Art & Language International: Conceptual Art between Art Worlds

Art & Language International: Conceptual Art between Art Worlds

by Robert Bailey


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In Art & Language International Robert Bailey reconstructs the history of the conceptual art collective Art & Language, situating it in a geographical context to rethink its implications for the broader histories of contemporary art. Focusing on its international collaborations with dozens of artists and critics in and outside the collective between 1969 and 1977, Bailey positions Art & Language at the center of a historical shift from Euro-American modernism to a global contemporary art. He documents the collective’s growth and reach, from transatlantic discussions on the nature of conceptual art and the establishment of distinct working groups in New York and England to the collective’s later work in Australia, New Zealand, and Yugoslavia. Bailey also details its publications, associations with political organizations, and the internal power struggles that precipitated its breakdown. Analyzing a wide range of artworks, texts, music, and films, he reveals how Art & Language navigated between art worlds to shape the international profile of conceptual art. Above all, Bailey underscores how the group's rigorous and interdisciplinary work provides a gateway to understanding how conceptual art operates as a mode of thinking that exceeds the visual to shape the philosophical, historical, and political.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822361497
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/25/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Robert Bailey is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Oklahoma.

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Art & Language International

Conceptual Art Between Art Worlds

By Robert Bailey

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7412-1


A Model of a Possible Art World

Initially, Art & Language turned to conceptual art for opportunities that it provided to develop the theoretical and practical dimensions of its work through linguistic rather than visual means. In time, the work it did with language afforded further opportunities, particularly those of a social kind, which expanded the group's constituency into a large and at times unwieldy transnational association and enabled, through the learning that went on among those who participated in its work, new approaches both to art and to the art worlds where that work was made, shared, and received. Some version of this reciprocation, whether of the linguistic and the social, the pedagogical and the political, or the conceptual and the international, fueled Art & Language's work throughout the period of conceptual art's florescence, recognition, and decline as an art movement from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. It also proved central to Art & Language's efforts to define its own distinctive approach to working conceptually within an international milieu of conceptual artists that pursued a variety of different and often competing directions in their work.

The collective's internationality begins in earnest in May 1969, when its founders, all based at Coventry College of Art in England, first announce international aspirations for their work by publishing the inaugural issue of a nearly eponymous journal called Art-Language (figure 1.1). Not only did this periodical circulate internationally, appearing in art galleries and on bookstore shelves in the United States and on the European continent, the editorial introduction to its first issue, in which Art & Language lays out its initial program, also explicitly makes clear the collective's interest in conceptual art on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Terry Atkinson, the main author behind this unattributed missive, makes plans for the future by courting "contributions from American artists," identifying an intention "to furnish a comprehensive report of conceptual art in the U.S.A.," and announcing aspirations to "point out some differences ... between American and British conceptual art."

Art & Language had already begun to make good on these promises by including in this very issue of Art-Language three texts by prominent conceptual artists then living in New York: Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, and Lawrence Weiner. Atkinson had connected with a number of American artists during his visit to New York in 1967, and these transatlantic submissions to the journal came via his contacts overseas. However, the collective quickly realized that its understanding of conceptual art was not compatible with what these American artists were doing, and it dropped Art-Language's ambitious subtitle, The Journal of conceptual art, beginning with the very next issue. The term "conceptual art," Art & Language later told the French art critic Catherine Millet, "was associated with too varied a spectrum of artistic activity." In the journal's second issue, Atkinson complained openly about the "many artists and writers who have gathered beneath the Conceptual Flag." During the summer of 1969, he returned to New York in part to locate other, more compatible contributors to Art-Language who might share the collective's primary concern with what "an art form can evolve by taking as a point of initial enquiry the language-use of the art society." This time, Atkinson found lasting allies in Joseph Kosuth, Ian Burn, and Mel Ramsden, each of whom became an important contributor, first to Art-Language and, through that vehicle, to Art & Language. With this alliance in place, a lasting New York section of Art & Language began to coalesce, and the collective would maintain this internationality, rather tumultuously at times, until 1977.

Kosuth, Burn, and Ramsden made art that shared a close rapport with what Atkinson had been doing in Coventry along with David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, and Harold Hurrell. These four founders of Art & Language were, at this point, teachers and students at Coventry College of Art, and since the mid-1960s they had been making some of the first examples of recognizably conceptual art by writing theoretical texts in a tone that oscillates between academic philosophy in the analytic or Anglophone tradition and a parody thereof. This writing often postulated hypothetical artworks or imagined situations involving art and then speculated about them in detail to arrive at a variety of provisional conclusions. Fairly quickly, it ceased to be a discourse subsidiary to art objects and art situations real or fictive and became itself the main thrust of Art & Language's practice when Art-Language took over for a number of years as the collective's main outlet. This was not yet the case when, in 1966, Baldwin conceived of an exhibition titled The Air-Conditioning Show, in which a flow of air current generated by an air-conditioning unit is held out for consideration as a work of art. Though an actualization of The Air-Conditioning Show would not occur for several years, Baldwin published a short essay about it in the November 1967 issue of Arts Magazine, having been facilitated in this respect by Robert Smithson, whom Atkinson met in New York during his 1967 visit. With this brief text's appearance in an American magazine, Art & Language made its first public foray across the Atlantic, though the essay is credited to Baldwin rather than Art & Language, as the group's collective identity was not yet formalized. "Remarks on Air-Conditioning: An Extravaganza of Blandness" speaks of the air-conditioning proposal as a challenge to then-current ideas about the phenomenological experience of a work of art preceding and having priority over other approaches to it such as those afforded by linguistic description. By nominating a current of air as a work of art, Baldwin revealed the extent to which a "viewer" of this phenomenon would need the linguistic dimension of a text (such as the very essay in which he proposed the work) explaining what the work of art is in order to perceive it as art in the first instance — and even then, its crucial component would remain invisible. Language and everything associated with it, Baldwin showed, is as capable of preceding the experience of art as of following after it in the usual modes of reception to which language is conventionally relegated where art is concerned.

This process of working through artistic problems using language rather than visual means lies at the base of the name Art & Language, under which Atkinson, Bainbridge, Baldwin, and Hurrell began officially to collaborate around the time that they launched Art-Language. In the first issue of the journal, Bainbridge and Baldwin pursue further the sort of speculative activity developed around The Air-Conditioning Show by pondering what sort of art "an alien being from another galaxy" would produce if it had no prior experience of art apart from what could be ascertained by observing the behavior of people in art museums. The alien's hypothetical work is a metal disc connected to a motion detector that rotates almost imperceptibly when in the presence of a viewer, thereby providing just enough stimulation to elicit the momentary cessation of the rather aimless wandering that tends to characterize the outward appearance of the museum-going experience. There are surface-level jokes in all of this about the attention span of the average museum visitor and about minimalist sculpture, but the real target of rebuke is any discourse about art that would assert the sufficiency of the sensory experience of an art object (or the outward appearance of such experience) over a fuller consideration of the more broadly cognitive dimensions that conceptual artists such as Art & Language wanted to emphasize. The American contributors to the inaugural issue of Art-Language did not quite share this concern as Baldwin and Bainbridge formulated it. In contrast to Art & Language's work, what Graham and Weiner submitted for publication was not as intensely speculative in character. Both of their contributions can be read like scripts or scores for generating works of art, poems in Graham's case and sculptures in Weiner's. Discursive thinking like Bainbridge's and Baldwin's is not emphasized; instead, the work is largely programmatic and concerned with the role that ideas and concepts can play in the production of artworks rather than in the artistic shaping of theories, though Graham's text does include a theoretical section in which he reflects on the implications that his work has for authorship, production, and other related matters.

Of the three Americans to publish in the first Art-Language, LeWitt was doing theoretical work most similar to Art & Language's, but he denied his text, the famous "Sentences on Conceptual Art," the status of itself being art by concluding it with a statement announcing, "These sentences comment on art, but are not art." By contrast, in Art & Language's editorial introduction, Atkinson claims the obverse, "that this editorial, in itself an attempt to evince some outlines as to what 'conceptual art' is, is held out as a 'conceptual art' work." Though the collective would later revise its position about the capacity of an artist to nominate something as a work of art in favor of a more contextual approach to deciding what counts as art, in 1969 its decision that its writing might itself be art was sufficient to provide the collective with a strong sense that what it was doing was not conceptual art if what Graham, LeWitt, and Weiner were doing was.

This sense of difference led Art & Language to New York again in search of new collaborators. On the recommendation of the English critic, curator, and art historian Charles Harrison, who had made initial contact with the collective in early 1969, Atkinson visited with Joseph Kosuth, whom Harrison had previously met during his own trip to New York. Kosuth was, at the time, one of a group of artists affiliated with the dealer Seth Siegelaub that is often regarded as foundational for conceptual art in New York. He too was seeking new colleagues, as he had begun to feel and would state later that year in "Art after Philosophy," his first major position statement on conceptual art, "artists often associated with me (through Seth Siegelaub's projects) — Douglas Huebler, Robert Barry, and Lawrence Weiner — are not concerned with, I do not think, 'Conceptual Art.'" If Art & Language was putting distance between itself and what was being called conceptual art, then Kosuth was doing the same thing in an obverse way by insisting that the term "conceptual art" referred to a smaller set of artists whose work was, to his thinking, sufficiently conceptual in character. When Atkinson invited Kosuth to become involved with Art & Language, he evidently saw a chance to work with like minds and accepted. Kosuth appears as "American Editor" on the masthead of the second and third issues of Art-Language, both published in 1970, and his initial role in this capacity was to oversee stateside distribution of the journal and forward texts by artists working in the United States for publication in it.

Over time, the relationship between Art & Language and Kosuth, who continued to pursue his own work independently of his involvement in the collective, would gradually sour. Regardless of the points of contention that eventually came between them, throughout his tenure with the group, Kosuth made significant and varied contributions to its work as an artist, writer, and editor. His prominence in the art world also brought considerable attention to the collective's activities and afforded many opportunities for it to exhibit and publish. Initially, however, it was his interest in philosophically informed art that made him an ideal collaborator. From an early point, Kosuth was, like Art & Language, practicing art in an investigative mode as a question-posing and theory-positing activity. This approach manifests in a powerfully condensed form in Kosuth's best-known work, One and Three Chairs of 1965 (figure 1.2), which uses a ready-made chair to unpack and juxtapose the multiple senses of "chairness" that inhere in representational images, material objects, and, of course, words, concepts, and mental representations.

Burn, an Australian, and Ramsden, who is English, had already been working together since 1964, when both were students at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in Melbourne. They arrived in New York in 1967, having spent the previous three years in London. Burn and Ramsden were, like Art & Language and Kosuth, inclined to understand art's turn to language as a way to challenge conventions, pose questions, and speculate about answers to them. In a short text of 1969 titled "Dialogue," Burn writes, in a manner that shares much with what both Art & Language and Kosuth were doing at the time, twelve declarative but enigmatic sentences about language and art. One of them reads almost like an explanation of what is at stake in The Air-Conditioning Show: "Perception is no longer a direct and unified act; through language it has become fragmented and dispersed." On top of this writing, in the years immediately preceding Burn's union with Art & Language, he too had been troubling sensory perceptions by making works involving mirrors, which were usually framed behind sheets of glass to create subtle perceptual distortions that elicit reflection on reflection itself in both its literal and figurative senses. One of these mirror works, Mirror Piece of 1967 (figure 1.3), was accompanied by thirteen pages of text and diagrams that both explicate how images reflected in the mirror are refracted through layers of mediating glass and theorize about visual perception reaching certain limits.

Ramsden was likewise exploring the limits of the visible and the possibilities of the cognitive more broadly construed in a series of works from this period titled Secret Painting (figure 1.4), each of which involves a monochromatically painted black canvas accompanied by a short text explaining that the content of the painting is secret and known only by certain informed parties. Again, the core idea is that visual perception alone is unable to fully access art and that language is bound up with it in fundamental ways. At roughly the same time, Art & Language's English group had, like Kosuth, Burn, and Ramsden, turned to the perceptual and mental paradoxes of ready-made objects, mirrors, and monochromes, so there were direct parallels in their work involving preferred techniques, materials, and forms. In finding these three New Yorkers with such similar concerns, Art & Language finally identified other artists who were, like its original constituents, producing objects that contested artistic conventions concerning visual experience, thereby opening up the ontologies and epistemologies of art, particularly where language was able to lead the way toward an artistic practice based upon writing as much as or more than upon the production of said objects. Owing to these mutual interests, Kosuth, Burn, and Ramsden formed a multinational cohort in New York and Art & Language's first lasting transatlantic interlocutors. Almost immediately, this new section of the collective would begin writing for Art-Language and working on projects with its predecessors in England, but it would also develop its own lines of inquiry. The latter would, as this New York group consolidated itself and developed its own distinctive identity, lead it, and not the collective's English founders, to pursue further international collaborations aimed, as this one initially was, at expanding the working group's social size and intellectual range.

It has become common for scholars of conceptual art to separate its practitioners into different camps, and many have identified the alliance that resulted from Art & Language's transatlantic expansion during the summer of 1969 as one such camp. Perhaps the first to do so in print is Ursula Meyer, who in 1972 named Art & Language as copractitioners of what she called, in reference to its predilection for reading analytic philosophy and writing like analytic philosophers, "Analytic Conceptual Art." Of those who have taken up the idea that Art & Language represents a distinct category of conceptual art, Peter Osborne, for instance, distinguishes the work of Kosuth and Art & Language as an "exclusive" or "strong" variety of conceptual art because of its deep commitment to philosophical thinking. Alexander Alberro groups Kosuth, Art & Language, and Christine Kozlov, herself an occasional participant in the collective, together under the heading of "linguistic conceptualism" because their work relies so heavily on language. This pairing of Kosuth and Art & Language, including the work of Burn and Ramsden, is not, however, entirely a retrospective invention of art historians but also the result of strategic self-positioning by the artists themselves during the late 1960s and early 1970s as they endeavored to stake their own claims to the term "conceptual art." Already in the introductory editorial that Kosuth wrote in his role as American editor of Art-Language, he contended, "it is here at the 'strict and radical extreme' where agreement is reached between American and British conceptual artists." Uniting around shared preoccupations, Art & Language actively made a case that it differed in crucial ways from its contemporaries, especially other conceptual artists. If the group's English section abandoned the term "conceptual art" when its meaning became, to its thinking, too loose, then the New York section argued polemically for narrowing its application to refer exclusively to Art & Language's activities.


Excerpted from Art & Language International by Robert Bailey. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  ix

Acknowledgments  xiii

Introduction  1

1. A Model of a Possible Art World   13

2. A Research Program 44

3. Interplay  77

4. Foxes and Hedgehogs  109

5. Keep All Your Friends  141

Conclusion  172

Notes  183

Bibliography  215

Index  231

What People are Saying About This

Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity - Alexander Alberro

"With a remarkable ability to convey complex ideas in an accessible and indeed engaging manner, Robert Bailey displays a rare theoretical sophistication. He strikes a perfect balance between theory and the archive, as the larger theoretical notions assist him in articulating the disclosures of experience, while these disclosures impose upon him the exigency to redesign the mesh of theory itself. It is imperative not to miss just how innovative and important Bailey's contribution is."

Citizen Warhol - Blake Stimson

"Robert Bailey takes us on a search for that ever-elusive postmodern ideal—the space 'between' or dream of an intermedium not accountable to modernism’s twin urges for immediacy and futurity—that gave rise to Art & Language’s rolodexes, indices, 'blurts,' and 'community practices.' In our own moment still smitten with, on the one hand, relational aesthetics, para- or mockstitutions, and social practice art, and, on the other, occupations, assemblies, and the world of 'things,' Bailey's archaeology of that dream of a 'between' still with us after all these years makes for vital foundational reading."

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