New York

“Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s”

“Global Conceptualism” made two claims. It suggested that Conceptualism—the visual presentation of a linguistic idea—was an international phenomenon and that its emergence was inextricable from the leftist, postcolonial politics of the ’60s and ’70s. Both arguments implied a critique of previous formulations. First, the show pointed up the Western bias of such important earlier surveys as the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’s “L’art conceptuel, une perspective” (1989) and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965–1975” (1995). Second, by promoting a notion of Conceptualism as political intervention, the exhibition weighed against a more reflexive, “formalist” post-Minimal activity, aka the “Conceptual art” proposed by Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth in the late ’60s.

Did it work? The standard story of Conceptualism, which leads from Johns, to LeWitt, to Kosuth, is ripe for revision, and the show offered ample evidence that the infusion of language into postwar art was not limited to North America and Europe. But if “Global Conceptualism” escaped such Western-centrism, its highlighting of the “margins” at the expense of the “centers” made for a tendentious show. The exhibition down played American efforts, and not only, one suspects, because the organizers assumed their familiarity. Where Japanese artists like Yoko Ono and Matsuzawa Yutaka and South Africans Willem Boshoff and Malcolm Payne showed several works, LeWitt was represented by a minor book, Lawrence Weiner by one statement. Important figures like Ed Ruscha, Mel Bochner, and Dan Graham were nowhere to be found. Squeezing the US and Canada into a single antechamber dubbed ’’North America“ while according Japan and Korea entire installations suggested an overzealous attempt to rewrite history rather than a laudable effort to open up the Conceptual paradigm. The capacious salons devoted to Latin American work implied that Mexico City and Buenos Aires, more than New York and Los Angeles, were the dominant sources of Conceptualism in the Western Hemisphere. At its worst, ”Global Conceptualism" was canon reformation of the crudest kind.

By simply replacing the canonical with the noncanonical, the “formal” with the engagé, the show offered a revisionist account as slanted as the most centrist presentation. More ironic, perhaps, was how this repackaging of Conceptualism for the ’90s never considered its own social location. Using terms like “globalization” and “linkages,” the organizers (a team of eleven, headed by former Queens Museum director of exhibitions Jane Farver, artist Luis Camnitzer, and scholar Rachel Weiss) unwittingly rehearsed the buzzwords not just of the academy but of corporate culture as well. That is to say, the notion of Conceptualism proposed as a radical antidote to so-called formalist Conceptual art was articulated in the language of late-capitalist expansion, just as the show itself could be mounted only through the support of multinational corporations. One could hardly fault the curators for jumping onto the global bandwagon, but the show’s lack of reflexivity as to its implicit compliance with these social mechanisms undercut the force of its revisionist agenda.

The catalogue suggests that cheap travel and the mass circulation of information facilitated the rise of Conceptualism in the ’60s without engendering a sameness of approach, a claim borne out by the heterogeneity of the work on display. Alas, “Global Conceptualism” did not begin to explain the contexts it attempted to map. Where “Reconsidering the Object of Art” allocated an entire room to almost every artist, the Queens show presented a dizzying panoply of works displayed pell-mell (a Giulio Paolini here, a Victor Burgin there-you get the picture). Wall labels were appallingly inconsistent, alternating between the barest descriptions and most long-winded excursuses and rarely clarifying how these extraordinarily diverse practices qualified as “Conceptual.” For example, Lygia Clark’s works were said to “mean very little in-and-of themselves”; rather, they are “to be worn.” This sounded more like a Productivist or phenomenological activity—as Clark’s work has been described by Yve-Alain Bois—than a language-based practice. A critic-friend who had accompanied me to Queens attempted to resolve the discrepancy. Donning a burlap outfit, his arms contorted and face shrouded, he proved that Clark’s works are best not worn: experienced, perhaps. At any rate, the precise Conceptual nature of her practice continued to elude us both.

Confusing as it was, “Global Conceptualism” did include memorable work. Komar and Melamid’s early efforts (discussed by Margarita Tupitsyn in a fine essay) had a metaphorical openness lacking in their later painting projects. The practice of Argentine artist Alberto Greco, who declared people “works of art” contemporaneously with Piero Manzoni in the early ’60s, was a revelation. So too Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden’s 1966/l990 Soft Tape, a recording of a work “defining itself in barely audible speech.” The irreverent statements in Douglas Huebler’s Variable Piece 4: Secrets, 1973, were unexpectedly amusing, suggesting an overlap with Vito Acconci as well as a contemporary Landersesque sensibility (“I have recently wanted to go all the way with a boy”; “I am a truly fucked up person”; “I wish Conceptual Art was dead”). The rediscovery of Huebler’s salty side was one of any number of surprises awaiting the viewer willing to sort through this ambitious, vexing show.

“Global Conceptualism” travels to the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, Dec. 19, 1999–Mar. 5, 2000, and the Miami Art Museum, Sept. 26, 2000–Nov. 2, 2000.

James Meyer’s history of Minimalism is forthcoming from Yale University Press.