(Blogpost) An Art of Ideas: Conceptualism and Land Art

Hello and a very warm, Christmassy welcome to the Art on Tour blogpage! These past few months, we’ve been sharing a series of posts which tell a fascinating story of modern British art, spanning the twentieth century and beyond…

Why? Because Art on Tour is all about sharing Swindon’s fantastic modern and contemporary art collection with more people in more places! Since the times we live in call for a more digital approach, we’ve created an online exhibition, ‘Modern British Art: A Story’.

We’ve also been publishing blogposts which expand a bit more on some of the artists, artworks and movements included in the exhibition, beginning with ‘In Pursuit of a Modern Aesthetic: The London Group’ and most recently ‘Pop and Prosperity’ (scroll down just a teeny bit for that one)!

Now we find ourselves in the 1960s and ‘70s which is arguably one of the most interesting and mind-boggling periods of art. After visual representation was stretched to its limits in the preceding decades, some artists began to feel that the idea behind the artwork was more important than the final outcome. Let’s take a look at some fascinating movements that defined this ethos…

Michael Craig-Martin, The Box That Never Closes, 1967

The term “conceptualism” was coined in 1967 by Sol Lewitt, but as an art movement it continued to come into its own in the 1970s and ‘80s. Conceptual artists tend to place importance on the ideas behind an artwork and our intellectual understanding of it, rather than the final art object.

Conceptualism is at the heart of Michael Craig-Martin’s work, which often questions the way we perceive objects. This early piece, The Box that Never Closes, has the smooth, white finish of a domestic appliance and therefore gives the impression of functionality. However, it does not have a purpose, and even its basic use as a box is denied because it cannot be fully closed.

Even though we understand this, our mind completes the cube by imagining that the lid should close and the shape thus becomes whole. Therefore Craig-Martin comments on the push and pull between actual and imagined looking which is constantly at play, and makes us aware of our own perception as a viewer in an art gallery.

Richard Long, Two Walks, 1972

Land Art evolved from conceptualism’s claim that art should be an idea, rather than an object. It involves making temporary, physical interventions within a landscape, which may take the form of a journey or a creation of an installation from the site’s natural materials. As such, documentation is often the only existing evidence of the work.

Richard Long is a pioneer of landscape art. He started making small interventions in landscapes in the 1960s, and continues to do so today. Two Walks from 1972 is part of a larger body of work Long produced to explore the landscape of Dartmoor, altering his walks to examine the effect on his experience of the place.

This piece presents an Ordnance Survey map of the area, on which the artist has marked two straight lines representing the two walks he took across the flat landscape of Dartmoor. Each is marked with the time it took him. The photograph shows an ancient stone boundary cross named “Bennett’s Cross”, which was located at the point where the walks intersected, and was thus the focal point for this piece of Land Art. 

Fascinating stuff eh? Next up, we’ll be looking at a group of artists who bought something a bit more human to their work. In the meantime, if this post has tickled your fancy, why not take 10 minutes out to watch Episode 17 of Art Snaps, The Great Outdoors? Enjoy!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

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