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Who you callin’ conceptual?

I suppose Elaine Wolff should be forgiven for proclaiming in a recent review that Daniel Saldaña’s scultpures are "post-contemporary in another key way: They’re unmistakably narrative." And also for pitting Saldaña against "the many artists who have spent the last three decades struggling with the tyranny of the object, who have worked to destroy and undermine it through physical negation and conceptualism." But I have to wonder who she’s talking about, and what she could possibly mean by "post-contemporary." Most of the artists I’m familiar with make objects and expend a great deal of effort affirming the power of objects. Perhaps Wolff hasn’t yet heard of Damien Hirst? Neither is narrative entirely missing from the contemporary art landscape (see: Matthew Barney), and certainly not the kind of loose suggestion of narrative that Saldaña demonstrates.

I recently attended a symposium of San Antonio artists in which Chris Sauter described his own work as "conceptual." This is a far cry from the art for which the term was coined: art from which the artist’s hand is removed, which is often rendered as a set of instructions to be completed by an installer. Sauter’s pieces are certainly not this, and in my opinion, are more notable for their formal qualities than for their theoretical underpinnings. Which isn’t to say that his work leaves the viewer with nothing to ponder. But he creates seductive objects (even if that "object" happens to be a carved up wall) which exist in a kind of harmony with ideas. The aim of most contemporary "conceptual" artists is to extend the formal beauty of the object into the realm of thought, not to negate the object. In the same way that a chess game can be beautiful, so too can a work of art. This need not imply a dematerialization.

But when I say Wolff should be forgiven, I mean it. She reads press releases all day, and art exhibit press releases are all too often baffling mazes of nonsense. While the general trend in art making is toward a kind of beauty that marries object with concept, the narrative all too often tries to foreground and fluff up theory, no matter how tenuous its relationship to the actual artwork.

There’s another point that needs to be made here. Art has always embodied ideas, consciously or not, and its degree of success has usually been measured by how well it sets up a dialogue between form and concept. Duchamp’s Large Glass is a wonderful formal composition; da Vinci’s Last Supper grapples with theological ideas. Any major revolt against the object’s place in this dialogue has been greatly exaggerated. As Jed Perl pointed out recently while discussing the Met’s Pictures Generation show in the New Republic, painting was very much alive during the ’70s. That the critics chose (and choose) not to focus on it, does not mean that Alex Katz (for instance) wasn’t making great paintings. It would also be a mistake to say that the artists who first earned the "conceptual" epithet were not concerned with aesthetics or beauty. Sol LeWitt’s work has an undeniable aesthetic impact, to the extent that LA Times art critic Christopher Knight has deemed the artist’s long-term retrospective at MASS MoCA "America’s Sistine."

The big problem here is that to a segment of the broader public, contemporary art is seen as cold and stuffy on one hand, and aggressively political (read: manipulative) on the other. These concepts of contemporary art are holdovers from decades ago. Why does the public still hang onto these myths, and why is someone as cultured as Elaine Wolff perpetuating them?

(The teaser image for this post is a photograph of a text piece by Stefan Bruggemann)

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