Photography was largely spurned by the world of fine art for over one hundred and twenty years (the daguerreotype was invented 1839). There were some notable exceptions such as dada photomontage, surrealist photography and constructivist photography—but these were always on the fringes of the principal activities which were painting and sculpture. It was only in the 1970s when conceptual art began to use photography as a primary mode of expression that photography, finally, took centre stage. This became reinforced by the fact that conceptual photography segued in the late 1970s into the postmodern appropriation movement (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine) that dominated the international art scene in the 1980s.
Today photography is widely accepted as a fine art medium akin to painting, but in this post I would like to consider aspects of that point in history when photography came into its own; the point when conceptual art turned to photography.
Conceptual art emerged as a major genre of post-object art—a term coined by the Australian art theorist Donald Brook (1970)—in the latter part of the 1960s. Tony Godfrey observes that the term ‘conceptual art’ ‘first came into general use around 1967’ and ‘reached both its apogee and its crisis in the years 1966-72’ (Godfrey 1998). And writing in the early 1980s Lucy Lippard noted: ‘today’s activist art has its roots in the later sixties … primarily in minimal and conceptual art’ (Lippard 1984: 350).
In its early phase conceptual art is typified by the work of artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, who made use of verbal text in a manner that can be understood in the context of the general movement in post-object art away from the traditional art object. Typical works by Kosuth and Weiner produced in the late 1960s are illustrated below:
LEFT: Joseph Kosuth, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea, Nothing), 1967. Photostat mounted on cardboard, 120.7 x 120.7 cm. The Panza Collection. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. DACS, London. RIGHT: Lawrence Weiner, A Stake Set, 1969. Language and the materials referred to site specific, dimensions variable. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Panza Collection, Gift. 92.4182.
The Kosuth is in the form of a large scale photocopy, which is significant when considering the role of photography in conceptual art. The fact that it is black and white and square indicates the influence of minimalism, and Malevich. Yet conceptual art differs from minimal art due to the fact that the introduction of text marks a departure from the formalist abstractionism that is a key generic feature of minimal art. But the texts in the works shown above possess a high degree of conceptual abstraction. The Weiner would be painted directly onto a gallery wall following the convention established by minimal art to create a relationship between the work and its exhibition space (site-specificity); and, as in the case of Kosuth, Weiner relinquishes minimalist abstraction via his use of text.
The move away from the abstraction of minimal art initiated by the introduction of the discursive dimension of text was reinforced in the early 1970s by the incorporation of photographic imagery. Imagery is especially antithetical to the abstractionist aesthetics of minimal art. The introduction of photographic imagery can be discerned in the installation view of the Information exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, reproduced below left with a detail to the right:
The importance of this exhibition is noted by Irving Sandler who comments: ‘with its 1970 exhibition, Information, the Museum of Modern Art put its establishment stamp of approval on conceptual art’ (Sandler 1996: 7). The use of photographic imagery in the exhibition is apparent in the large scale reproduction of what appears to be a page from a newspaper in the right hand half of the installation view. Photographic imagery is also evident in the left hand portion of the installation view which shows a gridded array of images, a detail of this is shown to the right of the installation view.
PHOTO-DOCUMENTATION, MINIMALISM AND PHOTO-CONCEPTUALISM
The use of photography by conceptual art can be traced to the role played by photo-documentation in post-object art movements that arose prior to, or concurrently with, conceptual art, such as happenings, performance and land art. This explosion of out of gallery modes of expression was fundamentally political. In his examination of land art and environmental art Jeffrey Kastner reports that ‘Artists found alternatives to the gallery or museum by co-opting other urban building types or by working in the open air.’ He elaborates, noting that in 1969 Barbara Rose wrote: ‘A dissatisfaction with the current social and political system results in an unwillingness to produce commodities which gratify and perpetuate that system.’ (in Kastner and Wallis 1998: 13).
The problem with making work outside of the gallery system was that it was in many instances ephemeral and, or, inaccessible. In spite of this, sufficient evidence of the movement is extant to serve as illustrations for art historical studies such as Kastner’s. This is made possible by the fact that most land and environmental artists used photography to document their work. At first, unwittingly, such photo-documentation ironically facilitated an assimilation of such radical forms back into the museum. Certainly, Godfrey suggests that there was a certain naivete regarding the initial uses of photography in conceptual art when he notes:
The initial role of photography in Conceptual art was to document actions or phenomena. … The naive view that underlies much early photography by Conceptual artists was that the camera was an ‘opinion-less copying device’, as the curator Donald Karshan put it in 1970. It was a way of pointing at or indexing something in the world. (Godfrey 1998: 303, 306)
But the use of photography by conceptual artists became more sophisticated; it evolved beyond pure documentation as conceptual artists began to understand the rhetorical and ideological possibilities of this remarkable medium. Thus Godfrey notes: “Conceptual art has had the widest possible effect on how photography is used in art, because it does not take the medium as a given, but as something whose mechanisms and use have to be analysed.” (Godfrey 1998: 301). Godfrey’s comments are valuable as they help explain how the use of photography in conceptual art evolves from the condition of photo-documentation into something more self-reflexive and self-critical.
Benjamin Buchloh points to another distinction between a discursive and non-discursive application of photography in conceptual art in his essay ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art 1962-1969)’. Buchloh analyses the role played by minimalist serialism in conceptual art in terms of an ‘aesthetic of administration’ which he defines as occurring when ‘an arbitrary abstract principle of pure quantification replaces traditional principles of pictorial or sculptural organization and/or compositional relational order’ (Buchloh 1989: 46). He cites a list of works that include: Edward Ruscha’s photographic fold-out panorama entitled Twenty Six Gasoline Stations; Robert Barry’s One Billion Dots, On Kawara’s One Million Years, and Douglas Huebler’s life-long project to photo-document everyone alive entitled Variable Piece (Buchloh 1989: 45-46). These works are reproduced below (in the case of Ruscha a similar work has been illustrated):
LEFT: Robert Barry One Billion Dots, 1971. Twenty-five volumes, Photo courtesy The Getty Centre for the History of Art and the Humanties, Santa Monica, California. CENTRE: On Kawara, One Million Years, 1969, Index card from catalogue for ‘557, 087’. RIGHT: Edward Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966. Installation view, ’18 Paris IV’, 66 rue Mouffetard, Paris, April 1970. Organised by Michel Claura. Photo courtesy The Siegelaub Collection and Archives.
Douglas Huebler, Details from Variable Piece #34, 1970. An accompanying typewritten text reads ‘During November, 1970 forty people were photographed at the instant exactly after the photographer said, “You have a beautiful face.”’ © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Each case displays a rhetoric of seriality that can be traced back to minimal art, such as the works by Carl Andre and Donald Judd. It is this minimalist formalism that informs Buchloh’s concept of ‘an arbitrary abstract principle of pure quantification’ replacing ‘traditional principles of pictorial or sculptural organization and/or compositional relational order’. Significantly the term ‘relational’ was used by one of the pioneers of minimal art, Frank Stella, to describe minimalist form:
European geometric painters … strive for what I call relational painting. The basis of their whole idea is balance. You do something in one corner and you balance it with something in the other corner. Now the ‘new painting’ is being characterized as symmetrical. … It’s nonrelational. (in Batcock 1968: 149)
It is also noteworthy that the visual examples cited by Buchloh mix textual and photographic modes of conceptual art. However, Buchloh’s analysis reveals that he believes that it is only when the text is able to generate socially relevant meaning that it transcends minimalist formalism.
Buchloh goes on to contrast the implicitly minimalist rhetoric of ‘pure quantification’ informing the photo-conceptual work of Ruscha and Huebler with a pioneering instance of the combination of text and photography in Dan Graham’s Homes for America. Interestingly, Graham’s piece is not only photo-conceptual but entirely informational due to the fact that it exists primarily as an article published in Arts Magazine in December 1966. One page from Graham’s work is illustrated below left, on the right are details of his photographs, text and his systematic, serialistic analysis of the mass produced housing he had photographed for the piece.
LEFT: Pages from Dan Graham, Homes for America, 1966-67. Written and printed texts and black and white and colour photographs mounted on illustration board. Two panels. Each, 101.6 x 76.2 cm. CENTRE & RIGHT: Details from Homes for America. Daled Collection, Brussels, Photograph: Paula Goldman.
Buchloh points out that Graham’s Homes for America displays a discursive use of photography that communicates a socially relevant message:
The Minimalists’ detachment from any representation of contemporary social experience … resulted from their attempts to construct models of visual meaning and experience which juxtaposed a reductivist formal strategy to a structural and a phenomenological model of perception. Graham’s work, by contrast, argued for an analysis of (visual) meaning which defined signs as both structurally constituted within the relations of a language system as well as grounded in the referent of social and political experience. (Buchloh 1982: 46)
It appears that Buchloh understands Graham’s work as socially relevant because of the fact that its juxtaposition of photo-documents and text has reference to the praxis of everyday life. According to Buchloh’s analysis a mode of photo-conceptual art dominated by minimalist seriality, such as that of Ruscha and Huebler, is less significant than a mode that opens up the discursive potential of integrating text and photographic images. Buchloh’s approach is useful here as the discursive dimension offered by the juxtaposition of photographic image and text laid the basis for the genre of deconstructive appropriation that characterises appropriationism of the 1980s. It is also crucially relevant to the evolution of the photo-conceptual work of Haacke and Burgin.
HANS HAACKE AND VICTOR BURGIN’S PHOTO-CONCEPTUAL WORK
The image reproduced below left, is an installation view of Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings: A Real-Time System, As of 1 May 1971, 1971. A detail is reproduced to the right:
LEFT: Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings: A Real-Time System, As of 1 May 1971, 1971. Two maps, 142 black and white photographs with typewritten data sheets framed in 23 sets of 6 per frame, 6 charts, and explanatory panel (edition of 2). Maps: each, 61 x 50.8 cm; photographs and data sheets: each 50.8 x 19.1 cm; charts: each, 61 x 25.4 cm; panel 61 x 50.8 cm. Collection the artist. Installation view, Venice Biennale, 1978. Photo courtesy the artist and John Weber Gallery, New York. RIGHT: detail.
Like Graham’s Homes for America this work makes use of photo-documents accompanied by text. It is significant that, like other examples of photo-conceptualism, the installation of Haacke’s work continues to utilise a rhetoric of minimalist seriality, however, this serial formalism is accompanied by a discursive dimension. Shapolsky et al. … consists of photographs of real estate in New York accompanied by text displaying information Haacke collated from the public records of the County Clerk’s office. The information consisted of details of the owners, previous owners, landlords, mortgages and other business transactions.
Haacke’s conceptual photography and postmodern appropriation is now considered ‘political’ but it is also significant that Haacke was also fundamentally fascinated by systems theory as is evident in the sub-title of the Shapolsky work ‘A Real-Time System, As of 1 May 1971’. Haacke’s use of the phrase ‘real-time system’ relates directly to the art theorist Jack Burnham’s analysis of post-object art in terms of ‘real-time’ systems (Burnham 1969; see also 1968). In addition, it can also be noted that the term ‘real-time’ refers to the context of computer science and ‘information processing’ indicating that Haacke was, like Burnham, interested in the scientific notion of systems in the early phase of his photo-conceptualist period.
Left: installation view, Victor Burgin Performative/Narrative, 1971. Black and white photographs and printed text in sixteen parts. Each 45.7 x 86.4 cm. Right: detail. Courtesy the artist, John Weber Gallery, New York, and Galerie Liliane & Michel Durand-Dessert, Paris. © DACS, London.
Another salient example of photo-conceptualist art that shows the influence of systems theory is illustrated above. It is Victor Burgin’s Performative/Narrative, 1971. Like Haacke’s piece this work combines photographs with text using an implicitly minimalistic serialism for its formal display. A detail of one of the photographs used in the series is reproduced to the right of the installation view shown above. The photographic image appears to be the same throughout the series but in fact it is what Ann Rorimer describes as:
a series of different photographs of permutations of binary states of the same object: a desk (drawer open or closed), a chair (under the desk or away from it), a reading lamp (on or off), and a file folder (open or closed). A series of binary digits (e.g., 0101) appears in each section of the work and reflects the changed state of the objects photographed. (in Goldstein and Rorimer 1995: 94)
Two parallel texts accompany the photographs, one provides a narrative dimension describing events that might have taken place in the office. The other text uses terms from Boolean algebra which describes binary logic in terms of operators such as ‘and/or’ and ‘and/not’. Rorimer notes that:
the final sequence of numbers, “0000,” corresponds to propositions that begin “not…, not…, not…, not…”). This sequence asks viewers to consider all the criteria upon which their knowledge is based. (in Goldstein and Rorimer 1995: 94)
Binary logic lies at the heart of computerised information processing and, like Haacke’s reference to ‘real time systems’, can be related to Burnham’s analysis of post-object art in terms of a cybernetic conception of systems. But in the late 1970s the scientific bent of conceptual art was gradually overtaken by more literary theoretical frameworks, most notably Roland Barthes’ semiotics and Walter Benjamin’s landmark Work of Art essay (Benjamin 1973).
This text is a modified version of chapter 7 in The Postmodern Art of Imants Tillers: Appropriation en abyme 1971-2001 (Coulter-Smith 2002)
Batcock, Gregory, ed. 1968. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Benjamin, Walter. 1973. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. In Illuminations. London: Fontana. Originally published as an article, in 1936, through the University of Frankfurt Centre for Social Research. The Illuminations collection was originally published in Germany in 1955, and first published in Britain 1970 by Jonathan Cape Ltd. The English translation was sponsored by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, in 1968.
Brook, Donald. 1970. Flight from the Object. Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney.
Buchloh, Benjamin. 1989. ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art)’. In L’art conceptuel: une perspective. 1962-1969, exhib. cat., curator Claude Gintz. Paris: Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Burnham, Jack. 1968. ‘Systems Esthetics’. Artforum (September): pp. 30-32.
———. 1969. ‘Real-Time Systems’. Artforum (September): pp. 49-55.
Coulter-Smith, Graham. 2002. The Postmodern Art of Imants Tillers: Appropriation en abyme 1971-2001. London: Paul Holberton publishing.
Godfrey, Tony. 1998. Conceptual Art, Art & Ideas. London: Phaidon.
Goldstein, Ann, and Anne Rorimer. 1995. Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Kastner, Jeffrey, and Brian Wallis. 1998. Land Art and Environmental Art. London: Phaidon.
Lippard, Lucy. 1984. ‘Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power’. In Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by B. Wallis, pp. 340-358. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sandler, Irving. 1996. Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s. New York: HarperCollins.