Case in point: Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) (1967). The conceptual work is part of an art-historical dialogue about form (“against the modernist ideas of geometrical syntax,” says Wilson), but it is also a pyramid of 5,800 oranges. As they rot or are taken away by visitors, the geometry shifts and changes, thanks to the organic processes, be they our hands or the passage of time. Go on, eat one—it’s a good idea.
Conceptual Art’s Legacy
For all its navel-gazing, conceptual art also tackles issues of authorship, time, space, identity, and even ownership (how do you buy
a concept?)—themes that have very tangible manifestations in the real world. Anyone can employ the instructions that LeWitt used for his art (he often used assistants himself) and create a perfect geometric wall drawing, but trying to hang your DIY conceptualism at the MoMA
is not recommended. Still, the question is raised: How is authorship ascribed? Conceptual artists “were putting the condition of the art object in question,” says Wilson, “but in doing that they were taking the strategies that they’d evolved to put the condition of society in question as well.”
Trying to craft entirely self-referential works of art is doomed to fail anyway, either because viewers will be bored to tears or because the work will be unable to escape the world outside of the museum. But ultimately, it’s that outside world that can lend conceptually minded art its meaning and value. Around the same time that Thelma Golden
’s “Black Male,”—a now-iconic exhibition that the New York Times
once derisively called
“slanted toward conceptual political work”—opened at the Hammer
in L.A., the O.J. Simpson trial began in the city. A courtroom is no more hermetically sealed from the broader context in which it exists than a museum or piece of conceptual art is, and Golden’s exhibition has become a hallmark for how art can parse pressing political conditions.
Indeed, despite all the claims made to conceptual art’s intellectual purity, broader societal inequity is partly why it was historically dominated and defined by white men. No doubt more study will reveal overlooked minority and women artists forced to practice conceptual art outside the lens of art history’s white microscope. But regardless, subsequent politically engaged and inclusive modes of artmaking that harnessed some of the tools of conceptual art, like feminist art, institutional critique, and performance art, have explicitly looked for meaning beyond the white walls. Where conceptual art ends and those movements begin is difficult to say.