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Conceptual contempt: the rise of invisible art

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

I am an artist and art enthusiast. However, there is one type of art that consistently draws my contempt. During the 1960s, American artists lead the way in a conceptual, intellectual type of art that was about the idea of art, rather than the art itself. The aesthetic of art took a backseat to the meaning. Within this art movement is an extremist group who take minimalist to a whole new level. Such work is referred to by some as invisible art. The work has a distinctive non-visual emphases, or one might say an emphasis on nothing. Usually, a believer of less is more, in this case however, less can be rather less impressive.

You know what kind of art I’m talking about: White Painting (Rauschenberg 1951), a blank piece of paper (Friedman, 1992-97), an Invisible Sculpture (Warhol, 1985) or empty exhibition space (Michael Asher, 1974). It begs the question: what is art? It is an important question and it was quite a revolutionary one when it was first considered in the early twentieth century. Duchamp’s Fountain, an ordinary urinal, exhibited in a New York gallery in 1912 was as shocking as it was brilliant. So too was Malevich’s White on White in 1918. But what followed from the 1960 on wards was a plethora of monotone and extremely simple paintings that somehow elevated the creators to the status of genius artist. How many plain white paintings do we need before we can say it is no longer an original idea?

The genius of such art is still revered today in art schools and art galleries around the world. As recently as 2012 a London exhibition of 50 "invisible" works by famous artists included Warhol and Klein. Titled Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, it was thought to be the first of its kind in London and included, in addition to Warhol’s empty plinth, a canvas of invisible ink and an invisible labyrinth. In 2009, Voids, A Retrospective was exhibited in Paris and consisted of nine freshly whitewashed, empty galleries at the end of the long corridor. Each of these spaces referred to one of nine historic ‘empty’ art exhibitions. How did it come to this?

Back in the 1960s, Americans were still riding the wave of optimism after their role as saviours in the Second World War. At the beginning of the 1960s, many Americans believed they were standing at the dawn of a golden age. In the art world, there existed an exclusive group of middle aged, white men, who patted each other on the back, espousing each other’s genius while they stood around discussing the deep meaning of the non-painting. Meanwhile the rest of the world moved on without them.

The conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s is not so different from previously recognised art movements, in that it was initiated by a group of white, middle class men. However the radicalism of the highly-conceptual art movement is undermined by a certain amount of hypocrisy and self-aggrandisement. Famous conceptual artists such as Kosuth, Cage and Oppenheim were initially rebelling against the commercialised art world of the 1960s and paradoxically their art became a huge commercial success.

That’s not to say that these were the only artists that existed at that time, or that all conceptual art is of the same ilk. There exists many conceptual artists, both past and present, that are both non-visual and brilliant. I’m a big fan of many minimalist conceptual artists, including American artist Louise Lawier, who came to prominence in 1970s, for her work that challenged the prevailing art establishment. Her work, Birdcalls (1972) is an audio installation in which she attributed an individual bird call for well known male artists in order to ridicule the prevailing privilege given to men by the prevailing art establishment. It was in this male dominated environment that invisible art (as produced by men) was revered as original and ground-breaking, even though it was not.

Without the inception of non-visual, conceptual-based art, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The conceptual art movement is credited with the introduction of alternative art mediums such as light, sound and performance art. Conceptual art provides the necessary bridge between the traditional art forms of sculpture, painting and printmaking, and the broad definition of art we have today.

The downside to the rise of minimalist conceptual art, however is requirement that all art be accompanied a long written explanation. It is no longer enough for an artist to create art but they must also now be writers. Essay upon essay on what art means and why it is made, who the artist is and why they do what they do, are published. Isn’t it enough just to make art and be happy? Apparently not.

The influence of the conceptual art movement on today’s art scene is undeniable. Its legacy is both beneficial and confounding at the same time. The continued elevation of a small, select group of highly-conceptual artist does not do justice to the art movement as a whole. Hopefully, with the passage of time and hindsight, art historians will one day view this small but well-known group of famous American artists as something less than what they do now. After all, sometimes an empty art gallery is just what it looks like: a room full of hot air.

About the artist

Leah is a Melbourne based artist, making figurative work about womanhood and girlhood. She has completed a Diploma in Visual Art, and a Graduate Certificate in Visual Art at VCA.

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