Art and Art-as-Idea

    More than three and a-half decades ago Sol LeWitt observed in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, that "No matter what form it may finally have, it (the work of art) must begin with an idea." In 1968, this was a radical proposition that helped LeWitt focus attention on the conceptual nature of art. In the intervening years, what was once radical has become accepted wisdom, and it is clear that contemporary art today is deeply imprinted by the legacies of conceptual art. In visiting the studios of this year’s Mills College MFA class, I heard again and again that art is fundamentally about ideas. But what does it mean to say this? And what, in making this statement, are we implicitly asserting and accepting?

    First of all, we are saying that craft is not a sufficient rationale for art. Mere demonstrations of technical virtuosity will not pass muster, regardless of how much skill and training they display. For better or worse, art-as-idea asserts that the mind is primary. The hand plays a secondary role, at best. The function of the art object is to alert the perceiving eye and intellect toward the ideas at stake in it. Craft and technique remain important, but only at the service of concept. Yes, the artwork itself -- whether object, event, or installation -- must be well executed. But as long as it is, knowing who did the actual handwork may be a trivial consideration.

    As a recent example, Andreas Gursky’s photographs are huge, and many viewers find them rewarding on that basis. Their immense size is perceived as a valid intellectual and experiential proposition concerning the nature of photographic images and their public display, not simply as a exercise in grandiose scale. The experience they provide is not just their immediate bigness, but the idea of extreme size. The fact that the photographs are printed by someone else at a commercial lab is not held against Gursky. Likewise, the technical demands of making such big prints do not weigh heavily in his favor.

    Beyond questions of craft, to approach art as idea typically involves de-emphasizing traditional art historical categories of production and classification. The artist’s job is to make good work, and whether it takes the form of painting, sculpture, photography, or something as yet unchristened is beside the point. Yes, valid ideas can still be explored within and against the backdrop of a single medium and its tradition (cf. Gursky and photography). However, the art historical shelves of "painting," "sculpture," and "photography" are crowded with highly nuanced analyses and extensive schemas of classification. Even the area of "video art" is familiar ground, now more than three decades old. In contrast, ways of working that elude, elide, and overlap traditional boundaries offer artists the exhilarating free-range potential of uncharted terrain. Off the grid, a fresher synthesis is possible between form and meaning, idea and art object. That said, it can be lonely out there as artist if there isn’t even a name for what you’re making, but when you find something that works, you know it’s your own.

    Art-as-idea today therefore departs frequently from traditional art forms, moving quickly into cross-bred, trans-media arenas. The evidence in this exhibition is a case in point. Rather than straight ahead painting, we see painting crossed with embroidery functioning as conceptual vernacular handicraft, with an audio component poised slightly off to one side. Drawing edges alternately toward photography, sculpture, and installation, seeking to leave the page and the pencil behind, merging with the gallery wall at times, at others escaping it and cascading off the wall and into the room. Sculpture merges with sound and edges toward new music. Photography moves toward participatory game structures, toward video, toward sculpture, and arrives via the computer, which has become the necessary all-purpose sketchpad, darkroom, sound studio, research center, journal, and post office of contemporary art. Film, likewise, is digitally sliced and diced on computers in ways impossible for previous generations of artists. Video, also digitized, becomes an object in the gallery, pliable and sculptural, turning up frozen in huge light boxes and moving onto small, sleek, LCD screens that mimic framed paintings embedded in the gallery wall. At other times, obsolete technologies, even papermaking, appear in tandem with poetry, fiction writing, or other forms of text. Craft is cultivated in such cases, but it is honed to serve distinctly conceptual and poetic ends. Stories are told, via objects intersecting with text, elegantly deployed in vitrines. Viewers must attend carefully to both word and object.

    In one instance, something we might define as painting also functions as installation and low-relief sculpture. It is, in fact, just the tip of a conceptually saturated, process-giddy iceberg encompassing internet searches based in personal memories, leading to images posted by third parties and grabbed by the artist to function as raw material. In another case, found photographs become the model for small sculptures used to create photographic tableau shot with a cheap instant camera, then scanned and output via computer (yet again) in the form of inkjet prints.

    It is significant that most of the artists in this exhibition focus their thinking less on one-at-a-time, individual art objects than on cycles or suites of work and series of conceptually intertwined objects, each playing distinct roles within a larger project. Here too, the integrity of idea is paramount, and trumps considerations of style. Stylistic unity, if it exists at all, is a by-product of decisions made for other reasons.

    As the above comments makes clear, the artworks on view here run a surprisingly wide gamut, and it is notable that there is no house style and virtually no overlap in approach between any of the artists on view. In most cases, too, it is impossible to determine with whom any of the graduates studied, since their work generally bares little or no visual relationship to that of their teachers. (I find this admirable, incidentally.)

    To conclude, idea is indeed in control here. Whatever else it is, the work in this show is not your mother’s abstract expressionism, your father’s fine print photography, your uncle’s fetish finish minimalism, your older brother’s neo-expressionism, or even your big sister’s performance event. This is art in the 21st century, and we can see it here in all its polyglot, hybridized, unclassifiable, unpredictable restlessness. I congratulate the Mills College MFA Class of 2003 on their work, and I look forward with curiosity and enthusiasm to what they will do next.

John Weber
The Leanne and George Roberts Curator
of Education and Public Programs
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art