PRINT Summer 1985

I Think Therefore I Art

CONCEPTUAL ART HAD A BURNING hot moment in about 1968 when it developed at blinding speed and, passing beyond the limits of a narrow definition which was quickly closing in on it, entered into dance, music, and literature as a new indwelling spirit. This spirit seemed bent against the practice of painting, whose demise its practitioners declared to be imminent. But the demise of painting had been declared imminent by Alexander Rodchenko in 1921. Such predictions are notoriously inaccurate. D. W. Griffith, in 1915, predicted the obsolescence of the book within ten years; Marshall McLuhan reiterated the prediction in the ’50s. Now we have more books than ever, and, in the last five years or so, more painting than ever also. Ten years or so after its hottest moment, in around 1978, conceptual art itself seemed swamped by the exciting onrush of the various “New Paintings.” Now the tables were turned; one heard that conceptual art was dead, as ten years earlier one had heard somewhat breathless death notices of painting. But again the death notice was premature.

The resurgence of painting marks not the demise of conceptual art, but a new phase in its history. Many of the new painters had formerly practiced conceptual art, and have not forgotten its lessons. Most of them grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and at the least imbibed the attitudes of conceptual art from the air around them. Granted this background, it has not been possible for many of these artists simply to revert to the solemn feeling-tone and quasi-religious belief-system of the formalist heyday. The influences of conceptualist wit and criticism have left a mark too deep to be ignored. Things have gone too far to really go back. What has happened is not an end, but a shift. Marcel Duchamp, with his outspoken rejection of painting, was the overpowering role model for conceptual artists of the ’60s and ’70s. In the early ’80s the role model changed—by way of René Magritte—to Francis Picabia, who was engaged in the ’20s in conceptual modes of painting which stand in the background of much work of the last five years or so.

The idea that conceptual art more or less died in the late ’70s was made possible by certain types of statements made in its behalf during the ’60s and early ’70s. The claim, for example, that conceptual art marked a radical break with past art placed it in a limbo of separation from art history where it could hardly be expected to survive. In fact it was not a radical new beginning, but grew by observable stages and for understandable reasons out of the past. The claim of its radicality was useful in its day because its practitioners wanted to push their project so far that it would be impossible for art to really go back to where it had been before. This effort was successful, but created new problems in its turn. To enforce a sense of the reality and presence of conceptual art, a pantheon of artist heroes was fixed and a history was written and rigidified in place. This was like planting flags in conquered territory to insist that the territory that had been won would now be held. The theory that underlay this pantheon and history was fiercely antagonistic to the art commodity, and for this reason it was inevitable that elements in the art system would be happy to shake it off once its threat could no longer be ignored. Hence the myth of the demise of painting was turned back against its promulgators as a myth of the demise of conceptual art. The old doubt that had overhung conceptual art at its beginning—whether it was a legitimate art medium—has returned, and seems today to hang over both its present activity and its past history. The narrow definition assumed by that history for polemical purposes twenty years ago now facilitates the counterproject of brushing it all away.

When an impasse arises between theory and practice it is often because the theory is outmoded and no longer serves the needs of its time. Then a new theoretical model is required to allow emergent forms to enter discussion. The history of conceptual art involves a series of such impasses. Prior to the 1960s, conceptual art had already existed in a variety of forms which were not yet regarded as comprising a separate genre. Magritte and Picabia, for example, practiced conceptual painting in the ’20s; Duchamp and Man Ray practiced conceptual sculpture. It was the impasse of formalist hegemony in the early ’60s, which had become virtually tyrannical in its exclusion of conceptual elements and of social reference, that caused conceptual art to be specified as a separate genre; this impasse also gave conceptual art its somewhat puritanical early form, which attempted to reject sensory elements as fiercely as formalism had attempted to reject conceptual elements. In an essay published in 1963 Henry Flynt defined “conceptual art” as an art whose materials would be concepts, just as the materials of painting were pigments and surfaces to receive them.

In the following years many conceptual artists, eager to state emphatically the break they felt they were making with the traditional practice of painting and sculpture, attempted to reject material elements from their work altogether. By doing so they became involved in a kind of mirror image of the impasse that formalism had led to. As the formalists had rejected conceptual elements in favor of physical ones, the conceptualists rejected physical elements in favor of conceptual ones. By about 1974 the new impasse was solidly in effect. Conceptual art seemed dominated by an exclusively linguistic form. Terry Atkinson, Michael Baldwin, and others offered theoretical essays on art as works of conceptual art. In moving to reclaim the intellect, artists seemed to have incorporated the role of the critic. The critics of conceptual art found themselves writing about critical and theoretical essays. The two aspects had collapsed into one, not as a synthesis so much as by a new type of solipsism. Faced with this impasse of a puritanical theoretical conceptualism and circular criticisms of criticism, much of the art public lost interest, as did the next generation of artists, who mostly turned to more inviting modes involving the fusion of conceptual structure and intent with objecthood or performance. Conceptual art in the narrow sense—as constituted exclusively by concepts, without any fusion with other formal modes—though it continued to be practiced, seemed virtually to disappear from the public eye. Meanwhile a proper understanding of the fusion forms—conceptual painting, sculpture, and performance—had been obstructed either by purist denunciations or by confusion as to whether they were conceptual art, art in the old sense, or something else.

The lack of recognition of conceptual art in its new clothing is the third impasse in its history, and the one that is in effect today. In a somewhat confused way a tendency is in place to regard the various new trends in painting, say, as trends back to painting pure and simple, that is, to the making of optical works in the old sense. In fact much more than that is going on. Quotational painting, for example, is not all of one cloth. In the work of Sherrie Levine it expresses critical insights into art history and objecthood. In Mike Bidlo’s combinations of parody and visceral appropriative acts there is a more performative element. Pat Steir—whose work was conceptual in thrust long before it became quotational—recently produced, in “The Breughel Series,” 1983–84, a complex mega-icon of analysis, homage, and criticism of and to the tradition of Western painting. In work where media imagery is a constant reference also there is at least as much claim to be conceptual art as to be optical painting. In these types of work theory is present at a constitutive level in a self-conscious way, but without obstructing the interplay of different modes of perception, both sensual and cognitive.

The belief system that underlay the first impasse, that of formalist hegemony, also determined the second impasse as a reaction against formalist hegemony; and in the third and present impasse the old formalist habit is hiding in a confused and casual way which is omnipresent though seldom openly acknowledged. The formalist idea that conceptual or cognitive elements have no place in art is based on Immanuel Kant’s theory that human nature is composed of three separate faculties, the cognitive, the ethical, and the esthetic, which have separate realms that do not overlap. The cognitive faculty, then, is eternally and by its very essence separate from the esthetic faculty. The esthetic faculty supposedly makes its judgments on the basis of inborn knowledge, and these judgments are not susceptible to correction or alteration by either the ethical or the cognitive faculties. The idea that sense data and mental operations take place on discretely different metaphysical levels derives from Plato’s mind-body dualism as retained by René Descartes under the misimpression that he was jettisoning all previous philosophical baggage. In this view, which has become the basis of Western common sense, the mind is held to function purely as an organizing faculty synthesizing sense data into a rounded impression of a world. Descartes divided all that exists into two categories, the material (res extensa), that is, the body, including the five senses and the objects that they sense; and the immaterial, which was specified as the mind (res cogitans). A consequence of Descartes thought which is still present among us is the idea that mind, being immaterial, can have no intimate connection with the arts that, like painting, work through the senses. (One flaw in this scheme is that, since he offers no overlap between these categories, there is no way of accounting for the communication between them that was implied by the famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.”) The radical division of the human faculties into material and immaterial components was of central importance to Plato because on it rested the idea of the soul, a nonextended or nonmaterial component of the human self, not subject to the changes of matter and hence inherently eternal. Plato, influenced by Egyptian masters, regarded the soul and its adventures in the afterlife as a central subject of metaphysics. This lineage is the pedigree of formalist art theory, which is constituted primarily out of concealed references to Platonic idealism and, ultimately, to the Egyptian vision of a human society beyond change. Plato, an aristocrat who saw that a changeless society was in the interests of his class, imported this doctrine into Western thought.

Mind-body dualism, in other words, is not the only way of looking at the constitution of the human self; it is a hidden theology with certain social interests, as is the formalist esthetic theory based on it. The phenomenalist view rejects mind-body dualism; since sensations are known only as mental. impressions, there is no way to distinguish sense events from mind events. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in the Phenomenology of Perception (1945), “There are no senses, only consciousness.” The Abhidharma psychology, of Indian Buddhist origin, recognizes two different aspects of mind. On the one hand it is regarded as an organizing faculty presiding over the synthesizing of sense data; on the other, as a sixth sense whose sense objects are concepts in precisely the way that the eyes sense objects are sights. It is the mind’s function as a sense that accounts for its pleasures, such as the pleasure of appreciating mathematical formulas, the pleasure of playing chess, the pleasure of wit. At the moment when one “gets” a joke, one set of relationships is unpredictably revealed to be another, and the mind delights in the unexpectedness of the relation between the new emergent meaning and the old retiring meaning. Scientists and mathematicians have declared that the pleasure they take in their work is essentially an esthetic pleasure. Certain modern philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Rudolf Carnap, have suggested that philosophical arguments exercise a subjective esthetic appeal. This view eliminates the distinction between the cognitive and esthetic categories, which now appear to have extensive, perhaps complete overlap.

In terms of conceptual art it should be noted that this adjustment in our thinking about the human faculties eliminates the traditional critiques, such as Max Kozloff’s complaint in this context that “conceptual art’s questioning has no form” (Artforum, September 1972). The idea that cognition lacks form is based on the old mind-body dualism which separates the mind from the senses, the channels through which form is sensed. Yet the formal nature of thought can be demonstrated merely by thinking of logic or mathematics. James Collins’ distinction between “things and theories” (Artforum, May 1973) is equally a disguised form of mind-body dualism. Theories, of course, are things; they are what Edmund Husserl called noematic objects, that is, mental objects. Every thought or concept is an object, and every object has form and esthetic presence. (What does a centaur look like? An angel?) There is, in other words, an esthetics of thought with its own styles and its own formalism.

Those who insist on certainty of knowledge resist recognition of the esthetics of thought since it casts doubt on the distinction between truth and beauty (again a disguised form of mind-body dualism) and especially on the category of truth in and by itself. It implies that one adopts an opinion on the basis of an esthetic decision as well as a truth-related one, and that one’s beliefs about reality are in part projections of esthetic preferences. The difference, for example, between a mind that prefers simple accounts of things and a mind that prefers complex accounts may be analogous to different preferences in visual composition. Seen in this way the history of philosophy becomes a branch of the history of art, with different ages or trends featuring different styles of intellectual formalism. Greek philosophers recognized this aspect of thought much more openly than have Christian-influenced European thinkers, with their special commitment to the concept of truth as the foundation of dogma. A Greek genre of philosophical literature was called the paignion, or “game”; it was a special place for the construction of paradoxes, infinite regresses, circular arguments, both-and-neither arguments, yes-and-no arguments, and other delicacies of an art that isolated the effects of different types of thought for essentially esthetic appreciation. No less a work than Plato’s Parmenides is sometimes put in this class, as is Gorgias’ On Truth or On What Is Not. The Megarian school specialized in conceptual art objects of this type, and Sextus Empiricus compiled an encyclopedia of them which still exists. (It is one of the most interesting and least-read of ancient Greek books.)

The esthetic of the infinite, though not prominent in the tradition of mind-body dualism from which our modern visual brand of formalism arose, is an example of a particular formalist moment in the history of the esthetics of thought. It demonstrates an intellectual esthetic of the sublime rather than the beautiful—for these distinctions apply to thought as much as to painting or music. The beautiful is dependent on explicit self-identity, on the preeminence of the figure over the ground, and hence on implications of the solidity of selfhood; the sublime on the other hand is based on dissolving the figure into the ground, on a claim of the primacy of the ground over the figure, and of the universal surround of nature over the individual self. In representational painting one thinks of the sublime as a tiny human figure lost in the awesome ruggedness of mountains, electrical storms, or oceans. In the esthetics of thought the sublime is experienced, among other places, in the way the infinity concept interposes enormous abysses of nonidentity into the world of other concepts, abysses that threaten constantly to spread and absorb every identity into them. In language, for example, a word derives its meaning from the differences between it and all the other words in its language; if that language system were infinite the word would never establish its meaning, since the chain of differences contributing to that meaning would unfold forever. The abysses of the infinite appear inside language as the infinite regress of signifiers that prevents the signified from ever being directly confronted. If one attempts to define a word A by saying it means B, when B is also a word or a group of words, then one has slipped from one signifier to another, without really touching the signified. One is involved in an infinite regress and will never directly confront the signified, slipping from signifier to signifier forever. Thus the infinity concept opens abysses in thought like those vastnesses of nature which Edmund Burke called the sublime. Thinkers who have featured the infinity concept as a working tool, from Zeno of Elea to Jacques Derrida, bring the mind to a confrontation with the unknown and the unknowable that threatens individual selfhood with dissolution—that is to say, to a confrontation with the sublime. The esthetic of the finite, on the other hand, emphasizes definition, categorization, and clarity of outline as in the constructivist thought of Aristotle or Leibnitz, and relates to the experience of the beautiful rather than the sublime. Useful parallels may be drawn between preferences in the esthetics of thought and in visual esthetics. Philosophers who construct highly articulated models of the universe might be compared to painters of complex land- or cityscapes, or to abstractionists like Mondrian whose works feature order and hierarchy;philosophers who occupy themselves with deconstructing these models of the universe show an esthetic range that extends from the sublime to the minimal, like American painting in the ’60s. Conceptual art involves both the constructing and the deconstructing aspects of the esthetics of thought, in a mode distinctively its own.

The prominence of language in conceptual art has led to a confused belief that it may be a kind of philosophy or literature. It should be remembered that such questions are questions of linguistic usage, not of essence. What is commonly called philosophy is the activity either of stringing concepts together in the hope they will lead to a conclusion, or taking them apart in the hope that false conclusions will be removed. On the other hand, while conceptual art does in some cases have actual purposes of a social or political type, it does not usually exhibit these philosophical purposes. It more often holds concepts up as objects to be beheld with an appreciative regard that has the same claim to disinterestedness (and no more) that has traditionally been posited for the act of regarding, say, paintings. What has been called literature, in turn, tends to feature narrative structure or its significant absence, and often demonstrates a concern for the sound of language; conceptual art for the most part relates to neither of these values so much as to the values of wit and critical insight, which, though they are not absent from literature, are generally embedded in the complex of literary qualities rather than foregrounded and independently focused.

In any case, the presence of language within the frame of the visual artwork does not need justification; it is not a radical break with established art practice but reflects a tendency that has been present for centuries and which it has been the special genius of our century to confront and force into the open. Before around 1920 the role of the linguistic element in the visual piece was somewhat hidden. An image, of course, appeared with a title, but the title was usually outside the frame of the image, like the proclamation of a transcendent god who stands outside his creation and issues statements of metaphysical definition to it. The idea that language, as a cognitive element, stands over and above the perceptions of the senses was thus reflected in the structure of the artwork. In Western art in general, when words appeared within the frame they did not exercise the function of wit and criticism, as in conceptual art, but either the function of naming, as in Greek vases, or in the names “Mater” and “Magadalena” shining in the halos of the women in the Avignon Pietà, 1455; or the function of a stage prop, as in the letters “IN RI” above the figure of the crucified Christ, the inscription on the pedestal on which the Madonna stands in Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies, 1517, or the newspaper being read in a painting by Cézanne. Gauguin placed titles inside the frame, though usually in a corner out of the way of the figures; Van Gogh, Lautrec, and others of the late 19th century sometimes did the same.

Around 1908 Picasso and Braque began to include fragments of language or even whole passages of newsprint in their paintings as primarily plastic elements, not there to be read but to remind one, as it were, in a gestural way, of the whole presence of the cognitive realm in the texture. This trend picked up momentum in Futurism. Gino Severini, for example, included in his paintings words like valse and polka as comments on the movement of the image, in 1912; in 1914 Carlo Carrà made “free word paintings” of collaged bits of newspaper, music, and advertising. It was in Dada-related contexts that this trend really came to self-awareness. Kurt Schwitters, like the Cubists, used language fragments primarily as plastic elements, to be seen rather than read. But John Heartfield, Duchamp, Magritte, Raoul Hausmann, and others, began, in the 1920s, to use language-with-image in specifically conceptual ways. Duchamp’s combination, in L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, of an altered found photographic reproduction with a mysterious but essential linguistic message foreshadowed the structure of countless conceptual artworks to come. Magritte focused on a critique of the relation between linguistic and visual representation. In La Clef des songes (The key of dreams, 1930), he shows objects with captions that do not apply to them in any ordinary way. Common-sense attitudes like linguistic reification and image reification are deconstructed in such works. Linguistic reification means the naive assumption that one’s own language, that is, one’s conditioned mind-set, is an accurate map of the real; image reification, the belief that one’s culture’s conventions of plastic representation accurately portray the outside universe. In Magritte’s critical paintings, as the verbal representation is declared to have nothing to do with the visual, or the visual with the verbal, so neither connects with a thing being referred to. Human beings are left alone with their experiences, the grids with which to control them being cancelled by mutual contradiction. Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, makes this even more explicit. The project of relentlessly focusing attention on the language-image relationship, and the related project of critiquing naive acceptance of modes of representation as equivalents of the real, became fundamental and lasting themes of conceptual art.

The impetus begun with Dada and lost somewhat in the resurgent formalism of the ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s regained momentum with the works of Jasper Johns and others of his generation. Johns’ famous Flag, 1955, in which the image extends all the way to the edge of the support, conflates the realms of real object (painted flag) and representation (painting of flag). A similar splitting of meaning occurs in such other works of his as Grey Alphabets, 1956, and Numbers in Color, 1958–59. These letters and numbers seem meant not to be read, as in Magritte, but to be looked at, as in Schwitters; yet one cannot help but read them to an extent, as mental focus shifts between the symbolic and plastic orders of meaning. The symbolic order began to assert a claim to primacy in the ’60s with works like Arakawa’s Look At It, 1965, where names of objects are offered in place of images. In 1963 Gene Beery showed word paintings heralding the transition they were involved in, with such messages as “Sorry This Painting Temporarily Out of Style Closed for Updating Watch for Aesthetic Reopening.” In that same year Flynt published his essay defining “concept art.” The genre had been crystallized in part by the 20th century’s long and intense analysis of language. Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics was roughly contemporaneous with Duchamp’s early Readymades. This aspect of conceptual art has led to a series of events, from Duchamp’s puns to Michael Snow’s later anagrammatic respellings of his own name. The fact that conceptual art was born in part from the tradition of language analysis is one reason why artists books became an important conceptual genre. The book expresses the desire to reinstate the mind in artistic activity, to focus on the relationship between word and image, and to eliminate the traditional art object. Finally the project of constructing such an inexpensive and transportable means of communicating concepts visually made these books truly international and translinguistic.

In the 1950s and early 1960s a kind of proto-generation of conceptual artists extended the boundaries of the art category not by stylistic change but by alteration of the art discourse directly; they forced the usage of the word “art” to expand to include things formerly outside its scope, through the process that Atkinson and Baldwin would later call “declaration.” This procedure goes back to the example of Duchamp, and finds its strongest justification in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who demonstrated that a word’s meaning is a matter of usage, not of essence. Understood in this way, the question, is something or other art?, is meaningless because it appeals not to the authority of usage but to the metaphysical and extra-linguistic idea of an art essence that informs both the word and the activity. A corrected version of the question asks whether something or other is called art—for there is ultimately no other way to determine whether it is art. If Duchamp calls a store-bought snow shovel art, and gets a significant number of others who supposedly know how to use the word to do so also, then it is art, because it is called art. Designating something as art is related to the procedure of contextualizing something as art. When in 1917 Duchamp submitted a store-bought urinal to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, he hoped to express the fact that when we see something in a context which directs us to regard it as art, then we shift mental focus and regard it as art—which is the same as saying it is art.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s the procedures of designation and contextualization were foregrounded in the works of Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Ben Vautier, George Brecht, Dennis Oppenheim, and others. Duchamp had physically signed Readymades; Klein instituted a looser fashion of designation by “signing” the sky in fantasy—a technique which Marinus Boezem realized literally with a skywriting airplane in 1969. Manzoni signed human, beings and exhibited people on a sculpture stand. Vautier explicitly universalized the procedure, designating everything an artwork. These acts of designation are themselves works of conceptual art; their material is the mind-stuff of the art beholder, specifically the shift between ordinary focus and art focus that takes place within the mind. Klein extended Duchamp’s rudimentary insights into contextualization by exhibiting an empty gallery in 1959; this gesture implied that if it is the context that makes an object art, rather than any qualities of the object itself, then it is the context that should be exhibited. Analysis of the relationship between an object and the environment in which it is seen became a continuing theme of conceptual art. Daniel Buren’s early stripe works, for example, combined the idea of painting-as-Readymade with a relentless focusing of different art contexts—the gallery, the museum, the street.

Designation and contextualization were the early tools of conceptual art. Once the category of art had been opened up to receive whatever an artist might put into it, formalism’s aspirations to universality and objectivity were replaced by a forced focus on relativism and the critique of meaning. Formalism’s belief in the autonomy of the artwork was answered by the Frankfurt School’s emphasis on social conditioning; formalism’s belief in essence was answered by linguistic analysis and the Saussurean awareness that meaning derives strictly from differences within a bounded system. To clear the air of the archaic forms of thought embodied in formalism, conceptual art was rigorously 20th-century, which is to say rigorously critical. Octavio Paz has remarked that in the 20th century there is no thought, only criticism; critical and analytic modes have been characteristic of movements as diverse as Freudianism, linguistic philosophy, Marxism, semiotics, and others. Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes this critical-analytical trend of our time as a symptom of the Freudian death wish, which is to be understood not as a self-destructive impulse but as a tendency to dissolve patterns of meaning and personal identity which balances out the tendency to rigidify those things—a tendency that was dominant in the 19th century.

In a classic article from 1967 in which the term “conceptual art” is said to have first appeared in precisely this form, Sol LeWitt stressed the goal of “avoiding subjectivity.” Conceptual art in general has focused on eliminating certain kinds of self-expressiveness. This project was of the first importance not because self-expressiveness is the enemy but because Western art had come to be locked into certain shades and clichés of self-expression—those of the romantic transcendentalist—as if they were the necessary essence of art. But artists like LeWitt, Dan Graham, and Carl Andre were in touch with the critical currents of modern culture and wished to exercise responsibility and intelligence in the mode of art. For this reason conceptual art adopted an expressive stance more like that of science and technology. It veered away from the mood of religion, which Clive Bell had said was art’s essential zone, to that of science, where Bell had said it could not survive. As art had recently used analogues of the procedures of religion, now it would use analogues of the procedures of science. This reorientation arose in part from the influence of Minimalism, with its focusing of materials as themselves and of systems of presenting and thinking about them. The investigation of the expressive potential of technological means has brought with it a steadily advancing technological look derived from the camera, which is everywhere; the photocopying machine, as in the famous Xerox Book put together as an exhibition in 1968 by Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler; the audiotape and videotape, as in the works of Graham, Nam June Paik, Dara Birnbaum and others; and more recently the digital light sign, as in the works of Jenny Holzer, and so on.

Along with the reorientation of art toward science and technology came a new emphasis on analytic and critical methods. The Duchampian-Magrittean tradition had already focused on the question of representation and established a position antagonistic to the processes of linguistic reification and image reification. The question of photography’s relationship to convention and reality became a third strand of this project of transcending or at least focusing subjectivity and point of view. These relations were the subject of Joseph Kosuth’s formulaic “Protoinvestigations,” first exhibited in 1972, though dated by the artist to 1965. One and Three Chairs, 1965, for example, presented a chair, a life-sized photograph of the chair on its site, and the dictionary definition of the word “chair.” Kosuth’s subsequent use of the dictionary and thesaurus as materials extended his focus on the naive assumption that one’s language has the same shape as reality. Donald Burgy’s Name Idea #1, 1969, directs attention to the fact that things and words change in different ways and at different rates. Robert Morris exhibition of a card file, The Card File, 1962, pointed to the fact that our systems of arranging knowledge are also arbitrary attempts to project patterns of order and meaning onto the world. Something similar is conveyed in Bernar Venet’s work of the late ’60s and early ’70s, in which he exhibited a series of technical books on subjects including astrophysics and mathematical logic as objects of nonspecialist regard. In a variety of ways Agnes Denes’ works using symbolic logic as a material, Hanne Darboven’s permutation drawings, and Lee Lozano’s I Ching Charts, 1969, belong in this company. This area of conceptual work presents conventions of vision, language, and knowledge as objects for neutral regard, removing the sense of inevitability from them and ambiguously hinting at an attitude of freedom beyond. This project has been one of undermining the conventions with which our culture orders experience and projects special meanings onto it.

The central subject of such analysis is the question of whether artistic canons are objective or relative. Formalism implicitly assumes that esthetic values are at some root level universal and objective, and would be similarly perceived by all developed faculties of taste. This view ignores 20th-century studies of language and behavior, which suggest that cultural and individual conditioning are factors in all judgments of taste, not just those of the supposedly uncultivated; the claim to an unconditioned exercise of judgment is virtually contradictory, since judgment necessarily involves canons and these, as Saussure’s study of language demonstrated, can only define themselves in relation to a finite surrounding system. Duchamp’s Readymades were an attempt to break open this sanctum sanctorum by forcing realization of the relativity of esthetic feelings. The raw unassimilability of these works in their day involved a confrontation with the unknown so far beyond accustomed tastes as to be an intellectual experience of the sublime. The still-repeated cliché that Duchamp’s intention in the Readymades was to demonstrate that esthetic beauty can be found anywhere seems plainly incorrect. He was attempting, as he said in various interviews, to find objects that would be neutral or meaningless in terms of taste. This project was both a critique of formalist theory, with its privileged faculty of taste, and an attempt to transcend the limits of subjectivity in the form of personal habit. Taste, he felt, was not an independent faculty with inborn knowledge but a conditioned habit arising from cultural surroundings. What one is trained to enjoy as art one will enjoy as art. The same force that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate at the sound of a bell makes the art beholder shiver with ecstasy before a painted cloth. An art tradition, then—like, say, European painting—is an arbitrary communal habit based on hidden social and economic forces as much as on esthetic inertia. Tradition exists when a whole culture has acquired a communal habit and rewards the indulging of it. Habits arise as ways to tame the unknowability of experience, but to tame unknowability is to flee the sublime—which Burke described as dark, formless, isolate, unapproachable without loss of self-definition.

Duchamp evidently felt there were three things that one could do about the fact that one was at the mercy of a habit. First, one could go on reinforcing that habit and indulge the pleasure of satisfying it until it came to seem like a given or natural or inevitable part of life. That is how he saw the practice of traditionally esthetic visual art. Secondly, one could break the old habit and start a new one which in time would run the same course from acquired habit to apparent absolute truth; this is what 80he thought the Cubists among others were doing. Third—and this is what the Readymades were about—one could attempt to find ways to a stance beyond esthetic habit. This was a genuinely new conception of the art object, which was now to be regarded as an instrument to pry apart the structures of habit without leaving anything newly enchanting in their place. The Ready-mades were objects designed to be unaccountable in terms of our cultures esthetic habits. They offered a pocket of freedom from art based on habit and from a life of believing that one was beholding transcendent forms when in fact one was mechanically acting out a habit one had not even chosen to acquire. This general intention—of deconditioning, destructuring, creating things unaccountable by any easily available model—permeates the practice of conceptual art, at least that of the first generation.

Unaccountability is important because it stymies attempts to tame and control the rawness of things by coralling them into manageable categories. It is an openness to freedom and mystery, involving as it does a submission to givenness, a relinquishing of the belief in the effectiveness of one’s categories and the fullness of the map of ones language. Recognition of it is a necessary part of the analytic adventure of modern culture. The objets provocateurs which the Futurists and Dadaists featured were transitional devices opening the way to unaccountable objects; they were themselves accountable by their consistent function of provocation. Countless conceptual art objects of later date have striven for pure unaccountability. Both Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers have been engaged, in much of their object-making, in the attempt to arrive at truly unaccountable objects that can find no place in the habit-systems of viewers, including the habit of shock. Broodthaers’ mussel-shell works, like Panneau de moules (Panel of mussels, 1965), and Moules sauce blanche (Mussels in white sauce, 1966), and his eggshell works, his suitcase full of bricks, and many others, are unaccountable objects that resist esthetic appreciation from any habituated stance and render foolish most attempts at discursive interpretation. These objects, one feels somewhat eerily, might be meaningful to some unknown esthetic from some unheard of species or culture. The point is to see reflected there the arbitrariness of our own object preferences. Beuys’ fat works, sausage works, and such function to separate his work from the vestiges of esthetic habit and suspend it in a zone of unknowability and unaccountability. So convincing are the works in this respect that the artist’s autobiographical accounts and explanations seem both unconvincing and irrelevant. The range of conceptual objects that belong in the category of deliberate unaccountability is large, comprehending also, for example, James Lee Byars’ work of 1968 in which a mile of gold thread was sent into outer space on helium balloons; the characteristic Byars-esque invocation of the angelic sphere and attempt to reconnect heaven and earth are recognizable, but after the accounts are given there is something left over that they do not account for. Many of the Flux-Boxes by Brecht and others are designed either to be unaccountable in terms of our usual categories or to imply new half-defined categories whose intentionality we can barely grasp. Unaccountability is found in forms as various as Gordon Matta-Clark’s vertically sliced house and Wolf Vostell’s Berlin Fever, 1973, in which cars clustered in groups of ten drove as slowly as physically possible alongside the Berlin wall for half an hour.

The assault on the premises of linguistic and visual representation, conjoined with the presentation of unaccountable conceptual objects, comprised a sweeping program of focusing on the idea that meanings are projected onto the world of raw information, not inherent in it. The other side of this coin is the recognition of the neutrality of information, which has only those meanings that we project upon it. In Christine Kozlov’s Information: No Theory, variously dated 1969 to 1970, a tape recorder placed in an otherwise empty gallery recorded the ambient sounds on a two-minute loop; at any moment it preserved the sounds made within the last two minutes. In making no selection by form or content but treating all information as equal, she eliminated the meaning projections by which we ordinarily distinguish one piece of information from another as more meaningful, relevant, or useful. On Kawara, in I Got Up, 1970, mailed postcards that reported the time he got up every day for a year to a select group of recipients. There was no implication that the knowledge might be useful or even interesting to them; information was purveyed for its own sake, with no particular application of it in mind, parodying the declining tradition of art for art’s sake. In Kawara’s Today, 1966, the artist made a painting of the day’s date each day for a year, parodying the tradition of painterly expressiveness and of the arbitrary perfection of the art elements in the work. Countless other conceptual pieces have involved expressions of the neutrality of information, including esthetic information. Vito Acconci, in Step Piece, 1970, stepped onto and off of a stool as many times as he could each morning for a month at a time, recording and later publishing the numbers. Christopher Cook’s A Book of Instants, 1970, is filled with a list of apparently unrelated or arbitrary times, such as “November 21, 1844, 9:40 A. M.” Jan Dibbet’s Robin Redbreast’s Territory Sculpture, 1969, presents information designated by the movements of a wild bird. Robert Smithson’s guided tour of “the monuments of Passaic,” 1967, confronted the art audience with the idea that Passaic, New Jersey, had replaced Rome as the Eternal City, and with information about certain monuments there. The presentation of raw or unordered materials is not, as Kozloff has argued, a meaningless activity; it is the useful promulgation of a view of meaning as imposed arbitrarily on materials from without, for reasons not inherent in the materials themselves but in our plans and ambitions for them.

One formalist projection of special meaning that came under special attack was the idea that the artwork was autonomous in the sense of being outside social and economic causes and conditions. This view was countered in the ’60s and ’70s by the widespread dissemination of the so-called Frankfurt criticism in the works of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and others. These critics felt that the artwork had been coopted by the processes of the market, which created the myth of autonomy to conceal this fact. The impression of autonomy was maintained as a pious fiction by the use of a special aurifying environment and by the apotropaic utterances of formalist critics; the outside world was identified as secular and the inner temple as sacred, along the lines of Bell’s insistence that art belonged in the area of culture with religion, not with science. One strategy for presenting the artwork as embedded in rather than autonomous of the ordinary causal networks of human life has been the introduction of chance procedures which leave the work vulnerable to forces outside the artist’s intentions. Chance procedures in the art-making process can produce artistic forms that are freed from the tyranny of conditioned habit. As the tradition of introducing chance elements grew it developed a certain formalism of its own, based on the increasing elegance or expressiveness with which chance was introduced. To incorporate chance into the Three Standard Stoppages, 1913–14, Duchamp created a quasi-scientific procedure like that of an experimenter, dropping a meter-long piece of string three times from a height of one meter, and recording the three curves that it made upon landing; these curves were then incorporated as elements uncontaminated by hand and taste into a variety of later works by Duchamp, including the Large Glass. The quasi-scientific air of the procedure accords with what Duchamp called the precision of the random, and with the fact that here it is not a desire to control that is being acted out but a desire to invite the world to state its own projects, in the manner of a scientific experiment. In Klein’s rain paintings, powdered pigment flung into the air was applied to a canvas on the ground by raindrops. In Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown, 1969, a dump truck released a load of hot asphalt down a slope, where it cooled and hardened naturally. In Richard Serra’s Splashing, 1968, molten lead was splashed along the base of a wall in a gallery.

The experiment-like procedure of the Three Standard Stoppages is echoed in the quasi-scientific instructions, as if to a laboratory assistant, in one of Duchamp’s texts:

10 words found by opening the dictionary at random by A
10 words found by opening the dictionary at random by B
These 2 sets of 10 words have the same difference of “personality” as if the 10 words have been written by A and B with an intention. Or else, it matters little, there would be cases where this “personality” may disappear in A and B. That is the best case and most difficult.

Duchamp seems not to be instructing the reader to carry out this work, but the tone is the same. Such laboratory-type instruction becomes a basic element of conceptual art in its studied displacement from the realm of pseudo-religion to that of pseudo-science, and in its deliberate shift to a more impersonal mode of expressiveness. It relates to the procedural rules by which John Baldessari made his conceptual photographs of balls thrown into the air, to Mel Bochner’s measurement pieces, to the technological look of many conceptual installations, and so on. LeWitt, in the essay of 1967, had prescribed execution according to a completely predetermined plan, with no impulsive alteration in process, as an antidote to the romantic myth of self-expressiveness. The principle still holds, for example, in quotational painting.

Another way of underlining the fact that the artwork is not autonomous but involved in ordinary causality is to site it directly in the flux of the changing world. Buren had his stripe paintings carried around the city like advertising signs, and sited them as flags flying over Paris. Maura Sheehan, in her “Urban Alterations” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, designated public parts of American cities as art, usually by adding monochrome paint to them; these works were meant to deteriorate in observable time with the normal activity of the city. Time, in other words, was used as a material. Her recent paintings of guns and Greek vases on broken windshields retain the connection with change and the street. Robert Janz has sited works in the middle of a flowing stream and at the waves edge by the ocean. The incorporation of time and change into the work, like sitedness in the world, reveals its contingency. Euan Burnet-Smith has made sculptures held together in a matrix of ice, which deconstruct themselves in about three hours. Bochner structured a piece around the growth rate of a tree, Wolfgang Laib around the seasonal production of pollen. These works feature acceptance of natural scales of time, like the rate of ice melting or of urban decay; time is also used as a material to be shaped or manipulated. Dibbets preannounced a moment when he would appear on a certain balcony in Amsterdam and make a gesture of greeting. Douglas Huebler offered a reward for the capture of a wanted criminal, presumably accelerating the process. Jean Tinguely made exploding artworks like Study for an End of the World, 1961, and Study for an End of the World, No. 2, 1962. Graham’s Yesterday/Today, 1975, presented a video monitor showing activity in a nearby room while an audiotape recorded in the same room exactly 24 hours earlier was played.

Ephemeral works are in part an attempt to avoid the processes of commodification and fetishism in which artworks favored by the formalist ideology seemed so deeply implicated. Many sited works also avoid the system of commercial galleries and collectors, as does the use of the public mail as distribution system, a practice pioneered by Klein, Dick Higgins, and others in the late ’50s and still much in use today. The frequent involvement of conceptual with performance art is a related means of enmeshing it in the real time of embodied human activities while simultaneously avoiding the commodifiable object. Richard Long’s and Hamish Fulton’s photo-documented cross-country walks hover at the interface between concept, performance sculpture, and photography. Oppenheim contrasted experiential and conceptual time in Time Line, 1968, in which he walked through the snow along the boundary between two time zones, in the gap between two times yet leaving a trail as proof of passage. Linda Montano has posited a performance of seven years duration, in which she will immerse herself constantly for one year in the symbolism of each of the centers recognized by Indian occult neurology, listening to its tone, dressing in and visualizing its color, and speaking each year in a different accent intended to embody the sense of the center then in effect. The scale of this piece raises real questions about the relation between art and life. By the time it is over every cell of her body will have regenerated; nothing will be left of her.

Traditional gallery and museum settings are of course designed to eliminate the sense of embeddedness in a socioeconomic world and create in its place a sense of ethereal-eternal presence like that valued in religious buildings. Yet even within the gallery or museum setting ways have been found to breach, if sometimes only gesturally, the traditional separation between art and life. In 1969 Hans Haacke installed a UPI news ticker-tape in the Museum of Modern Art, bringing the entire world, or a manifestation of the entire world in all its political and social problematic, inside. Bochner, in Compass: Orientation, 1968, drew the four cardinal directions on the gallery floor, emphasizing that the gallery was located in a surrounding world and that the work seen in it could not be autonomous and transcendent. In Lawrence Weiner’s A Wall Stained with Water, 1969, the gallery was shown as found but, as the title indicates, with a focus on the inadvertent sign of its vulnerability to external forces that involve it in change and decay. In 1968 Smithson began exhibiting heaps of natural gravel. The material was conceived as, to a degree, bringing its outdoor site with it into the gallery. Mary Kelly located her work Post-Partum Document, 1973–79, in the net of causality by rooting its content in autobiography, specifically in the development of her child.

Under the influence of both of the Frankfurt critics and Louis Althusser, the impulse arose to make artworks that would not only avoid the traditional channels of commodification and fetishism but reveal them as well—artworks that would pry apart the unidirectionality of the culture industry and turn its elements and strategies against itself. The critique of the culture industry has prominently featured a critique of photography and an appropriation of advertising styles. Les Levine has placed socially oriented works composed of photographs and verbal messages in the advertising spaces of subways. Victor Burgin has made photographs designed to look like advertising, adding texts intended to criticize the culture industry through its own look. Haacke has altered texts on advertising photographs in ways designed to reveal the tacit cooperation of the system of art commodification with the institutions of government and industry. Barbara Kruger’s works of the ’80s are a looser and somewhat more expressive variant of this mode. Birnbaum, Richard Prince, and others have variously incorporated the semiotics of advertising into their work.

Photography in this context is not of course art photography as such; sometimes it is its antithesis. Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and others, have kept their photo-documentation amateurish in style and quality to avoid estheticizing and commodifying effects. The use of instant photography has been favored for its emphasis on ephemerality, and the use of self-photography for its relation to images of solipsism and self-consciousness.The camera has had a kind of role as epistemological model; the once widespread belief in its objectivity has been discredited in part by the efforts of artists like Haacke and Burgin to reveal its uses as an instrument of propaganda and mystification. The wry critical composites of photographs and texts by Gilbert & George, Bill Beckley, and others tend also to reflect photography’s involvement in the culture industry and its proliferation of illusions.

Conceptual art’s deconstruction of formalist art theory and practice culminated in what was called “the dematerialization of the art object.” To a degree this was an unrealizable ideal; since the brain is a material thing and its operations have a chemical aspect, even mind-objects or language pieces are kinds of material objects. Nevertheless there was a real meaning to the project, which was another expression of the fundamental idea of self-consciousness: if consciousness is of itself, then subjectivity is the object—the object, as an other, is eliminated. Klein, who first applied the term “dematerialization” to art, exhibited empty space several times, beginning in 1959; but he did so only after convincing himself that he had projected mental vibrations into it that were actually material, though of a material too fine or ordinary senses to perceive. He conceived of these works in traditional genre terms, calling them invisible paintings and sculptures. In 1967 Buren and others exhibited visible paintings, but in a locked room where no one could see them. In 1969 Robert Barry stood in front of an audience and attempted to communicate to them telepathically the appearance of a work which they never physically saw. Weiner and William Anastasi removed parts of gallery walls rather than adding something to the space. As the other side of dematerialization, conceptual art has analyzed the context in which the art object had once been contained, focusing on the system of market-related processes that surrounded it like a net. Michael Asher removed the partition wall dividing the gallerys exhibition space from its sales space, revealing, through subtractive means, the market system which surrounds the artwork while concealing itself from it. Haacke exhibited the market histories of paintings by artists like Edouard Manet and Georges Seurat. Louise Lawler rearranged objects in the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, and has otherwise focused attention on the system in which the works are manipulated. Broodthaers, Anastasi, Asher, Buren, and others have made works in which the wall label identifying the piece as art was the material of the piece itself.

Related to immateriality and subtraction is the empty or hidden piece, which goes back to Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise, 1916, and Picabia’s painting presented to a Dada evening audience in its wrappings in 1916. Manzoni produced a line thousands of meters long, rolled it up, canned it, and buried it in the ground. Robin Winters, in 1984, installed his drawings under the bricks of the gallery floor. Douglas Davis, in 1974, buried a functioning video camera that recorded its own burial. A work of Bruce Nauman’s was a concrete cubical chamber, with no entrance, buried in the ground, with a video camera operating inside it so the empty and buried interior could be seen in an aboveground monitor. The idea for this piece goes back through several stages to Klein’s exhibition of the empty gallery, and forms part of a subgenre including Barry’s exhibition of a closed gallery, Byars’ Imaginary Museum, and various other pieces by Barry, Ian Wilson, and Tom Marioni in which the invitation to the show was in fact the artwork.

The theme of immateriality, hiddenness, and emptiness implied as its corollary the positing of mind-stuff or consciousness as the true art material. Artworks had always been thrown onto the screen of consciousness to be perceived; now the screen itself, and its various processes, were to be made both the subject matter and the material of art attention. The theme of consciousness, and of its reflexive activity as self-consciousness, has been basic to conceptual art from the beginning—it has almost been its emblem or logo. Self-consciousness is a concept next door to solipsism, which is the idea that consciousness is only consciousness of one’s self, and solipsism in turn is next door to tautology, which is the statement of self-sameness or identity. Conceptual art has taken the rendering of these concepts as its special province. In 1966, Anastasi exhibited Microphone, a tape recorder that played back an audiotape on which the sound of its own operations had been recorded. In 1967 he exhibited photographs of gallery walls hung on the walls they represented, filmed a wall and projected the film onto the same wall, and so on. In 1968 Ian Burn Xeroxed a blank sheet of paper, then Xeroxed the copy, and so on through a hundred generations presenting the results as a book; the page’s moments of awareness of itself developed into a form and a content. A performative icon of elementary self-consciousness is found in reports of Allan Kaprow’s private works of minimal human gesture performed without audience, documentation, or reportage, existing only in the medium of immediate self-awareness. In more detailed investigations it was possible to focus and isolate specific emotions, thoughts, or thought processes, such as imagining, relating, comparing, visualizing, or perceiving. When one turns a Huebler dot or line over 45 degrees in one’s mind, then 90 degrees, and so on, it is the operations of consciousness that one is made aware of, and the fact that these operations may create realities that are in no way present in the material ambience. One watches one’s mind perform these simple turning movements as if watching a child learning to perform such movements with its hands. The unfamiliarity of one’s own mental processes becomes apparent—how uninspected they are, and yet how susceptible to or available for inspection. The turning of one’s own mind-stuff is focused, isolated, and presented to one’s attention as an object. Something similar, though with added inner tensions, is produced by Dibbets’ “Perspective Corrections” in 1967–69, in which objects are presented in ways that seem to deny perspectival foreshortening while in fact they are being seen perspectivally but their shape is other than one had thought. One corrects the corrected perspective and then recorrects it again. Here mental processes are the material or medium. There is a certain formalism to this type of work, of course. Weiner’s early word pieces often involved the isolation of specific mental operations triggered by linguistic directions, such as _to the sea, on the sea, from the sea, and bordering the sea, all 1970. Such work investigates parts of speech, in this case prepositions, concentrating on the single mental operation that differs from one prepositional formulation to another. Like turning one of Huebler’s imaginary lines. around in ones head, one similarly turns Weiner’s tiny word pieces, or turns that part of the conceptual stuff which registers distinctions such as those between prepositions. Noematic or imaginary objects become artworks by deliberate impetus of the mind-stuff in a certain direction, the bestowing of the impetus being the art act. Weiner’s piece entitled Floatable Objects Thrown into Inland Waterways One Each Month for 7 Years, 1969, is not a performance to be acted out, but a complex image to be constructed and beheld in the mind. Byars has presented the receiver’s imagination with less specific suggestive phrases like The Perfect Book, 1981, or The Exhibition of Perfect, 1983; from such hints the viewer obtains a kind of transfer of mental atmosphere. Somewhere between the hidden and the imaginary falls Barry’s piece Psychic Series, 1969: “Everything in the unconscious / perceived by the senses but not / noted by the conscious mind / during trips to Baltimore, / during the summer of 1967.” Such encapsulations of indefinite millions of data encompass whole shelf-loads of unwritten novels in their brief suggestiveness. They have something of the evocativeness associated with the fragments of Presocratic philosophy or of early Greek lyric poetry.

To a considerable degree the complex of strategies forming conceptual art was first defined negatively, by the complex of strategies it was attempting to destroy, those of formalist painting and sculpture. Its early form was to a degree determined, or controlled, by the form of what it was criticizing. This aspect has been acted out in a series of pieces in which the artist claims to retire from the practice of art (that is, from formalist commodity-making) again, as a demonstration of his or her real seriousness about art in a broader sense. Again, of course, Duchamp has been the great prototype—or anyway the myth that he quit art for chess-playing, which seems moderately if not rigorously true. In the period of first-generation conceptualism such gestures were a common motif; a material, really. In 1970 Baldessari gave an exhibition that consisted of the ashes of his paintings. Venet predicted in 1967 that he would quit artmaking four years thence; that is, the instructions for his projected series of pieces ended that way. The myth of Duchamp indicated that by switching from art to chess he laid claim to a superior cultural and intellectual position. Beuy’s piece The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated, 1964, is a kind of reverse example of this genre, expressing his frustration at Duchamp for a confused dichotomy that he left for later artists: if nonart has been declared art, then quitting art is not really quitting. What can be the distinction between practicing art by practicing it and practicing art by not practicing it?

It was this kind of dichotomized thinking that caused conceptual art to be called “anti-art.” But the term “anti-art” was never right. Conceptual art is not innately inimical to formal object art—it may be used that way, but it is not innately so; it is itself a formal means with its own characteristic range of objecthood. The fierceness of this dichotomy was a result of the history of the theory of art more than of the history of art. It was a kind of Manichaean split forced by the repressive practice of formalist theoreticians and critics who artificially attempted to ban language and concept, and with them thought and discourse and in fact culture, from the visual arts. The puritanical excesses once performed in the service of Soul were paralleled by the formalistic excesses in the service of esthetic feeling. The conflict beween faith and reason was replayed in the realm of art, and reason lost. Reason became the old antagonist again, now called not Anti-Christ but Anti-Art.

In a sense the polarization of art over the form-content, or senses-mind, issue was fortunate, because in trying to back away from conceptual aspects of the art experience several things were achieved. Abstract types of representation not formerly prominent in the Western tradition were to an extent worked out—and such advocates as Clement Greenberg developed avocabulary and discourse to describe them with impressive clarity; indeed, with the almost spooky clarity of a discourse that does not see beyond itself. Even more important, a new sensory genre—or rather one that had always existed but had not before been made explicit in discourse—was forced out into the open. Born in the heat of combat, and with the brand of the Anti-Art upon it, the new medium—conceptual art—seemed to promise a new future.

The pseudo-scientific mood in which classical conceptualism sometimes presented itself was not an absence of self-expression but a critical shift in the idea of self-expression, one that depended less on questionable claims about originality and pure creativity, and attempted not only to acknowledge the conditioned nature of artistic activity but also to investigate and analyze its conditioning. There is courage in investigating the realm of not-self, and this project, so characteristic of 20th-century culture in general, brings with it new modes and channels of expressiveness which in turn revalidate the aspect of self in a saner spirit. Creative feeling and intensity of artistic involvement open in unexpected new directions where twenty years ago they would have been regarded as impossible. Several quotational painters have remarked in the last year or so that copying the same work again and again deepens the expressiveness of the act. The radical antithesis that such activity offers to formalism is almost a parable.

Today at least two other generations of conceptual artists are active alongside the members of the first generation who have wrought such heroic changes in our perception of art. Mike Osterhout, echoing in 1984 Duchamp’s invention of a female self with whose name to sign his works, created a fictitious artist, “Kristán Kohl,” made abstract paintings for Kohl, and gave her a gallery show with advertisements in the art magazines. Other works confront the new moment with new styles. Kiki Smith, in 1984, exhibited 12 pints of human blood on a shelf as a person. Anastasi in 1985 has drawn hundreds of “blind” self-portraits, made with his eyes closed—a kind of parable for the whole art world today. Buren has transformed the stripe works into complex architectural performances involving a decision-making process that both parodies and incorporates elements of action painting. Performance painting is being practiced in a variety of forms, as media and genres once puritanically separate mix and fuse. Whether there is a puristically separate genre of conceptual art no longer matters as much as it did twenty or thirty years ago, when art was nearly suffocating for want of it. The purpose of it all was to restore the mind to art. Once mind is back, every medium that truly exercises it becomes in part a form of conceptual art. But this does not mean that one can let it go now, like a thing whose purpose is past. It has its own destiny, as an increasingly complex and syntactical formal means, still before it. And the various forces and conditions that once attempted, so nearly successfully, to remove art from critical self-consciousness are still alive and active; we still require the vigilance of mind with all its attentiveness and critical ingenuity.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.