PRINT February 1984


The difference between conceptual art and poetry, literature, and philosophy is that conceptual art takes the principles of visual abstraction, founded in the visual arts, and applies them to language. When it does that a nonvisual abstraction occurs.

Nonvisual abstraction is more difficult to grasp than visual abstraction. Although it occurs in all forms of language, it is never focused on.

Nonvisual abstraction is difficult to grasp because we continue to look for something. This tendency of looking for visual meaning, of trying to use the visual faculty, causes meaninglessness to occur.

Nonvisual abstraction is difficult to appreciate because it deals with the most difficult objective to comprehend. It endeavors to inspire a consciousness of being which is formless.

Nonvisual abstraction is at the heart of conceptual art.

Nonvisual abstraction is formless.

There still is content in visual abstraction, but nonvisual abstraction has no content.

A concept without content is formless.

True conceptual art does not compromise itself by re-entering the traditional context of the visual arts. No matter how nonvisual or abstract a work may be, when it is put on a gallery wall language becomes an object to be looked at and not read. Print becomes a visual object to the extent it is physically removed from the reader.

Conceptual art presented in a typeface larger than 12 points causes a reference to a place other than the consciousness of the reader.

When consciousness is related to place and time it is limited to place and time.

Consciousness withdrawn from external references is beyond space and time.

Conceptual art is beyond space and time.

Space and time have nothing to do with the nature of consciousness. They are superimposed upon it.

True conceptual art shows a reality without dimension, without form.

At the outset it was misunderstood that conceptual art meant any art that was involved in ideas, or that had an idea involved in its construction, be it a photograph, painting, or sculpture. This is not so.

Conceptual art is not about ideas. It is about the degree of abstraction of ideas.

The idea “car” is not as appropriate as the idea “infinity.” It is not as abstract.

Abstraction is concerned with the present.

The true present is without references of space and time.

The conceptual artist is someone who has been trained rigorously in visual abstraction and brings this into the area of language.

The conceptual artist raises the consciousness of abstraction in language.

The conceptual artist points to abstraction as an expression of the evolving consciousness. By removing all social and political references this evolving consciousness searches for a means to see through an opaque language.

The nature of abstraction is so obscure that it had to be discovered by a primary research such as the visual arts. Poetry, literature, and philosophy have used abstraction but it was never focused on for itself. Once the principles of abstraction were understood, the only way they could be further developed was for the artist to move into language.

The artist is forced to go beyond visual abstraction and enter language the better to express an evolving ability to grasp a nonvisual world.

Sol LeWitt’s statements about conceptual art are important. They are, however, general enough to include physical execution of ideas.

Joseph Kosuth’s writings on conceptual art go further. Although still concerned with the visual presentation of ideas, he shows the essential nature of an idea to be removed from its physical execution. However, we must move further into a more precise definition of the nonvisual and formless nature of conceptual art.

True conceptual art moves beyond visual and physical execution of ideas no matter how abstract, beyond figurative and inanimate ideas: true conceptual art is found within the formless abstractions of language.

The development of art is the development of abstraction, and the development of abstraction is the movement into a formless language.

Language is the most formless means of expression. Its capacity to describe concepts without physical or visual references carries us into an advanced state of abstraction.

Conceptual art is concerned with the internal, intellectual nature of a concept. The more removed from external references, the stronger the concept.

The nature of concepts is antithetical to sensual reality. Conceptual art, when it is taken seriously, separates consciousness from the exterior world.

Concepts are, however, involved in our every day. A person in the street is a concept. We are always associating concepts with physical reality. Good conceptual art isolates the concept. Everyday thought is composed of both concepts and the relationship of concepts to the external world. There is a clear distinction between the two, Conceptual art makes this distinction.

Art that has visual aspects is concerned with references exterior to the concept, as well as the concept. Good conceptual art is concerned with just the concept.

When a concept is made strong, that is, removed from external references, consciousness is cut off from the physical world. The awareness of consciousness removed from external objects is an awareness of energy, an awareness of being: the conscious mind aware of itself.

Consciousness of a person or an inanimate object is not the heart of consciousness. The heart of consciousness is a state of being which is formless.

That which is neither known nor unknown is without form. What is grasped is an awareness of being.

Being is the awareness of consciousness.

Reality is the formless heart of consciousness.

Consciousness focused into the present becomes conscious of itself.

At the moment consciousness becomes aware of itself it withdraws. Withdrawn from the concept, consciousness itself is the object.

Visual art presents an exterior point for the viewer to focus on. Good conceptual art leaves nothing. The reader is suspended, and it is from this vacuum that true consciousness emerges.

Normally consciousness is related to forms. Abstraction reduces that relationship. Nonvisual abstraction reduces it further.

Language is made transparent by abstraction. The heart of consciousness is shown by a transparent language.

A nonvisual abstraction such as “that which is neither known nor unknown” reduces logical thought totally and in this way allows intuitive insight to occur.

Thought without an object of thought is a formless concept.

The nature of the inspired state is shown in a formless concept.

When consciousness becomes aware of itself it becomes inspired.

The inherent potential of a universal concept is a means of expression whose physical existence does not compete or eclipse the subtle consciousness involved in comprehending a formless concept.

The concept of infinity is a very beautiful concept. Although unseen it provokes us to try to comprehend it, forcing us to enter the inspired state. The inspired state being that state in which reality is understood.

Formless and without content, the structure of a universal concept approaches the structure of the inspired state.

Nonvisual abstraction allows an appreciation of the inspired state that figurative art doesn’t. It articulates the formless nature of the inspired state.

Nonvisual abstraction shows the inspired state to exist independently of the physical world. Physical objects may raise consciousness to the inspired state, but it exists independently of these objects.

Good conceptual art realizes the force of its own reality.

True conceptual art is aware of the force of the moment in which it exists. For example: Ruptured (Lawrence Weiner, 1969); It is persistent, unique, allusive, harmonious . . . (Robert Barry, 1970); meaning . . . = that which exists in the mind . . . (Joseph Kosuth, 1968); 1 = 1 and 1 + 1 = 2 is 1 2 . . . (Hanne Darboven, 1971).

In the best conceptual art only very pure concepts are used.

Passing toward the center of conceptual art, idea-oriented figurative writing, photography, and painting are on the remote periphery. Passing the visual realm of color and natural form we pass closer to the center. We have already passed idea-oriented performance and social and political writing. We have passed abstract color painting. We pass black and white abstract painting. Approaching the limit of visual abstraction we pass from three into two dimensions and into language descriptions of abstract physical objects and events. Passing beyond metaphor, beyond criticism, beyond art, beyond space and time, we come upon the formless abstractions of language. Infinite and formless what is presented is neither known nor unknown.

This is the center. This is the heart of conceptual art.

Ian Wilson is an artist living in New York.