Essential Books: 7 Lucid Histories of Conceptual Art

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Radical times call for radical art, and so it was between 1965 and 1975, when political and social upheaval roiled the country. Conventional painting and sculpture seemed pointless, and anyway, stripping art to its bare essence had been a driving narrative of modernism. So, enter Conceptual art. Taking a page from similar notions explored by Marcel Duchamp, Conceptualism “dematerialized” art objects by putting ideas front and center. Though this often meant purely textual work, Conceptual art was actually a constellation of overlapping practices that included installation, process art, performance art, video, and earthworks. While the movement was worldwide, it gained particular resonance in New York City, where de-industrialization had transformed lofts that were once warehouses and factories into cheap living/working environments for artists. Representing the ultimate expression of art bleeding into life, these expansive spaces mirrored the limitless possibilities of Conceptual art itself. Eventually, rents skyrocketed and global capitalism transformed Conceptualism into a marketing trope. But it lives on as an historical phenomenon in our list of essential books on Conceptual art. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Anne Rorimer and Ann Goldstein, Reconsidering the Object of Art 1965–1975
This book is the catalog for a 1996 survey of Conceptual art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles curated by Anne Rorimer and Ann Goldstein. The authors frame the subject as a history of the dematerialization of the art object in order to extend the genre’s reach beyond the language-based work for which it is best known. Reconsidering the Object of Art covers the efforts of figures such as Vito Acconci, Daniel Buren, Joan Jonas, On Kawara, and Lawrence Weiner and includes essays by art historians Lucy Lippard and Stephen Melville, as well as artist Jeff Wall.
Purchase: Reconsidering the Object of Art from $68.00 (used) on Amazon

2. Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism
For a brief time, Conceptual and Performance art eclipsed painting and sculpture, and Thomas McEvilley considers that interregnum within a broader political and philosophical context. The author proposes that the impulses that led to anti-art, as he calls it, predated the period (roughly 1965 to 1980) in which it flourished, citing the Greek sage Diogenes, 19th-century German Romanticism, and the writings of Clement Greenberg as antecedents. The book covers Marcel Duchamp’s influence and that of Yves Klein before plunging into the story of Conceptual art and its practitioners.
Purchase: The Triumph of Anti-Art $40.03 (used) on Amazon

3. Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann, Art After Conceptual Art
This revisionist history came out in 2006, when Conceptualism’s impact on contemporary art was still being felt (much more than it is today). The book notes, for example, that Conceptual art pieces were bought by collectors from the start, and that the problems arising from the acquisition of such work didn’t have anything to do with its ephemeral nature; rather, Conceptual artists themselves believed that art-market success nullified Conceptualism’s purpose. Another point covered by the authors is that Conceptual art’s rejection of art-historical traditions necessitated the adoption of conventions from other creative disciplines—cinema, photography, commercial design—to lend it presence.
Purchase: Art After Conceptual Art from $21.32 (used) on Amazon

4. Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History
Danto, a longtime art critic for The Nation, derived this book from his 1995 Mellon Lectures on the Fine Arts, and while its title seems apocalyptic, its real subject is the unraveling of the art-historical narrative devised by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century. Danto lays the blame for its demise on Warhol, who, by hammering the final nail into AbEx’s coffin, eradicated the high culture on which art depends. Here, Danto argues for a new critical framework that can cope with the post-historical art world.
Purchase: After the End of Art $15.71 (new) on Amazon

5. Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art
If you’re a Conceptual art completist (or any interested reader, for that matter) Osborne’s tome is a must-have reference book. A teacher and writer on the philosophy of modern and contemporary art, Osborne offers an encyclopedic account of Conceptual art since its beginnings, focusing on major figures while also including lesser-known names who were nonetheless vital to formulating the precepts of Conceptualism. The book is illustrated with 250 photos and also includes a comprehensive anthology of related documents such as artists’ statements, manifestos, and more.
Purchase: Conceptual Art from $47.01 (used) on Amazon

6. Kynaston McShine and Lucy R. Lippard, Information: 50th Anniversary Edition
In the summer of 1970, the Museum of Modern mounted a soon-to-be-legendary exhibition titled “Information.” Organized by MoMA curator Kynaston McShine, the show was one of the first institutional surveys of Conceptual art, gathering 150 artists from 15 countries. The attendant catalog was conceived as a stand-alone project that included a recommended reading list, a chance-based index by critic Lucy Lippard, and artists’ projects created specifically for the book. This edition, published on the occasion of show’s 50th anniversary, is a facsimile of the original catalog, which fell out of print long ago.
Purchase: Information $35.00 (new) on Amazon

7. Terry Smith, One and Five Ideas: On Conceptual Art and Conceptualism
Though Conceptual art and Conceptualism are used interchangeably, this compendium of writings by artist, critic and historian Terry Smith submits that the two are distinct. Smith, a former member of the English conceptual art group Art & Language, argues that Conceptual art is a specific expression codified by art history, while conceptualism is a philosophical construct that applies to all kinds of contemporary art practices. Spanning the years between 1974 and 2012, the book charts Smith’s thinking as it evolved after Conceptual art’s heyday.
Purchase: One and Five Ideas $23.95 (new) on Amazon

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