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Karren LaLonde Alenier

What is Conceptual Art?


The question arose for the Steiny Road Poet when friends took her to see Part I of Bruce Nauman’s Disappearing Acts at the MOMA in New York (Oct 21, 2018 - Feb 25, 2019). Part II is in the MOMA PS1 in Queens. It’s a huge retrospective of Nauman’s art but most of it is tucked away in the less visited MOMA Queens location giving weight to the curatorial title Disappearing Acts.

According to the Tate Gallery of Art (London):

“Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.”

The mid-1960s is when Nauman began exhibiting his work and Wikipedia under “Conceptual art” lists Nauman as a “Notable conceptual artist.” It seems to Steiny that Nauman’s Conceptual art continues, as does the approach in the work of other artists.


Steiny goes to the trouble of providing such background because she found that just looking at Nauman’s objects of art was one layer of sufficiency. However, after reading all his thoughts on these objects introduced a large level of bewilderment. This confoundment seems acceptable after reading this in the MOMA introduction to this exhibition: “At a time when the notion of truth feels increasingly under attack, his work compels viewers to relinquish the safety of the familiar, keeping us alert, ever vigilant, and wary of being seduced by easy answers.”

Yup, there are no easy answers. Not from the full room-sized sculpture that looks like a space ship.


Nor from the neon-sign board that seems to conjugate the verbs “die” and “live.” Not even from the four-word stack “MAKE ME THINK ME.”


Here’s a quote from Nauman as set up by the curators of this exhibit:

For Nauman, both making and looking at art involve “doing things that you don’t particularly want to do, putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, following resistances to find out why you’re resisting.”

Most troubling was the billboard-like structure with a locked door. A sign on the door read that one could go down a floor in the museum and get a key, but only one person per hour could do this. You could see from the ends of this huge structure that there was little space between the two walls and nothing much to look at, except a colored set of walls.


Was this some Buddhist re-do on sitting zazen—open the door, squeeze in, and stand there. Why would anyone want to do that? Worse, what would happen if you closed the door and got locked in?


Also according to Wikipedia, Marcel Duchamp’s readymade 1917 sculpture “Fountain” (a wall mounted urinal) was a precursor to conceptual art. Should Steiny mention the portrait of a clown sitting on his throne (a toilet)?


Apparently Nauman once exhibited a series of artworks he called Clown Torture. It was one of his series of repetitive structures (including videos) that the artist hoped would make the viewer annoyed enough to think.  Influences on Nauman include philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, experimental composer John Cage, minimalist composer Philip Glass, first minimalist composer La Monte Young, sculptor/printmaker HC Westermann, playwright Samuel Beckett, performance artist Meredith Monk. And yes, Disappearing Acts includes a cacophonous sound sculpture that takes up a large space and is like walking through broadcasts of several radio stations with different programs.


To check what Steiny learned, she returned to home base and decided she would find another conceptual art exhibition. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum was Sites Unseen by Trevor Paglen (June 21, 2018 – January 6, 2019). (The exhibition moves to The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art February 21 – June 2, 2019.) Paglen, a MacArthur Foundation winner, combines stuff of surveillance (sometimes gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests), geography, politics, science for his art-making. To Steiny, Paglen’s unbeautiful art is nothing to what goes on behind the scenes of the piece. Therefore, what the viewer doesn’t see is more important than the product made by the artist.

Take Blue #3 (Chelsea), 2016. The canvas has acceptably—but not exceptional—nice coloration but how it was produced is more interesting than the abstract painting—a repetition done through a microscopic lens in combination with color washes of a courtroom sketch of the US Army intelligence analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The viewer sees nothing resembling the reality of that day in court back in 2010 when Manning was on trial for leaking classified documents. According to John Jacob, the curator of Sites Unseen, the artist “metaphorically liberated Manning from the image” and ironically, “in January 2017, Manning’s sentence was commuted, and she was released four months later.”

Consider Code Names of the Surveillance State. This set of secret code names collected from the US National Security Agency (NSA) was displayed on several walls—floor to ceiling—of the exhibition space. What Paglen is suggesting is the enormity of secret projects in which the United States of America has engaged.


Is this information art? Is this information as displayed a type of poetry? Are these 20 columns of centered words just a design piece? It’s up to the viewer to decide.

Most fascinating to Steiny was “Sight Machine,” a video of the Kronos Quartet playing a live concert where everything about them—facial expressions and movements—is analyzed with various kinds of machine vision algorithms, including face detection for iPhones and guided missile surveillance.


While the Kronos string players are producing serious music from such composers as George Crumb and Steve Reich, the algorithms produce comic commentary about what percent male players are male and the lone female player is female. Eventually, the algorithms turn the people into animations. Some of the algorithms were created by Paglen’s tech partner Obscura Digital. Paglen said in a magazine interview with Cedar Pasori of Fader (January 19, 2017), that he wanted to “Get people to perhaps think about some of the undesirable implications of mass surveillance…what might be lost as some of these technologies become more meshed into our daily lives.”


So it seems to Steiny that post modernists (those coming after the Modernists)—and this includes Gertrude Stein and these conceptual artists like Nauman and Paglen—all made or make it their goal to goad their audiences into thinking about what they are experiencing. The question is how to get the audience engaged enough so each person will think through what the artist is presenting. Whether the audience like what they are experiencing or find it beautiful or pleasing is not the point. The point is being fully alive by thinking.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2019 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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February 2019

Volume 19 Issue 9

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