What is Conceptual Art?

Martin Creed, "Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space." Sold for $87,500 via Sotheby's (November 2016).

On April 2nd, artist Darren Bader announced the sale of a pair of Twitter and Instagram accounts, along with the email account through which they were registered and a certificate of authenticity from the artist. In an Instagram post announcing the sale, Bader described the piece as “a unique work/sculpture/thing/other.” Though vague, the description is apt when placed in the continuum of what is known as Conceptual art.

What is Conceptual Art?

In the 1960s, a cerebral approach to art-making emerged. For those artists, materiality and aesthetic came secondary to the desire to convey a statement or idea. They worked in a variety of media, including performance, painting, sculpture, and installation.

Toward the end of the decade, a movement developed out of this impulse known as Conceptual art, also referred to as Post-Object art or Idea art. Sol Lewitt first referenced the term in an interview with Artforum in 1967, explaining that “in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”

To better understand why and how collectors incorporate this type of object into their collections, explore the history of Conceptual art and its contemporary legacy below.

Joseph Kosuth, “No Number 3 (Yellow),” 1991. Sold for $86,500 via Christie’s (March 2013).

Conceptual Art Definition

Like Kinetic art, the Conceptual art movement grew from the roots of Dada. Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 readymade sculpture Fountain, which takes the form of a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is considered the first conceptual work of art.

Throughout the 1960s, avant-garde performance groups like Fluxus began describing their happenings as “concept art.” As the movement solidified, it resisted definition by medium or geography. Instead, artists across Europe and the Americas were connected by a mission to expand the definition of art. Many of these artists ascribed a socio-political dimension to their conceptual works, using non-traditional means to critique society through art. Language, too, was a common thread during the Conceptual art movement – artists often incorporated text into their objects, or written instructions accompanied a performance or drawing.

Though the original movement came to an end in the mid-1970s, conceptual artists continue to appear and along with them collectors who are interested in owning their work. Collecting conceptual art can be a daunting prospect because, unlike traditional paintings and sculptures, what is displayed on the floor or the wall is not actually the work of art; rather, the certificate of authenticity alone determines value.

How to Collect Conceptual Art

Authentication and connoisseurship are inherently connected to the art market, where proving or disproving that a work is by an artist can dramatically impact the monetary value or cultural legacy of an object. If a painting is not signed by an artist, it’s difficult to prove that a work belongs in that artist’s oeuvre. For contemporary works, procuring a certificate of authenticity (if the artist’s studio is known to issue these documents) when purchasing paintings, sculptures, or prints is the best way to ensure that your work is recognized by the artist and maintains its fair market value.

Joseph Kosuth, “TITLED (ART AS IDEA AS IDEA),” 1967. Sold for €27,000 via Artcurial (June 2015).

What Do You Actually Own?

Conceptual art is essentially an idea. Works can take the form of a painting or sculpture, a drawing on a gallery wall or a spontaneous performance in the streets, a long essay or a signature on someone’s arm. Given the fleeting physical nature of many conceptual works, some Conceptual art can be virtually worthless without confirmation from the artist that it’s original. A certificate of authenticity is a necessity when considering adding a piece of Conceptual art to your collection.

How to Protect Your Purchase

If the certificate of authenticity for a piece of Conceptual art is damaged or lost, the work can lose most of its value without the ability to assign proper attribution. As such, it is important to insure your certificates of authenticity along with the physical objects in your collection. Certificates of ownership or authenticity are typically not referenced in traditional fine art insurance policies, so check for specific language regarding certificates of authenticity. Some companies, like Crystal & Co and AIG, are releasing insurance products specifically for collectors of Conceptual art that will protect their investment in the event of an accident or loss.

Preserving Conceptual Art

Conceptual art can be difficult to live with. Often, works require upkeep or are ephemeral in nature, meaning that artworks can often not be displayed year round or even for more than a few minutes at a time. When considering purchasing a conceptual piece, it’s most important to ask what the work means because you are, in effect, purchasing the idea itself. It’s also important to consider the implications of where, when, and how the work will be displayed. As always, the most important piece of advice when collecting is to buy what you are drawn to.

Conceptual Artists in the Market

Popular Conceptual artists include:

Joseph Beuys was a German artist associated with Fluxus and performance art, but he also worked as a sculptor, installation artist, and graphic artist. Beuys’ philosophy centers around the idea of social sculpture as an extended definition of art. His works, which are popular in both institutions and private collections, are critical of society and politics. Many of his performances centered around the artist as subject or critique the art world and capitalism.

Martin Creed is a British artist known for controversial works across the mediums of painting, film, installation, and sculpture. Creed won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001 and exhibited only one work in the Turner Prize show entitled Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, in which the lights in an empty room turn on and off at set intervals. The work was described as audacious by some and pointless by others. The Tate acquired the piece for their permanent collection, lending more fuel to the media fire.

American artist Sol Lewitt is considered an icon of both Conceptual art and Minimalism. Though many of his finished works resemble paintings, each work in his Wall Drawings series is created not by the artist’s hand but from a set of instructions he wrote that are carried out by his assistants or gallery attendants.

Latin American artist Cildo Meireles is known for installations that resist political oppression in his home country of Brazil. Likewise, his conceptual works attempt to circumvent state infrastructure like currency and recycling distribution. Zero Dollar (1984) is a project in which Meireles disseminated fake banknotes that question the value of currency and its link to national government.

Yoko Ono influenced the international expansion of conceptual art. Ono’s works of the early 1960s were mainly instructions, communicated verbally or written down for the audience to perform. In 1964, she compiled 150 of these works into a pivotal conceptual book, Grapefruit. Ono is often involved in her own performances, many of which are tied to her commitment to social justice and world peace.


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