Conceptual art, at its best, is the simplest visual representation of an idea as possible. This isn’t good or bad, and it isn’t necessarily central to text-based art, but it is the as yet undefined ‘goal’ of transitional work of the 1950’s we’ve been discussing. With that in mind, specifically the marriage of Conceptual Art and text-based work still to come, let’s look at Jasper Johns.
Jasper Johns, Gray Numbers, 1957
In its simplest terms, Johns painted a series of basic numbers in gray. The big deal here is that Johns chose to ignore both the hidden interior landscape of Ab-Ex painting and also chose as subject matter something as clinically abstract as numbers tho he also worked with targets, maps and flags, yer basic mass-manufactured informational products. Thus, post Ab-Ex, distrust language, distrust image, open your eyes to a new nature and… paint it? If Johns had ditched painting altogether and done this instead on cardboard
then he might not have become so darn famous. This first cautious step, incautious as it may have seemed at the time, freaked people out as he was using the tools of the past to suggest the direction of the future. Again, I wonder why he didn’t just ditch paint altogether to get to the root of the concept, but Johns’ idea of being an artist meant classic tools like canvas, paint and brush, something that was already in process of being dismantled.
Of which, and before we get to the dismantling via Fluxus, Yoko Ono and a whole new direction in literature, here’s a few innovations from Franz Kline in 1952 (!) that again suggest a new direction though still rooted in painting:
Study for High Street, 1952
Though both Willem DeKooning and Rauschenberg incorporated newspaper into their work at times, here Kline uses a New York City phone book as the primary surface for gestural painting. The idea is that Kline “cancelled the tedium” of the printed surface, erasing its function. Eh. I find the fact that he’s chosen a phone book, a comprehensive directory of everyone who owns a phone in New York to be far more interesting than what he was theoretically looking to achieve. In other words, negation of an alphabetical, mass-produced, printed, columned sheet of paper freely available to anyone – THAT’S Conceptual Art! And it required a text-based directory to function successfully. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Of which, negation, and to digress a moment, Rauschenberg in the 50’s was a wellspring of ideas that were way ahead of his time. Check out this piece of work:
Rauschenberg’s erasure of a DeKooning drawing. Genius, no? Even more genius to get DeKooning to agree to the collaboration. Absolute negation of someone else’s work in real time as he erased as DeKooning drew. Part fine art, part performance, an idea that required 2 artists working simultaneously. Another collaboration took art in a whole new direction was Automobile Tire Print
with John Cage driving his Model A Ford over paper creating the print. Rauschenberg in the 50’s was looking to expand the traditional media of the classic artist. He crushed it repeatedly, and if video had been around back then no doubt he would have dabbled in that too. Warhol later dove into film, doing single-shot sequences that doubled as feature-length films, but by then you could easily fold that into Duchamp’s idea of the Readymade. It was, as with Automobile Tire Print, simply a logical expansion of an idea that will continue to bear fruit long past our lifetime.
All that said, we’re laying the groundwork for the elimination of painting, per se, and the birth of Conceptual Art. In truth Conceptual Art had been around for a long time, but it hadn’t yet had an organized form nevermind manifestos, declarations, collectives and later the all-important retrospectives.
What’s interesting here, going back to the top of the post, is that the simplest visual representation of an idea is often words, ie: a description of the idea itself. Once you learn to abandon paint and most traditional artistic methods, yet still desire to create original art, what’s left to work with? Well, a few new inventions had just come about, much like Desktop Publishing of 90’s, that made the creation of a new cheapo mass-market artform all that much more egalitarian.
- 1959 – Plain Paper Photocopier (Mimeograph)
- Early 60’s – dry transfer lettering (Signs, posters and art)
- 1961 – IBM Selectric Typewriter with ‘golf ball’ type element that allowed for variable fonts (Mimeograph, extension of graphic design)
- Screen printing – not a new process, but popularized in 1962 by Warhol and yet another method of mass production, but this time with the added benefit of color (All of the above + image/non-image)
All of these methods, compared to painting and sculpture, are inexpensive, thus affordable to the proletarian masses, or any dork with time enough to try his hand at fine art. Key here is FINE ART. Soon you’ll see how even the definition of fine art, as under attack as it was by ideas, was also materially under attack as both critics and an uncertain public had to come to grips with the fact that art could be made on the cheap – and thus cheaply sell. So instead of knockoff prints you could buy originals, which oddly enough were also most likely prints. And maybe even small enough to fit in your pocket. What, had the world gone crazy? The answer to that, apparently, was YES.