What is Conceptual Art?

The term 'conceptual' often gets used when discussing contemporary art and artists - in this feature we untangle what we mean when we talk about conceptual art, and challenge you to spot other examples of conceptual art across the GENERATION programme.

Conceptual Art

Conceptual Art is art in which the concept, or idea, behind it is more important than the medium used to make it. Conceptual artists tend to think up an idea first, then find a way to materialise it. This means it can be made from just about anything, and these artists often push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

Collection of Sammlung Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst
Copyright the Artist. Collection of Sammlung Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst
L'Homme Double (1997) - Christine Borland

The term was widely used in the late 1960s, particularly in relation to artists working with less traditional media such as performance, film and video, installation and photography. The American artist Sol LeWitt is one of the most famous pioneers of Conceptual Art and believed so strongly that the idea was paramount that he often hired people to make his work for him via written instructions, saying, ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’

© David Sherry
Just popped out back in 2 hours (2008). © David Sherry

Although it was a popular movement in the 1960s and 1970s, many artists today continue to make work which is conceptual. One example is the artist David Sherry, who uses his art to create awkward social situations. His work takes many guises, with a particular focus on performance. In ‘Just Popped Out Back in 2 Hours’, 2008, Sherry has sat in various gallery spaces with a vacant look on his face and post it note on his forehead citing the title of the work in small text, inciting viewers to lean in close in order to read it.

Three sisters form the artist group Ortonandon, who together explore dance, drawing, sculpture and group participation. 

© Ortonandon
Tighter Than Tights (2014). © Ortonandon

They often hire actors or ask willing volunteers, friends and family members to be a part of their theatrical work which explores the closeness and rivalry between human relationships. An example is the performance work ‘Tighter than Tights’, which took place in 2014 in the Edinburgh College of Art Sculpture Court.

Christine Borland also takes a collaborative approach to making art, working with a variety of specialists in different disciplines, from medical artists to forensic scientists. In ‘L’Homme Double’, 1997, she asked six different sculptors to make a clay portrait bust of the notorious Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele (1911–1979). Borland provided each of the six artists with two black-and-white photographs and some short written descriptions. The final portrait busts are all different and when seen together reveal the complex ways in which we collectively remember the past.

There are lots of examples of conceptual art on the GENERATION website - can you spot them? Why not let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

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