“Romantic Conceptualism”

Though the pairing of Romanticism with Conceptual art is hardly common in art-historical writing, Conceptual art has long been misunderstood as a necessarily dry affair. Even Sol LeWitt, who famously stated in his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” that an “emotional kick” would “deter the viewer from perceiving this art,” wrote two years later in his “Sentences” that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” From the beginning, artists such as Bas Jan Ader and Robert Barry, among others, have breached the ratio of the conceptual with aspects of the autobiographical, emotional, irrational, poetic, and even sentimental. And today a younger generation of artists adopts conceptual strategies and paraphrases conceptual works—often with a sense of nostalgia toward the original. But where exactly do Romanticism and Conceptual art cross paths? For the show “Romantic Conceptualism,” guest curator, art critic, and Frieze co-editor Jörg Heiser gathered works by twenty-three artists from the early ’60s through the present in his search for the “emotional kick” in concept-based work. In his catalogue essay, he tries to circumvent the slipperiness of such labeling through determination of what defines “romantic” (as opposed to, say, the emotional, sentimental, or nostalgic) so as to detect the romantic within Conceptualism as well as the conceptual within historic Romanticism—a preoccupation that grew out of an article Heiser published in Frieze in November 2002.

Heiser framed his selection between two key films: Andy Warhol’s Kiss, 1964, and Bas Jan Ader’s I’m too sad to tell you, 1971. In his early masterpiece, Warhol asked different couples—black/white, male/ female, male/male, etc.—to kiss each other passionately for the entire duration of one 16-mm reel. When the film roll ends, the kiss ends. In Ader’s film, we see the artist himself standing in close-up in front of the camera, crying. We do not know the reason for his sadness, but as real as the performance seems, it also follows an instruction: Cry for the length of a film. Separated from reason or narrative, the feeling becomes an abstraction—the plain idea, or concept, of a feeling.

Romantic iconography is perhaps most literally quoted in Ader’s Farewell to Faraway Friends, 1971. In the photograph the artist stands alone on the seashore at sunset, his back turned toward us. But, as Heiser points out, the image reminds us not only of a Caspar David Friedrich painting but also of the kitsch poster aesthetic that developed out of such scenes and that has become associated with the word romantic. A few years later, “in search of the miraculous” (as the title of his planned work would have it), Ader set sail across the Atlantic in a tiny one-person boat, and disappeared.

Some works in the show relate to Romanticism through theme, such as Susan Hiller’s Dedicated to the Unknown Artist, 1972–76, an archive of old postcards depicting the rough sea along Britain’s coast, and Tacita Dean’s “The Russian Ending,” 2001, a series of photo engravings taken from postcards of catastrophes (counterparts to the conventional American “happy ending”). Others seem romantic in method—for instance, drawing on the unconscious, as in Robert Barry’s ALL THE THINGS I KNOW BUT OF WHICH I AM NOT A THE MOMENT THINKING—1:36 PM, JUNE 15, 1969 (reinscribed on the wall at the same place as for his retrospective here in 2003), or Rodney Graham’s video (transferred to DVD) of an unconscious nocturnal cab ride (Halcion Sleep, 1994). Heiser’s poignant suggestion that “if Romantic Conceptualism were expressed in a poem it would be a haiku” is almost perfectly exemplified in Lygia Clark’s Diálogo de mãos (Dialogue of Hands), 1966—a Möbius strip made of dressing material, tying two hands together.

Eva Scharrer