Art Institute photography department head Matthew Witkovsky leaves the conceptualizing to the 57 conceptual artists featured in "Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977." In his catalog essay, he categorizes the show as simply a "historical survey," using 140-plus works to document a tangent in photographic practice that interested certain self-conscious artists in the 1960s and '70s.
Conceptual art is little more—and maybe a little less—than the idea that art is really nothing but ideas. Pigments, emulsions, marble, and other materials don't matter. Galleries and museums, however, are indispensable. A more radical curator than Witkovsky, truer to the reflexive tendency in conceptual art, might've focused on the scholars, collectors, and critics who institutionalized the genre and the anti-art agenda of pioneers like Henry Flynt, the Fluxus artist responsible for coining the term "concept art" in 1961. (He also picketed the Museum of Modern Art with signs reading "Destroy Art" and "Demolish Art Museums.") Witkovsky notes but never underlines the elements of irony and parody in his survey.
The Art Institute's first exhibition of conceptual art was "Idea and Image in Recent Art," organized by Anne Rorimer in 1974 in conjunction with a touring Marcel Duchamp retrospective. Rorimer's catalog cover reproduced Bruce Nauman's photo Self-Portrait as a Fountain, a water-spitting jester's nod to Duchamp's famous white porcelain urinal titled Fountain. Nauman is represented in "Light Years," as is another American artist from Rorimer's show: Joseph Kosuth, who declared that all art after Duchamp is conceptual because "art only exists conceptually."
Kosuth's 1968 Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), Nothing consists of an enlarged, dictionary-style definition of the word "nothing," printed in white letters on a black field and mounted like a conventional painting. Kosuth made similar pieces using definitions of "idea," "art," and "meaning." As he spelled it out in a press release for a 1967 show, the "actual works of art are the ideas." The same year, Sol LeWitt wrote in Artforum, "Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple."
Here's where conceptual art and its apologists bring to mind that entertainment industry term of art, "high concept," which originated in the 1970s when Barry Diller (then at ABC) pushed for made-for-television movies that could be pitched and promoted with a single sentence. "I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand," Steven Spielberg said in '78. "If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it's going to make a pretty good movie." Onetime Diller protege Michael Eisner wrote in 1982, "The demand for an interesting and imaginative idea should be the first, second, third, fourth and fifth criteria in deciding to commit to any project." And in 1991 Jeffrey Katzenberg faxed colleagues at the Walt Disney Company to say that the "real meaning of high concept is that ingenuity is more important than production values."
Conceptual art is high concept in that it tends to prize the one-liner. So does "Light Years." Witkovsky's exhibition fails to articulate much less assess any questions raised by Nauman, Kosuth, LeWitt, and other conceptual artists. The content of their concepts gets overlooked. Worse, some of the artists on display offer little more than a reprise of Duchamp's gesture of buying manufactured items and tagging them "art"—except here the items are ideas and intents.
Literal-minded titles—well under Spielberg's 25-word limit—do the work for the viewer, supplying little ideas that can be absorbed with ease. Take Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed ("I'm not a photographer at all") Ruscha. Or John Baldessari's Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts). Baldessari's connect-the-dots conceit appears, fittingly, on the "Light Years" banner outside the museum.
One meta touch offered in "Light Years" is a wall text titled "Misunderstandings" that parenthetically cites itself as an instance of language used to contextualize conceptual art. Nearby is Mel Bochner's 1970 work Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), which presents nine quotes neatly handwritten on index cards. Some of them may be concocted or incorrectly attributed, according to an accompanying note from the curator; one sourced to the Encyclopedia Britannica reads, "Photography cannot record abstract ideas."
The question is, can an exhibition?
Maybe. In 1966 Bochner assembled "Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art," a show that was itself a work of conceptual art. All the "visible things" were collected in four big binders that were placed on pedestals in the otherwise empty gallery space. In 1969 Robert Barry created Closed Gallery, which involved closing galleries in three cities. You can learn more in the reading room at the exit of "Light Years."