Friday, November 13, 2009

What I've Been Thinking About: Formalism vs. Conceptualism

I’ve been reading some discussions on the art blogs recently about formalism vs. conceptualism and the artist's intent, ginned up by Roberta Smith writing about Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum. (Scroll down to see Edward Winkleman's posts from November 10 & 11, and the review mentioned here.)

I used to want to draw a bright line between these two camps also. I believe my thinking was encouraged by grad school and the kind of art I saw in the Midwest and in the East. Those examples showed me that art was either beautiful, or heady, but hardly ever both at the same time.

My time in LA revealed that the distinction between the two kinds of art might be geographical, and is certainly a lot more blurry than I had once believed. I think schools in LA must convey the attitude that all art made now will be inherently conceptual, because it is made in a Post-Conceptualism world. We’ve all learned the lesson that art must mean something besides or beyond the way it looks, so we apply that lesson to all future creations and viewing experiences. Conceptualism can be fun, casual, and hell, even enjoyable to look at.

I was confronted head on by this problem when I was trying to wrap my head around MOCA’s Index show of California Conceptualism last fall. As a museum educator, I was grappling with how to introduce this work to elementary school students without having to give them a fat stack of books to read first. The problem as I saw it was: how are we going to deal with the art of ideas based just on what we see before us, since that is all we are gonna have time to go on in a one-hour tour? What I discovered was that kids approach Conceptualism the same way they approach any other kind of art. If they like to look at it, they’ll talk about why; if they think it’s boring, well, they like to talk about that too. For young viewers, form contains content.

Last night I went to an artist panel at Hamiltonian Gallery with Anne Chan and Michael Iacovone. They both seemed to be struggling with the Formalism vs. Conceptualism problem a bit too, though he more than she. Iacovone’s project was in part an effort to remove the artist’s hand, eye, and choice from image making via a series of arbitrary rules and random dice rolls. He seemed very concerned that the resulting photographs should not be aestheticized objects to be appreciated for their formal beauty (which they had in loads), but invitations for viewers to engage the city in a similar ruled based method (in order, with luck, to experience their everyday space in a new way).

I kind of wanted to shake him a little bit. Why are we still thinking that physical attractiveness is suspect, or that beauty and concept cannot work together to form a more perfect artwork? If Michael Asher can create a seductive pink plastic square and call it high minimalism, then dammit, I can enjoy looking at a well-made rule based photograph. In fact, that little bit of beauty is what gets me to look in the first place. So yeah, the artwork might be showing a little leg….but so what, as long as it follows through with complex ideas once it’s got my attention? Because as a viewer, what I see before me is all I really have to go on in the end.

(image is Michael Asher's no title, 1966, from

1 comment:

M.A.H. said...

Hi MJ,
I enjoyed catching up on your blog posts. Looking forward to hearing about DC.