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What Is_?Conceptual Art

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.

Conceptual Art

This introductory text provides a brief overview of Conceptual Art. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Conceptual Art refers to a diverse range of artistic practice from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, where emphasis was placed on the concept or idea rather than the physical art object. It also refers more generally to a framework for creating and understanding Contemporary Art, which prioritises a consideration of the idea or concept, and the integration of context when encountering the work. The origin and meaning of the term is disputed, as Conceptual Art defies traditional forms of definition and categorisation, and cannot be identified by a uniform style or medium.

Conceptual Art emerged during a period of social, political and cultural upheaval in the 1960s. It was a reaction to the perceived constraints of Modernism and the increasing commodification of the art object. Artists sought the means to think beyond the medium-specific aspects of traditional art forms, such as originality, style, expression, craft, permanence, decoration and display, attributed to Painting and Sculpture. They used Language and Text to directly disseminate ideas, demystify artistic production and negate visuality. Artworks took the form of written statements, declarations, definitions and invitations. As a consequence, this period has been described in terms of the ‘dematerialisation’ of the art object; a notion contested by some artists who argue that all ideas are accompanied by some form of artistic material, whether it is a photograph, sketch, instruction or map. Internationally, Conceptual Art is recognised for its use of both text and ephemeral or everyday materials, such as Found ObjectsReadymadesPhotographyVideoPerformanceDocumentation and Film.

Historically, French artist Marcel Duchamp pioneered a conceptual approach to art with his readymades, pre-empting many questions pursued by Conceptual artists regarding what is art and who determines it. Conceptual tendencies can also be found in the ‘anti-art gestures’ of DADAISMCONSTRUCTIVISMPOP ARTMINIMALISM and FLUXUS. But it was Conceptual artists who interrogated the normative cultural status and perception of the visual art object with most rigour, believing art could act as a cultural intervention, and that it cannot be considered in isolation from its social, political and economic environment. This newly acquired scepticism questioned traditional forms of marketing the art object as a decorative, visual COMMODITY, challenging the ownership, distribution and authorship of the art object. The shift in emphasis from art’s material value was a deliberate attempt to subvert the autonomy and power of the art market, and the GALLERY or MUSEUM as the location, arbiter and sole representative of art. Central to disrupting the conventional logic of art systems was the role placed on the audience, who were viewed as active participants in the dissemination and expansion of ideas and the democratisation of art. Beholding the idea was to behold the artwork; undermining the private ownership of art as object and the conventional conditions of spectatorship. Artists employed strategies from the mass MEDIA, such as magazines, billboards and television broadcasts, to bypass the museum and gallery and to distribute art within the public domain. To expand on the critique of art, ideas were sourced from philosophy, LINGUISTICSSEMIOTICS and CRITICAL THEORY.

Conceptual Art is hugely influential, considered by some to be the turning point from Modern to Contemporary Art practice. Its influence can be seen in performance art, LAND ARTINSTALLATION ARTPARTICIPATORY ARTSITE-SPECIFIC ARTNEW MEDIA ARTRELATIONAL ART and PUBLIC ART. It replaced an object-based practice with a reflexive preoccupation with the objectification of art. Artists took on the positions of CRITIC and CURATOR, and set out the parameters of a debate that art practitioners continue to address. For some, Conceptual Art is considered an overly intellectual and anti-aesthetic art form. Within the discourse of INSTITUTIONAL CRITIQUE, Conceptual Art is considered a paradoxical exercise, in that the very institutions which were the focus of its critique have now appropriated and instrumentalised its strategies and methodologies, whilst simultaneously neutralising its broader social and political impact. Conceptual Art continues to inform Contemporary Art theory and practice, and has contributed to a revised understanding of art, radicalising modes of presenting, exhibiting and collecting art.


Reading List

Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.
Gregory Battcock (ed.), Idea Art: A Critical Anthology, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973.
Michael Corris, Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999.
Frances Colpitt, Knowledge: Aspects of Conceptual Art, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1992.
Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, Phaidon Press, 1998.
Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens (eds.), Philosophy and Conceptual Art, Clarendon Press Gloustershire, 2007.
Klaus Honnef, Concept Art, Cologne: Phaidon, 1971.
Liz Kotz, Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960 Art, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.
Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Daniel Marzona, Conceptual Art, Cologne: Taschen, 2005.
Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972.
Robert C. Morgan, Between Modernism and Conceptual Art: A Critical Response, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1997.
Catherine Moseley, Conception: Conceptual Documents 1968 to 1972, Birmingham: ARTicle Press, 2002.
Michael Newman and Jon Bird (eds.), Rewriting Conceptual Art, London: Reaktion,1999.
Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, Phaidon Press, 2002.
Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality, Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Paul Wood (ed.), Now they are. Texts of Paul Wood and Art & Language, Brussels: Editions Labor et Galerie Isy Brachot, 1992.




We invited Mick Wilson, Dean of the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM) to contribute an essay entitled What is Conceptual Art?, which considers the relevance of Conceptual Art both as an influential art movement during a particular period of time but also, more broadly, as a framework for creating and understanding art which remains relevant to Contemporary Art practice. IMMA’s Collection includes works by a number of artists associated with Conceptual Art, such as Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, Dennis Oppenheim, Art and Language, Matt Mullican, Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland, Michael Craig-Martin, James Coleman and Gilbert and George.

The legacy of Conceptual Art is evident in the work of a new generation of artists whose work is featured in IMMA’s Collection, including Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Douglas Gordon, Rebecca Horn, Liam Gillick, Philippe Parreno and Garret Phelan. We hope to draw attention to the potential of IMMA’s exhibitions and Collection as resources in the study and consideration of Conceptual Art, and that these texts will encourage critical engagement with the debates that continue to inform Contemporary Art.




Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June.  A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. While we prepare to open our next exhibition Hilary Heron: A Retrospective on 24 May, there are two exhibitions to see Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s gardens and café are open to the public.