At the Brooklyn Museum: Materializing Six Years: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art

I recently went to the Brooklyn Museum to see a special exhibition “Materializing Six Years: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art.”

More than many museum exhibitions I’ve attended in recent years, I found this large and comprehensive exhibit fascinating and accessible. It covers six years of conceptual art activity from the late 1960’s into the early 1970’s. One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit is that of the 173 “items” on display, many of them (perhaps most of them) are not art objects but the documentation of the conceptual art that was performed during that time period, or if not an art performance, the documentation describes a piece of art that could be assembled from the instructions provided.

If you are familiar with the work of Sol LeWitt, for example, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_LeWitt) you could see some diagrammatic illustrations on paper of some of the pieces Sol LeWitt wanted to either produce himself or to describe sufficiently so that the works could be produced by others. (As a side note, although I’m not necessarily a fan of his work, if you want to see a permanent exhibition of LeWitt’s work as executed by others, you can go to the DIA: Beacon museum in Beacon, NY.)

This exhibition is based on the curatorial work of Lucy R. Lippard, who participated in putting together shows and writing art criticism during this time period. Again, what is very interesting about this exhibition is that Lippard is not an artist, she is a critic and curator. Her “work” was providing the venues for artists to show their work rather than producing the work herself.

In the Brooklyn Museum there is a permanent Judy Chicago piece called The Dinner Party, which is a large set-piece of feminist art based on placemats, ceramic plates and settings for each female guest (such as Emily Dickenson, etc). The Elizabeth Sackler gallery is dedicated to showing feminist art as one of its primary objectives, and the Lippard exhibition surrounds the Judy Chicago set-piece as its center.

I didn’t particularly find this conceptual art exhibition to be feminist in nature, although I don’t know enough about Lippard to say if she was a feminist or not. There was a very good mix of male and female artists represented in this exhibition, and the themes represented were conceptual and not particularly geared towards feminist themes.

One of my favorite pieces in the exhibition was the “Secret Painting,” a piece by British artist Mel Ramsden. (http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/30.2003.a-b/) It is a canvas painted all black, and beside the painting there is another canvas with a message saying “The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanetly secret, known only to the artist.”

However, one of the “dangers” I perceive with Conceptual Art is that it takes the elevated position of an art object and makes anything a possible art object, whether it was specifically created by an artist or not. Of course, so much of the art we see these days is exactly that – not something specifically created by artists, but actually items that have been assembled from pre-existing consumer objects in the world and then we (the viewer) are told (1) this is art, and (2) it is up to you to determine its meaning.

When you enter the exhibit, the first thing you’ll see is a glass case with perhaps two dozen post cards of various scenes of New York City… Central Park, the Empire State Building, whatever. On the back of each post card is a printed text which says “I Got Up At” and then a printed time (4:28 P.M. for example). The only other printed text is the artist’s address (the artist is On Kawara) and the address of Lucy R. Lippard. So in this case, the “art performance” is the sending of a post card through the mail. No one can actually ever see the “art performance” and in the end, Lucy R. Lippard collects and assembles the “art objects” (postcards) from the “art performance” (sending the post cards through the mail.)

While I like the idea that art and artists can be playful with art, can play with the concepts of what is an art object or what is an art performance, I still find it disturbing to think that classical art is basically dead in that world. No where in that exhibition will you find a painting with a subject, you won’t even find abstract expressionist paintings because they aren’t necessarily “conceptual enough” for this crowd.

Of course, in the end, they are all following Marcel DuChamp’s lead from 1917 when he tried to put a urinal on display in an art show and call it a “Fountain.” It’s been all downhill since then. 🙂

If you want to see this exhibition, it will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum until February 17, 2013. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/six_years/. A catalog for this exhibit, in the form of a handsomely published book, is available in the gift shop for $45.oo.

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