Conceptual art is an umbrella term for artworks where the physical object is secondary in importance to the artistic idea contained within or suggested by the piece. Finding its roots in Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" (1913-1917), which the artist created by taking banal pre-existing objects--most famously a urinal--and exhibiting them largely unchanged, Conceptual art took flight in the 1960s in the work of artists who sought to evaluate, challenge, and expand the established parameters of art.
While the Conceptual art of Duchamp and other early practitioners like Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni--who sold collectors vaults of air and cans of excrement, respectively--had a subversive impact by testing the limits of what buyers and institutions would accept as art, the Conceptual artists who came out of the 1960s were more concerned with the philosophical implications of deconstructing a work of art to its barest essence, drawing inspiration from the theories of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his seminal "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" (1967), artist Sol LeWitt wrote: "Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.... For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not." The essay concludes with the helpful admonishment, "These sentences comment on art, but are not art"--a distinction that became necessary in view of the later work of other Conceptual artists, particularly Lawrence Weiner, who began to take language itself as their medium. In his own 1968 "Declarations of Intent," Weiner gave further density to the ideas expressed in LeWitt's manifesto: "1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built."
Along with LeWitt and Weiner, the most important Conceptual artists who came out of the 1960s include Joseph Kosuth, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, On Karawa, and Marcel Broodthaers. Based in countries around the world and working in all mediums, the artists were united in privileging the idea behind the work as an inherent criticism of the commodification of art. An artwork should no longer be a mythical manifestation of individual talent, they believed—the artist was not even necessary in the execution of the work, only his or her ideas were necessary.
Critical innovators in the field in contemporary art, these pioneering Conceptual artists influenced nearly all the movements of their period and thereafter, from Pop to Land Art to the Young British Artists, who brought their own shock factor and sensationalism to what could often be a dry artistic approach. It changed the way art is understood by the public as well as by museums and collectors, and the constantly shifting definition of "Conceptual art" itself is a testament to the historical changes in our collective understanding of what art is and can be.(read less)