PRINT November 2003


The seduction of Conceptual art—its promise of beauty or truth, its appeal to human meaning and consequence, its lure of aesthetic delight—has never really been a function of the concept. The form of this or that banal idea, like the shape of this or that clunky sculpture or the color of this or that homogeneous field of paint, can never effect such a seduction on its own and thus has to be supplemented if it wants to make any reasonable claim on its beholders as art qua art. After the novelty wears off, who cares if a canvas is all black or all blue or all white, or if a sculpture’s medium—its “primary object,” as it was once called—is a box or brick or light fixture? Only the most deadened ivory-tower academic, jaded industry insider, or aimless gilded-cage connoisseur. Who cares if the concept is a dictionary definition or (as Sol LeWitt put it in his founding explanation of Conceptual art) a predetermined “machine that makes the art”? Once the innovation has been registered for the annals of art history, such calculated reductions are meaningless. Who could possibly care now about the conceptual part of Conceptual art?

These are questions that arise regularly from students and others working to appreciate the ambitions of much recent art. The opening made available by their pointed philistinism—what, then, is the appeal of Conceptual art if not the concept?—cannot be bunged by the claims of anesthetics or anti-aesthetics, for example, that the value of Conceptualism resides exclusively in repudiating or desensitizing or purging aesthetic experience. An art that gives nothing more of itself than its own guilty self-abnegation as art has little more appeal than one that measures up only to its bricks or concepts. It is true, of course, that modernism has always rested on such disavowal in one way or another, but it has done so by setting one notion of the aesthetic against another: the negation of bourgeois taste for the sake of the bohemian, or the negation of content in favor of form, or the negation of representation in favor of experience, or the negation of art in favor of life. (After all, even the old avant-garde slogan of “art into life” sought much more than a simple renunciation of the former as a mythic counterpoint to the latter.) In the end this dialectic is true as well for the monochromes of Ad Reinhardt and Yves Klein, say, not to mention those of a more painterly monochromiste like Robert Ryman, or for the Minimalism of Carl Andre and Dan Flavin, not to mention that of a real aesthete like Donald Judd: Their turn away from traditional painterly and sculptural values is offset and completed by the pleasure arising from the aesthetic qualities of their minimally modified art materials, in their fetishization of a “primary object.”

The problem for Conceptual art is that its ambition has regularly been assumed to be different from that of these other modernisms, to be more resolute and more complete in its refusal. Its wager with the concept has meant, in principle, not only rejecting particular aesthetic indulgences but denying aesthetic experience as such. This radicalism has been the primary measure of Conceptualism’s claim to be the marker of 1968 for the history of art: Its “establishment” was the institutionally entrenched demand that aesthetic experience stand on its own against any form of instrumental reasoning, and its “counterculture” was the self-directing and self-justifying autonomy of the concept. This was what allowed it to claim that concepts could be art, but this claim was neither pure nor sustainable: To the degree that Conceptualism has realized its status as art, it has also had to rely on one or another substitute notion of beauty, on sneaking the promise of aesthetic experience, of l’art pour l’art, in once again through a back door.

This long-standing tension has been aired recently by stock-in-trade Conceptualist Edward Krasinski. His signature—a continuous blue line connecting one discrete object to another and another in a manner that suggests that the line and its process of making attachments might continue without end—dates back to the late ’60s, but he did not have his first solo exhibition in the US until this past summer, at the tender age of seventy-eight, at Anton Kern Gallery in New York. If we may judge from the initial reports about his debut, the aesthetic qualities more than the conceptual seemed to call for a response: “Fresh” and “handsome,” said the most reserved of the three early reviewers; a “powerful installation” with “an elegiac impact,” said the second and more daring; “a kind of uncontrollable, almost hilarious bliss induced by the unfathomable mystery of absolute simplicity,” waxed the third and bravest.

On the face of it, Krasinski’s simple gesture would not seem to merit even the most subdued of these responses: It is, after all, nothing more than a taped blue line running along a wall and over various installed elements (mainly suspended mirrors in the New York show but photographs, paintings, sculptures, and other architectural elements—and, on at least one occasion, his daughter—elsewhere). The mirrors, photographs, sculptures, and other elements do artistic work on their own, of course, and they are inseparable from the overall effect, but the line, banal as it is, Conceptualist as it is, carries the primary or overarching artistic intention. Krasinski’s aim is as simple as it is bold—to “stick it everywhere and onto everything in a horizontal direction”—and the tape itself serves not only to index his reach but also to augment it: “I can reach everywhere,” the artist says, “with its help.” Such a boast is both a routine Conceptualist conceit, a meaningless idea–cum–“machine that makes the art,” and a measure of concrete ambition. “Wolves pee to mark their territory,” he says in another characteristically provocative sound bite. “I stick the blue tape to mark mine.” But the opposition between the concept’s semiotic implosion and its tallying of a material objective, between its auto-negation and its cumulative worldly consequence, is not easily reconciled. Writing about Krasinski’s installation at Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in 2000, reviewer Daiga Rudzàte testified to this split in experience with sensitivity and clarity: “In one sense the tape is not really noticed. In another—it is very poetic, very emotional.”

The art-historical genealogy of Krasinski’s line is easy to trace. There is the industrial allusion and the geometrical abstraction of Constructivism, for example, particularly as developed in 1920s Poland by Henryk Stazewski. (Krasinski moved in with his friend Stazewski in the early 1970s and continued to live in the same Warsaw apartment after Stazewski’s death in 1988; he commemorated the relationship in a 1989 installation.) And there is the site-specificity and audience interactivity of happenings, especially as practiced in ’60s Poland by Tadeusz Kantor (Krasinski participated in several of Kantor’s works, including his Panoramic Sea Happening of 1967). Perhaps the most obvious connection is with Daniel Buren, whose own high-Conceptualist, career-long repetition of a precise, self-regulated stripe pattern closely mirrors Krasinski’s own unchanging application of the taped blue line (Krasinski had a number of professional involvements with Buren from 1970 on). “I do not know whether it is art,” states Krasinski, for example, sharing a taste for ubiquitous and ultramundane form with Buren. “But for sure it is Scotch blue, width 19 mm, length unknown.” More interesting, however, than the monotony of manufactured pattern Krasinski shares with Buren’s stripes is the monochromy he has in common with the endless blue of Yves Klein. Krasinski’s lasting engagement with blue—a color that has stayed with him as he moved through a variety of materials for making a line—was, as one essayist has put it enigmatically but correctly enough, his way of “experiencing Klein.”

Klein’s blue—IKB, or International Klein Blue, as he branded it in 1957 (and officially patented it in 1960)—was freighted with a grandiose aesthetic ambition, one completely separate from whatever shape, texture, or form it assumed. In a way it was this separation that allowed Klein his outsize reach. Unlike red or yellow, say, or green or orange or white, Klein insisted, blue was dimensionless: It was not the color of objects in space like such lesser hues but instead the color of space itself: “BLUE, a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification” is how Pierre Restany described it in 1957, “this full void, this nothing which encloses the Everything Possible.” Indeed, in an earlier founding gesture, Klein presumed to sign the sky (the closest thing he could find to space as such, it seems fair to assume, or that which encloses the Everything Possible), later declaring it his “first and biggest monochrome” and complaining loudly about some disrespectful “holes” that had been punctured in its dimensionlessness: “The birds must disappear!” he commanded.

Here, with Klein’s godlike decrees in mind, we can begin to make sense of the aesthetic charge of Krasinski’s line and understand why it, or, really, any example of Conceptual art, might strike its viewers as “powerful” or “uncontrollable” or “elegiac” or “emotional.” Krasinski gives it away when he adopts a tone not unlike Klein’s and says without qualification, “I can reach everywhere,” or when he compares his blue line, “length unknown,” to the territorial marking of a wolf. Like Klein’s all-encompassing sky or Buren’s ubiquitous stripe pattern or Douglas Huebler’s Conceptualist classic “Variable Piece # 70 (In Process) Global,” 1971–97, which sought to photograph “everyone alive,” Krasinski’s line takes on the aim to subsume world to ego and ego to world. That these various accomplishments range from banal to ridiculous to fantastic matters little: Regardless of their sincerity, the promise that the modest conceptual exercise will expand in scale to incorporate the world as a whole is the aesthetic experience on offer. It is a kind of megalomania, for sure, but even so, aesthetic experience is wrought from the concept against its will, and the frustration of Conceptual art, its struggling against the limits of the concept in the name of the concept, is vented or at least deferred.

Though this genre finds its aesthetic traction by simply inflating the scale of a concept until it loses its hold on reason, each artist extends it differently. The form of transcendence that carries Krasinski’s mark beyond its concept is linear, for example, while Klein’s is spatial, Huebler’s empiricist, and Buren’s economistic. Each has his own means of making the minimal qualitative character of his concept register quantitatively, thereby allowing it to be inflated more and more until it bursts from its own excess. Where Klein puffs himself up into a godlike composer of space as such, where Huebler pursues science with no purpose other than itself, where Buren presumes to the role of industry or mass media that distributes a rigidly standardized product with no content other than its own innate force and momentum, Krasinski is different. His art is no pastiche—it does not appropriate an existing role or empty that role of its usual purpose. The banality of his concept has no critical function, no identity to undercut, no engagement with the hermeneutics of suspicion. To phrase this difference another way, Krasinski is not playing dumb. Instead, like his wolf, he puts his mark “everywhere and onto everything in a horizontal direction” and patiently and earnestly incorporates world to self through a process of gradual and systematic accretion.

The “aesthetic moment,” Theodor Adorno wrote, is “not accidental to philosophy.” By this he meant that aesthetic and conceptual relations to the world are deeply and closely intertwined in a manner made possible only by their difference: Where the concept builds its claim to truth by analysis, by parsing the world into discrete, precisely defined elements, aesthetic response derives its conviction from the opposing impulse, from drawing together the diverse truths of the world—in principle, if not in practice, all of them—into a single unified affective response. Of course, not all pointed concepts rise to the standards of philosophy, nor do all woolly feelings qualify as aesthetic experience. The high bar for each is the other: The conceptual domain of philosophy is the measure of art’s rise beyond that which is not art, just as art’s aesthetic province sets the standard for philosophy. Aesthetic experience is, as Kant had it before Adorno, a form of “embarrassment” for the concept, and philosophy, when it is doing its job, can lay bare the lie in art.

By this criterion Krasinski’s line might be said to be the purest Conceptualism of the lot. The concept is presented at face value for its aesthetic quality just as the aesthetic aim is given its philosophical gauge or index: It says to its beholder nothing more or less than “I am the social,” nothing more or less than “I am the medium that connects people and things.” In this abstraction—this moment of becoming the void or interstice or empty concept between people and things—Krasinski’s line realizes its power to seduce, its power to incorporate the beholder into its aims without irony or pastiche or suspicion. To the degree that it succeeds and becomes “not really noticed” and simultaneously “very poetic, very emotional,” it gives to the conceptual part of Conceptual art that which has long been its wont: l’art pour l’art.

Blake Stimson teaches in the art history and critical theory programs at the University of California, Davis.