? The one represented by the surviving performance parts, of course, because (we think) they tell us what Bach did, not what he "intended" to do.
      — Richard Taruskin, Text and Act

Conceptual Art and The Shallow Curator

Can a virtual community support actual art? When art bloggers give one another space, they hope for just that. Just this summer, three of my favorite art blogs found the perfect subject—the physical form of conceptual art. Gisei Florez's Exquisite Taste (Bruno) (Winkleman gallery, 2007)

Does it still make sense to speak of conceptual art as a break with the art object? Do the artist's intentions alone define conceptual art, or can one hope for another kind of conceptual art altogether? This once, the denizens of virtual reality came down hard on the side of the physical. Reality, what a concept! One of my favorite summer 2008 group shows, which also sparked the debate, supplies a handy test of these distinctions. "The Shallow Curator" jokes about the art object in its title, and things get messier, or maybe shallower, from there.

A formalist conceptualism

On the occasion of his gallery's summer group show, Catherine Spaeth used her blog to interview Edward Winkleman, author of How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery and surely the most provocative writer on the growth of art fairs and on art as spectacle. The dealer had made an implicit commitment on his own site only weeks before. Galleries rarely stick to one medium or one kind of work, he observed then, but good ones still have a clear program. What exactly does that mean, and what does it mean to him? Spaeth's July interview led to a partial answer:

I don't have much interest in anti-formalist conceptualism. . . . I have seen tons of conceptual art that doesn't raise the bar for formalism. . . . My idea of conceptual art is that it must be compelling visually.

Can conceptualism and formalism learn to get along, as with the geometric found objects from Gabriel Orozco? Can even conceptual art and the handmade? Roberta Smith, for one, worries. Carol Diehl, also a blogger, thinks that they can hardly afford not to. As she put it three days later,

I'll add that to be compelling visually, art must also be compelling conceptually. To succeed, all art must be conceptual, just as it must address formally its reason for being considered visual art. . . . The test is in how well the conceptual and the formal elements are synthesized—to the point that the ultimate experience of the art is about neither, but something else entirely.

Winkleman himself does not require that art pass this or any other test. He speaks to what interests him. He also has a summer show conceptual enough to have begun even before it opened, with the press release, which mimics scholarly arcana. It has jokes in the footnotes, not to mention footnotes as part of the joke. However, Diehl's test does resonate with me and others. In fact, her readers wonder if it goes far enough.

She has already altered Winkleman's thesis—by adding, first, a marvelous antithesis and then the demand for synthesis. For Hegel or Marx, that step would trigger another round of antitheses and contradictions. For Diehl, though, holism gets the last word. It precludes anything like an appeal to the press release:

The experience is the experience, and what the artist was trying to do is of no value. This is why artists' statements are irrelevant and, in fact, if not on a par with the art, can detract from it.

It also undermines the very notion of conceptual art, anti-formalist or not:

We're in a new century, and it's time we stopped categorizing art by medium—photography, painting, sculpture, video, installation, and so on, with conceptual art in another category.

Formal values and mystic truths

Those commenting on her blog agree. For screen name "cap," the categories were "wayward from the start":

Conceptual Art (capitalized here as a style), at its most ambitious, is as deeply committed to formal values of representation.

But is it? Conceptual artists certainly seem to have found any number of strategies for separating art from formal values and from representation—a testimony not to cerebral "hypothetical art," but to conceptual arts in the plural. Artists have chosen images, media, and processes governed by chance or by a dream, by such arbitrary factors as the date, by such appropriated sequences as a color chart, or by the viewer. They have restricted themselves to styles, such as industrial carpeting and fluorescent tubes, associated with anything but self-expression. They have executed multiple and distinct works in the same style. They have relied on transient media, such as a pile of candy or writing in the sand, or withheld execution altogether.

They have also incorporated statements about the concept or against the art object into the work, most famously with sans-serif text by Lawrence Weiner: "this work need not be built." They have also delivered the opposite message but with obvious irony. Diehl's blog entry reproduces Bruce Nauman's neon tubes: "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." Indeed.

Anti-anti-formalists have an easy rejoinder: all these works have form. Even when art never progresses past an artist statement, that, too, is a decision about materials and appearance. Unfortunately, this proves far too much, since it makes form so all-encompassing a concept as to be empty. It detaches form from the art object and formalism from its critical history. Neither mystics nor formalists will appreciate the favor.

Alternatively, one could give up trying to define art and stick to judging it. Winkleman does, in order to articulate a program that I could easily recognize as my own. Diehl, too, tends to prescriptive rather than descriptive language, although she means her prescriptions as strong medicine for others. Still, the anti-formalists refused to take their medicine long before. They were responding to formalism's perceived dead end. Moreover, they were offering not just an esthetic choice that Winkleman, Diehl, or I might find distasteful, but a critique of art institutions that none of us can afford to tune out.

Conceptual art does not easily assimilate itself to esthetic standards, because it promotes creative possibilities and channels of dissemination that those standards denied. It aims to reveal how esthetics, markets, and museums create and support one another. This aim unites conceptual artists on both sides of the formalist divide. It is the point of Jennifer Dalton with her slide shows and figurines of art's major players, which Winkleman praises, and Nauman's choice of primary colors, harsh neon lighting, and mock script—which simultaneously inundate the senses and parody truisms about the sensual.

If you build it, they will come

Much of contemporary philosophy has come down on the side of holism, with good reason. It is not easy to make sense of distinctions between necessary and contingent truths, conceptual schemes and their contents, a coherent understanding of the world and reality itself. In life as in art, one can always redraw the frame. By the same token, however, one cannot so easily recognize art beyond category, because in doing so one has drawn some categories. Ironically, to demand an art neither purely formal nor conceptual, a critic has to insist on a clear distinction between the visual and the invisible.

The paradox suggests where good intentions go astray—with the demand for synthesis. Marx and Hegel bite back after all. As soon as one envisions a whole without internal contradictions, something gets left out that might come back to haunt the art. (Jacques Derrida identifies much the same paradox when he combines difference and deferral in his term différance, but suppose I leave Postmodernism to its own history for now.) Consider Diehl's hesitancy about admitting artist statements. By demanding that the artist's intentions manifest themselves in the work, she places them outside the work, where they can then start a whole new argument.

I always take a press release seriously, for the same reasons I take background in art history and historically informed criticism seriously—because it often tells me something you or I did not know. In the process, it can make me perceive the art object differently or can free up a young artist from old habits. True, it can fail to make me see things differently, but then it challenges my judgment. How, I have to ask, has it failed? Perhaps the disjunction between image and representation is itself a part of the work, in which case the statement does alter my experience. Perhaps the disjunction amounts to the artist's failure to connect words and ideas, in which case the statement may not matter enough to detract from the work.

Perhaps, too, the work does embody the artist's intentions—only the artist's intentions exceed the statement. The artist may have unconscious intentions better embodied in the work, conscious intentions kept out of the statement with deliberate irony, multiple intentions that make me treat the statement as a part of the work along with the object, conscious or unconscious intentions that elude the work, or just muddled ideas and dull execution. Whatever I decide, I have to accept responsibility for the decision. And in doing so, I can no longer say simply that "the experience is the experience." The experience is a product of everything that I can bring to it, including the words of others. Again paradoxically, only in the least interesting case does the work begin and end with a clear boundary identifiable with the formal object.

Even with Weiner, it matters whether the work is built. The point is that each outcome remains possible. Conceptual art and new media have multiple genealogies and introduce new possibilities. Some video has its origins in the rebellions of underground movies, Minimalism, or performance art. Other video may have popular sources, including television, big-budget productions, computer programming, video games, or real-time data—all with implications of their own. Conceptual art can incorporate photography, painting, sculpture, and installation, or it can refuse to stand as a medium of any kind alongside them.

None of this means that Winkleman, Diehl, or I can afford to stop making choices about what art we like, what conceptual art we like, and what to treat as relevant to the work. His thesis and her antithesis strike a chord with me as well. I have premised this Web site on the ideas that art takes words and that attributions matter, because one cannot talk about pure experience apart from prior understandings. I try to ensure that every full-length upload include a review, so that ideas face the test of practice, and I promise that this one will, too. Otherwise, appeals to beauty, blanket scorn for political art, and distrust of critical theory can easily mask a reactionary agenda for both art and politics. As one last exercise in inside and outside, I should add that I have probably explained these things much better and at greater length before!

Kindred spirits

"The Shallow Curator" has its share of art objects—and its share of subtext as well. The title refers to two (I think) separate individuals, Ivin Ballen and Christopher K. Ho, both artists in their own right. The show proper (so to speak) sticks to a close-up of just four other artists, but then I may have lost count. At least one contributed objects to a second, who has taught a third, who in turn has the same last name as a sculptor copied by the fourth. One artist keeps a certain distance by greeting gallery visitors from behind a table, another with seeming ripoffs of a trendy art photographer, another with plans of nonexistent architectural spaces, and the last with his otherworldly pseudonym, "the Spirit."

On the surface, all four artists play with appearances for their own sake. The one greeting "buyers" is pushing a rack of clothing from the "George McCracken collection," while Gisei Florez claims to use her art to promote a real career in fashion photography. Her high-gloss canines (the furry kind) gnaw at glitzy accessories, as if Marilyn Minter and Minter in retrospective had traded sexism and sex for trash and domesticity. Planks propped against the wall, by the Spirit, subject John McCracken's device to gilding. Yet each also plays with architectural depth and solidity, much as the surprisingly short, thick planks sink almost to the ground, while Kevin Zucker poses in his own collage, overlaid with a perspective grid.

Fortunately for a confused critic like me, this art comes with its own criticism—in the form, sure enough, of a press release. Indeed, most gallery exhibitions do these days, although more often for self-promotion than for than for insight. (I like to call that shallow pretense of scholarship martspeak rather than mere artpseak.) This curatorial statement slyly continues the show and, on the subject of spatial and depth relationships, has those pesky footnotes. Over it all presides one last "shallow curator," Winkleman, who like me admires conceptual art most when it departs from an anti-esthetic. As part of the fun and games, an anti-anti-esthetic does not simply restore the esthetic.

Does "The Shallow Curator" have any lessons for art, conceptual or otherwise? Perhaps not. It is just one exhibition. Perhaps it just goes to show that a little modesty can pay off. For once, a summer group show does not try to see how many artists can dance on the head of a theme and instead lets a few works ricochet off one another. Breadth and ingenuity have their place, conceptually speaking, but the result can be confining. However, the exhibition's decision to go its own way underlines how conceptual art survives as neither a unity nor a term of the past, but as a multiplicity of conceptual arts.

One lesson might be to give up worrying where the work or the artist's statement begins and ends. Another is in how the show diverges from formalism and tradition: it pushes simultaneously toward conceptual art and commercial art—toward art without the object and the object without the art. Then again, perhaps the attention to surface roots this art after all in the formalist appreciation of objects for their own sake. Art has elements in common with academia or mass entertainment, but it is still a relatively small business. For all their fashion sense, a small circle of artists off Twelfth Avenue must still contemplate their distance from all that money can buy.

When I read these blogs, I feel kindred spirits. I think of myself as a postmodernist with an attachment for the real. I liked abstraction when it had fallen from fashion, and I like mind games now—just when the art scene has fallen for trashy installations, fireworks, and child's toys. At retrospectives this spring of Weiner and Barbara Bloom, as with posthumous work by Sol LeWitt and the LeWitt collection, I also found that conceptual art can pack a great deal of physical and visual sensation, sometimes even illusion. Only the last thing that means is an art beyond category.

BACK to John's arts home page

"The Shallow Curator" ran at Winkleman through August 15, 2008. On her blog for July 13, Catherine Spaeth interviewed Edward Winkleman, who had announced his summer show on his blog just before its opening. Carol Diehl responded July 16 on her blog ArtVent. A closely related review of mine—on Yoko Ono, Charles Ray, and "hypothetical works of art"—argues further for multiple histories and practices in conceptual art. Other reviews tackle some consummate conceptual artists, including Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Bloom, and Dada.


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