PRINT May 1982


A FEW DAYS BEFORE READING Thomas Lawson’s article “Last Exit: Painting” (Artforum, October 1981), I happened to be looking at a painting by David Salle in the presence of a well-known art collector who is a foremost guardian of any number of “ideological institutions.” He expressed his liking for the painting and asked me if I knew the name of Salle’s dealer, which naturally led me to conclude that he was interested in buying one of the artist’s works. Since then I have read “Last Exit: Painting,” which says, “Salle follows a strategy of infiltration and sabotage, using established conventions against themselves in the hope of exposing cultural repression. . . . [The paintings] operate by stealth, insinuating a crippling doubt into the faith that supports and binds our ideological institutions.” Because Salle’s work is associated with Conceptualism1 I’m interested in it as a test case to consider how effectively/affectively any artwork can perform the role of “saboteur.” If the paintings are actually designed to undermine the “faith,” will the ideological institutions be scared off by such dangerous art beasts—or will they bag this one and hang it along with the other trophies?

Let’s broaden the question to include various museum directors and curators who demonstrate their own brand of creative entrepreneurship by actively participating (with certain well-known radical artists) in the production of installation pieces designed to deconstruct (and thereby expose), the ideological foundations of the very institutions these professionals are supposed to protect. (When Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, made himself an exception to the above by forcing the withdrawal of the Hans Haacke exhibition in 1971, he demonstrated that he really does believe that art can be dangerous.) These collaborations produce another kind of trophy: written texts printed in the museum’s publications that pleasure the reader with tales celebrating the radicalism not only of the installation itself, but also of the administrators.

Is the avant-garde artist that unconscious, that malleable? No. Are these practices really bent on collapsing the very institutions—the art galleries, museums, collectors—through which their nature must be communicated? There are those who wrongly perceive Conceptualism as having had such an ambition and who declare the entire enterprise to have been coopted because it (necessarily) remained thoroughly within the art system. The conduct of ideological activities in the “real” world can always be virtuous, always be politically “correct,” simply by being exercised through head-on confrontation with an opposing ideology. In the ’60s Conceptual activity assumed a dialectical stance toward various other art-world ideologies because head-on confrontation would have failed to produce any affective discourse, thereby rendering it a non-issue.

Those who have chosen to regard Conceptual Art from the point of view of confrontation, then, judge its performance in terms of how closely it conforms to the “correctness” of practice which that point of view assigns to it. I submit that not only is that assignment a wrong one, but that the notion of correctness itself applies to such academies as the 19th century French Academy, or late Modernism, where all issues of practice have been resolved, formalized, and institutionalized. Such cannot be the case with a dialectical practice. Clement Greenberg didn’t get to lead the last band of formalist stragglers because he was the only one who knew the “true path”; there just were no other paths left. As the territory to be explored got pretty well occupied, the little bit that was left could be found at the end of a very short path. No wonder Greenberg could describe it so well. Where are today’s pathfinders? Are they to be found in the training camps of Theory and Rhetoric, even now honing their dialectical skills by using the despised “image” for target practice? Will their mission be to talk every “thing” into oblivion in order to clear the path leading to the exalted state where all that had been known as “art” has become “mind”? Or are the new “leaders” to be found among those who have already taken charge of an all-out retreat that retraces Modern art’s footsteps? Could they include the artists producing the New Painting, which Calvin Tomkins says is “noisy and violent at times, but without moral protestation. This is how it is, they tell us—how it is in Berlin or New York or any doomed city as the world trembles toward night.”?2

In 1969, Joseph Kosuth implied the definition of Conceptual Art’s correct practice and practitioners in “Art After Philosophy I and II,” published in Studio International magazine. That early definition was immediately historicized as “art as idea” by many readers and thereafter was used to measure the purity of other Conceptualist activities whose character and purpose was programmatically different. During the late ’60s it had become apparent to many artists that the Modernist episode was nearly finished: exhausted, as it were. That event has been so thoroughly discussed since that time that I won’t do more with it here than offer a kind of cracker-barrel version of its meaning as I see it. Lawson’s “Last Exit” observation that “vanguard art became a practice concerned only with itself, its own rules and procedures” is quite useful as a way to lead into a discussion of my point of view. His description could also be used to characterize the “technological operational” mode of industrial production which Herbert Marcuse discusses in One-Dimensional Man, 1964. The objects produced by early Modern art and by the industry of that time have one very significant characteristic in common: they manifest through their phenomenal “appearance” the procedures through which they have been made. That is to say, what they “look” like tells us how they were fabricated. For example, an early-model Ford automobile has many easily perceived separate parts, and we can “read” them to say that the car was assembled—that it was mass-produced. We can also read the parts of an Analytical Cubist painting, made at about the same time, as evidence of a procedure of disassembly/reassembly, and we can see that it was hand-produced. In the same way that the many parts of earlier industrial production became fewer, the many parts of Modernist art production became increasingly reductive. From the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Cubists, etc., to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Kenneth Noland, Andy Warhol, Robert Ryman, etc., we see the artist’s hand at work manipulating material, and forming objects (images) that read back into the manner of their making. That point is well-known enough not to require further development here. If we push the Marcusean model a bit more we can say, without fear of contradiction, that Modernist practice never crossed against the grain of the operational mode, never produced “alienation” along with the objects. Modernism has therefore had no impact on the technological operational course as it rushes us, for better or worse, into the future.

Style and fashion are behind the success of the technological operational mode, and keep us absolutely convinced that their continually changing manifestations read back to the ever-better (more efficient) production procedures that account for their appearance. The public is encouraged to hasten the rush toward the better future by consuming objects of fashion as fast as they appear in order to create ongoing waves of demand for more, which, in turn, can only be answered through even more “progressive” procedures. Little wonder that art-world marketing strategies are so successful: they simply emulate an all-pervasive ideological impulse which seeks gratification through constant change. Little wonder that the products of art are regarded as consumable; little wonder that the historicizing of Conceptual Art lined it up in the fashion parade of art as yet another example of avant-garde style!

Little wonder that Calvin Tomkins “saw” Conceptual activity as a style constituted by nothing more than “idea,” and therefore easily discounted: “Minimal Art was historically inevitable, given the twentieth-century artist’s preoccupation with stripping painting and sculpture nude in order to fathom their essential properties. Conceptual Art, Minimal’s footnote, was the final stage in this century-long process; if the essence of art was idea, then a way had to be found to convey the idea without the benefit of a ‘work.’ At that point art disappeared into philosophy, and Americans, by and large, lost interest. The only major collectors of Conceptual Art have been Europeans, who often seem to be more comfortable with ideas—or, at least, with words—than with works.”3

Idea art, of course, has not disappeared into philosophy. The form of Conceptualist practice that associates its dialectic with phenomena and events in the world not only does manifest work: moreover, its potential to engender a view of the world has hardly been tapped. The role of perceiver in each work is essential for the realization of that potential. In 1969 I wrote, “Where a thing is located involves everything else and I like that idea much more than how I ‘feel’ about it or what it looks like.” This was about a view of the world—perhaps a bit existential, but a view nonetheless. There was a real text implied, and I think it reads clearly enough: to locate anything is to locate everything else and thus is also to locate the self. The perceiving self: cross referencing with the “world”—with natural systems, social systems, with time, place, appearance—without taking possession of anything through “esthetic” use, a tack that would have assigned the viewer the traditional role of witness. (Not too far off from where I was placing my concerns in the reductive painting and sculpture which I had been making earlier in the ’60s.) It is the active participation, the committed presence, of the perceiver that completes the structure of such work. That structure is designed to be a receptacle for the “content” generated through the perceiver’s reconstitution of its terms—its form, its worldly references—when he or she sees it as a model of how meaning is formed, rather than as meaning itself. It is meant to address the viewer in a tone of voice that seems to say: Here are some conditions, some things in the world much like all things. In this particular context their “appearance” might be described as this, or perhaps that.

A Pollock painting exists in the present when the viewer reconstitutes the history of its making. Its physical surface provides all the necessary codes: it is covered with “events” that allow us to relive what happened when a liquid substance (enamel paint) was disposed across a flat, horizontal plane (the canvas). We can read the consequences of “speed,” “gravity,” and “gesture,” and of “traffic arguments” at the crossroads where the paths of two or more lines of wet, flowing paint collide. The viewer who does not choose to engage the image in this manner will simply gaze toward it, and thereby see nothing other than an object; though, to be sure, an object of a certain kind, one covered with a skin of color and texture. Seeing as such, he or she will immediately consume it: that is to say, discount it, much as others have done with Conceptualism, because they have simply gazed toward it as if it were “style,” as if it were the surface of objecthood.

Through its appropriation of already consumed (lifeless) images from either the past or present, the New Painting produces a style show of unmediated objects reminiscent of the randomly associated collectibles one sees displayed at flea markets. But whereas a sweet and innocent nostalgia pervades the flea-market display, an aura of seriousness bathes such objects when they are represented in the time-honored tradition of “paint on canvas.” In this “new” work we gaze at images that are much like false book covers on the shelves of someone’s personal library; despite the fact that what we see refers to “content,” and “meaning,” we realize that it’s all “appearance.”

The New Painting is reactionary because it uses subject as a kind of studio prop in a way that recalls the “Art for Art’s Sake” aphorism of the 19th century. Bowls of fruit, “the bourgeoisie at play,” etc.—all unmediated subject matter—were represented in order that the real subject—picture making—could be more clearly seen. That real subject made perfectly good sense for Impressionism and for all of the Modernist practice that has followed, right on through Minimalism and into some, but by no means all, Conceptualist activity. In that the New Painting arranges its borrowed imagery across the two-dimensional plane of the canvas as “pattern,” or else dips into the vocabulary of German Expressionism, photography, commercial illustration, etc., it demonstrates no interest in advancing formal concerns; in fact, as the critic Achille Bonito Oliva admits, “Present art tends to discard illusions of what lies outside itself, and to turn back on its own footsteps.”4

I am convinced that the most compelling, the most pertinent issue concerning any kind of art practice today is one that began to surface in the late ’60s. It is the issue about whether or not “association”—referencing to worldly matters—will be permitted back into art. It will be around that issue that more and more artists will have to take a position. It is my view that such different artists as Hans Haacke, Helen and Newton Harrison, Dan Graham, Martha Rosler, John Baldessari, Michael Asher, and Suzanne Lacy have taken such a position because their activities focus on matters that lie outside of art, on matters quite apart from how a work may read back into the procedures used to produce it. Their procedures are in the foreground of their work, but they are not its subject; reading back into them toward the subject matter which they bring in from the “outside” produces the dialectical process that is, as I suggested earlier, the actual subject of the work.

When we experienced the trauma of the Vietnam War years, and the concomitant “countercultural revolution” in the United States, the late Industrial Age was giving way to the early Electronic Age. If the correspondence that I have tried to establish between Modernism and the technological operational mode of production makes sense, then it would not be unreasonable to say that both machines were running out of gas at about the same time. It is not surprising that the artists of a new generation began to look for other models on which to base their own production. Maybe early Electronic Age is not as good a characterization as early Media Age. Anyway, the two go together. The electronic mode of production is multidimensional, and relies on the simultaneous— non-assembly line—synthesis of information to render its product. Sometimes its product is information. We’re all being socialized by the procedures and organizational methodologies of information gathering, selecting, and “reporting.” Not surprisingly, certain Conceptualist alternatives to Modernist art procedures turned out to be models of informational organization. As I said earlier, all matter of phenomena, all kinds of subject matter can be dialectically organized in such a way as to produce discourse about events outside of art as an appropriate subject of art. Unfortunately, the inclusion and use of informational forms is popularly misunderstood to mean, “So! Everything’s art!”—which suggests pluralism. “Things” are only things, but two things could, perhaps, if properly mediated by a third thing—a “sign”—be organized so as to produce discourse of such a kind as to be regarded as “art.” The “form” that information takes when organized for the purposes of art often looks nothing at all like “art.” The character and “appearance” (if any) of many, or only a few, different pieces of information may be so disparate that the only way in which they can be organized (presented) is somewhat like a grid system, so that cross-referencing may indeed produce discourse. Whatever that kind of presentation looks like, it definitely does not look like an “object.”

I actually began writing all of this in reaction to another Artforum article, “Cashing In a Wolf Ticket” (Artforum, October 1981), written by Lucy Lippard and Jerry Kearns, in which I found a particular statement of mine used in such a way as to imply another meaning for it different from what was originally intended. In order to put it in perspective it will appear here in its entirety:

The world is full of objects, more or less interesting: I do not wish to add any more.

I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place.

More specifically, the work concerns itself with things whose interrelationship is beyond perceptual experience.

Because the work is beyond direct perceptual experience, awareness of the work depends on a system of documentation.

This documentation takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and descriptive language.5

Lippard and Kearns discuss the “flooding” (in the late ’60s) of the art world by the “media industry’s values” which “[bring] with them an insatiable hunger for merchandise . . . [and] . . . disinformation . . .” To which they say, “Some artists rebelled,” and quote the first sentence of the above statement. However true that may be, the more compelling reasons for the “world/objects” pronouncement can be found in my earlier discussion here, in which I have tried to explain how I saw the implications of changing production procedures in the late ’60s and the potential for the use of informational organization to fabricate alternative art propositions.

Furthermore, in the same way that Kosuth’s representation of Conceptual practice—as he sees it—should not have been used to measure the character of other artists’ strategies, my point of view should not necessarily be applied to that of anyone else. But Lippard/Kearns follow their quoting of it with this: “But the conceptualists’ ‘dematerialization’ strategy also played into the hands of the art-world branch of homogenizers who swiftly coopted just the right number (a ‘limited edition’) of snapshots, Xerox sheets, empty rooms, and systems analyses. With little effort these too were transformed into decor for . . . the corporate world. Book art, video, performance, and conceptualism,” they say, “all constituted a brave but finally unsuccessful attempt to open up new and more democratic options. These initial steps failed because of an ‘idealized, politically naive view of the needs of the much sought-after ‘broader audience.’ ” These statements impute a degree of audience ambition behind those strategies which actually did not take place till after those initial steps had been taken. It was Conceptual practice itself that did the real job of politicizing its practitioners and all others observing its ongoing conduct. The essential concentration was on alternative forms, alternative models of the ways whereby new meaning might be fabricated. Problems of production, of procedure, were the primary concerns; modes of distribution and dissemination came next. At the beginning no one I knew was out to reform the art world. That would have been politically naive! And, at least as far as I knew, it was not even half as grotesque then as it is now. If anyone had issued a manifesto claiming that their strategies would bring down the entire art machine, that artist would have lost the game with the first move, because it’s obvious that as soon as the first person connected with the art world hears such a statement, it enters the system and becomes part of what it means to bring down. We showed outside the art system, but that kind of showing required support only slightly different from that of operating within the official system. The art world, after all, is really an institution designed for distribution: anyone who publishes, teaches, lectures, makes, or sells art is in it. As an institution of distribution it produces considerable contention over which “propositions of value” ought to be distributed. The propositions that are formulated in familiar terms are, of course, less problematic, easier to move, than unfamiliar ones. The habit of buying is conditioned by the consumption of style, and the style of the familiar may look new with just a few alterations. That’s what we’re witnessing now in the New Painting.

If the products of Conceptualist activities are regarded in terms of style, then they too may by now have a familiar “look,” but if they are accepted as organizational forms capable of processing and producing discourse concerning “the world,” then there is no limit to their potential for addressing the unfamiliar. Contrary to what many critics contend, these products have not been gobbled up by the corporate world, and few of the artists associated with the enterprise have been embarrassed by an abundance of riches. In many cases the costs of Conceptualist production, including the expenditure of time necessary to organize such work, are higher than those for making ten large paintings. I say this from my experience with both modes of production. I want to add, too, that anything that I have said about objects, or painting, has been critical only about the way in which each functions under specific circumstances; I have no negative view about painting as such, and have continued to use its form, in one way or another, whenever the structure of a particular work requires it. The marketing of Conceptual pieces is not a degraded betrayal of the “cause”: its production costs need to be met just like any other.

As I have said, Conceptualism/Dematerialization is incorrectly understood to have assumed an adversary stance against art, thereby leading to the narrow conclusion that any of its manifestations that do not meet politically “correct” expectations have failed in its program to produce new meaning. It’s about time that the Conceptualist stance be regarded for what it really is: dialectical.

Douglas Huebler is an artist who lives in California.



1. Just as I will introduce a general term, the “New Painting,” into this discourse, I intend to use the general term “Conceptual (-ism, -ist) Art” for the sake of simplifying my discussion; I do so with sincere apologies to those many artists who disdain the label.

2. Calvin Tomkins, “The Art World: An End to Chauvinism,” The New Yorker, December 7, 1981, pp. 146-54.

3. Tomkins, “The Art World: An End to Chauvinism.”

4. Achille Bonito Oliva, “The International Trans-Avantgarde,” Flash Art, October-November 1981, p. 38.

5. Catalogue statement, January 5-31, 1969, New York: Seth Siegelaub. Artists included were Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner.