Conceptual Art vs Greenberg: clash in means, not the ends

Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.

Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.

“Ideas alone can be works of art,”[1] proclaimed American Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt in his 1968 Sentences on Conceptual Art, summoning up a new stream of thought that emerged in 1960s America[2] as a reaction to Clement Greenberg’s insistence on formalism and opticality, a stance that art should be experienced solely through ‘visual stimuli’ and in a disinterested manner.[3] In an anarchic Dada style,[4] Conceptual Art (as this new stream came to be known) proposed “perceptual withdrawal”[5] – instead of producing ‘sacred’ and valuable art objects, they offered only brief linguistic description of their ideas or simple visual statements such as Lawrence Weiner’s As Long As It Lasts (Figure 1). If a physical object of some sort was present it was either perplexingly bare or badly executed and aesthetically unappealing. What is more, these artworks mixed a variety of media (including everyday objects and all sorts of rubbish), thus attacking Greenberg’s “quest for medium-specific purity.”[6] Purposefully provocative, conceptual artworks encouraged a renewed enquiry into what art is or should be.

In essence, the two streams of thought (Greenberg’s formalism on the one hand and Conceptualism on the other) parted on two fronts: first in their view on the basis for understanding and appreciating art[7] (i.e. the objects’ formal qualities or the underlying ideas); and second in their views on how an artwork should be experienced (i.e. merely aesthetically and in a disinterested manner as argued by Greenberg, or in a contemplative manner as argued by the Conceptualists). While commonly considered two fundamentally opposing ideologies, in this essay I wish to argue that the two ideologies were, in fact, not as inimical as they are commonly considered to be. Both Greenberg and the Conceptualists championed artworks devoid of theatricality – artworks that would keep viewers in control of their critical agency. Both reacted against what were in their time conventional “conditions of receivership,” and sought to redefine “the role of the spectator.”[8] Disagreement was therefore not about what art should be and do, but how this could be done. It was a clash of strategy rather than ideology.

Conceptual Art’s attack on Greenberg came out of the inference that his formalism led to a purely visceral and hence sensational experience – an experience in which the viewer loses himself and his critical agency. The 1960s Conceptualists, therefore, sought to trade the visual for the conceptual; they sought to redirect the focus, both in making and in appreciation, from the external form to the underlying idea. The physical object, if existent, was for them “simply a medium through which the viewer can reconstruct the intentionality.”[9] They championed artworks that would not speak to one’s senses but to one’s mind,[10] offering an experience that is “abnormally cerebral.”[11]

However, the assertion that Greenberg himself opposed the cerebral experience and championed the sensational experience is presumptuous. His interest in the distant, analytical mode of viewing was, in fact, indicated in the 1954 essay Abstract, Representational and so Forth where he noted that abstract painting (in opposition to the representational one) allows the viewer to stand “outside” of the pictorial space, at a distance from which s/he can observe the image rather than being submerged into it, lost in its narrative. The lack of “descriptive connotations”[12] allows for the working of the eye and for the focus on the formal aspects such as colour, shape, or composition, and it is this very focus on the surface of an object that secures the viewer from the sensational delirium caused by illusionistic painting. It is this focus on the physical properties of an artwork that allows for emotionally (rather than intellectually) disinterested observation. Such a viewing is not numbing, but critical and even reflective.

Greenberg acknowledged the importance of reflection, in his earlier essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939) when he wrote: “[T]he ultimate values which the cultivated spectator derives from Picasso are derived at a second remove, as the result of reflection upon the immediate impression left by the plastic values.”[13] It is kitsch art (which Greenberg was critical of) that discourages the reflective experience because here “the reflected effect has already been included in the picture, ready for the spectator’s unreflective enjoyment.”[14] It is kitsch art that is numbing, spectacular, and sensational. The experience of avant-garde art, in contrast, is “necessarily difficult.”[15] “A superior culture,” Greenberg further asserted, “is inherently a more critical culture.”[16]

It is true that Greenberg focused this critical and cerebral engagement with the work on the artwork’s physical properties rather than on the ideas that generate the work. And this is where he and the Conceptualists came into disagreement. While Greenberg called attention to the surface of an object, Conceptualists regarded ideas as the most important part of the artistic process and the artistic experience. For them, the production of the work was only a “perfunctory affair”[17] and, as LeWitt put it, the physical object is “secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/or ‘dematerialized’.”[18] It functions as a mere vehicle for the underlying idea. In the Conceptualists view, the focus on an idea leads to a more critical engagement and a deeper intellectual understanding of a work. Focus on the form, on the other hand, seduces and causes a visceral reaction, even if this was not a reaction that Greenberg himself hoped for.

Given that by the 1960s abstract art had become deeply entwined with the common culture, it is plausible to argue that by this point in time, Greenberg’s avant-garde had lost its initial impetus and function. Art historian Frances Stonor Saunders observes that as it became “an art official,” Abstract Expressionism came “to the verge of kitsch.”[19] Absorbed into the common culture, abstract art became a kind of art that Greenberg himself initially opposed. Perhaps then, Conceptualists were right to argue that by the 1960s, Greenberg’s formalism ceased to generate a critical experience – rather than being challenging and difficult it became automatized and habitual and, thus, anaesthetising. If it originally managed to surprise and keep the viewer “outside” of the pictorial space, it now cradled him/her in. With this in view, Conceptual art did come in as a necessary avant-garde movement offering a new breed of unexpected and shocking art, and restructuring the conventional perception. [20]A clear-eyed look at what art is and should be was needed to alert the viewer and wake him out of slumber, just as Greenberg’s “modernist critique (and ultimate prohibition) of figurative representation” [21] was necessary and effective back in the 1940s.

A new, Conceptual art’s “condition of receivership” involved the viewer in the process of unpacking the artistic concept and thus in completing the work. Shying away from then conventional artistic practice, the Conceptualists made the material form aesthetically bare and disturbingly unappealing[22] as to encourage, even force, the viewer to delve underneath this surface and uncover the idea that justifies this austere physical expression. Agitated and perturbed by the lack of visual stimuli, the viewer was forced to search for a new way to engage with and appreciate art. Actively participating in the unpacking of the artistic intention (an idea), the viewer was no longer an outside observer of a fully materialised (thus completed) work but a participant in its completion. As noted by Lucy Lippard, this was a move from imaging to imagining.[23] Perception of such a work, as noted by Lewitt, was “subjective”[24] and the experience individual. What is more, explained LeWitt, the viewer might understand the work differently than it was understood by the artist, and the value of this experience is in the capacity of the work to set the viewer “off in his own chain of thought by that misconstrual.”[25] Handing over the artistic interpretation to the viewer and making him a co-author of the work, Conceptual artists hoped to increase his/her critical engagement.

But this active participation in the work might have had become, as noted by modernist art critic Michael Fried, a sort of a theatrical experience. Conceptual art’s “espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre,”[26] writes Fried and adds that Conceptual art’s “sensibility is theatrical because, to begin with, it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters the work. […] Whereas in previous art what is to be had from the work is located strictly within it, the experience of [conceptual] art is of an object in a situation – one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.”[27] What this suggests is that the viewer is now submerged in the work, enveloped by it in a similar way to which he was, in Greenberg’s view, submerged inside a representational painting.[28] Rather than being intellectually charged, it is then this experience of Conceptual art, one could argue, that becomes a spectacle in which the viewer loses his critical agency.

Even if, at the beginning, Conceptual art managed to critically engage the viewer (for it was new and, therefore, “necessarily difficult”), it was not long before this art too was subsumed back into the common culture as a new kind of habitually and uncritically consumed commodity, a part of the establishment.[29] In other words, as it became familiar, Conceptual art also ceased to be difficult and progressive, just as was the case with Greenberg’s formalism by the 1960s. This, as it turns out, is the curse of any avant-garde movement that succeeds in its attempt to alter an old system of thought and create space for its own ideology. Paradoxically, the success of the avant-garde is simultaneously its end.

What I have argued in this essay is that both Greenberg and the Conceptualists were radical in their own time. Even though their strategies differed, both started with a similar premise – an appreciation of art that kept the viewer at a critical distance from the work. Because it came straight after Greenberg’s formalism, Conceptual art, as the new avant-garde, was naturally and necessarily oppositional to Greenberg’s propositions but this was an opposition in means rather than ends.

[TEXT: Ira Ferris, published 15 September 2015]


[1] Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” 0-9 (January 1969), p4.

[2] For instance, LeWitt’s contemporary John Baldessari also notes: “I was beginning to suspect that information could be interesting in its own right and need not be visual as in Cubist, etc. art.” Lucy R. Lippard, “Preface,” in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973, xiii.

[3] Greenberg heralded the painting that one “can travel through only with the eye.” Clement Greenberg, “Modernist painting” (1961), Chapter 1 in Modern art and modernism: a critical anthology, edited by F. Frascina, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, p8.

[4] As noted by Benjamin Buchloh, Conceptual art was, of course, a legacy of “Duchamp’s critique of visuality, voiced for example in the famous quip: ‘All my work in the period before the Nude was visual painting. Then I came to the idea’… “ Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” in October, Vol. 55 (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143, The MIT Press, p113.

[5] Buchloh, p136.

[6] Buchloh, p116.
In “Modernist Painting” Greenberg writes about the need to ‘clean’ the discipline of painting (take out what was borrowed from other mediums) in order to come back to what is essential or specific to this medium. It is the task of art, he notes, “to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thereby each art would be rendered ‘pure’, and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standards or quality…” Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”, p5-6.

[7] Again this questioning, as noted by Buchloh, was Duchamp’s legacy. Duchamp, notes Buchloh, contemplated what is the basis “for the legitimate definition of the work of art.” Buchloh, p119.

[8] Buchloh, p107. Buchloh here refers only to the Conceptual Art but in my view this thought [i.e. reaction against the conventional “conditions of receivership”] can be applied to Greenberg’s formalism as well.

[9] Conceptual artist Mel Bochner quoted in Ellen H. Johnson, Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976, p210.
Bochner also asserted: “I don’t want the viewer to become involved with specific physical qualities in a work. It would be inappropriate to look at my art and like it for the formal properties or any of its secondary attributes.“ Johnson, p210.
Or as Lewitt put it “Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary…” Lippard, vii.

[10] Le Witt writes: “Conceptual Art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.” Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no.10 (June 1967): 79.

[11] Lippard, vii.

[12] Clement Greenberg, “Abstract, Representational, and so forth” (1954), in Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p137.
Greenberg writes that abstract painting offers “more physical and less imaginative kind of experience, […] without nouns and transitive verbs, of the language of [illusionist or representative] painting.” Greenberg, “Abstract, Representational, and so forth,” p137.
Also, Greenberg thought that the abstract / avant-garde art, by being retinal, can escape illusionism, freeing the viewer from a manipulative effect. He writes: “The Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking…” In contrast, a Modernist painting can be “travel[ed] through only with the eye.” Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” p8.

[13] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), in Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p15.

[14] ibid.

[15] In the avant-garde art there are no “detours [from] what is necessarily difficult in genuine art,” writes Greenberg. ibid.

[16] Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” p19.
Greenberg also notes: “Superior culture is one of the most artificial of all human creations, and the peasant finds no “natural” urgency within himself that will drive him toward Picasso […] for he can enjoy kitsch without effort.” Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” p18.

[17] Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”.

[18] Lippard, vii.

[19] “Ordered and systematic, this history reduced what had once been provocative and strange to an academic formula, a received mannerism, an art official. Thus installed within the canon, the freest form of art now lacked freedom. More and more painters produced more and more paintings which got bigger and bigger and emptier and emptier. It was this very stylistic conformity prescribed by MoMA and the broader social contract of which it was a part, that brought Abstract Expressionism to the verge of kitsch.” Frances Stoner Saunders, “Yanqui Doodles,” in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, pp252-278, New York/London: The New Press, 1999, p275.

Stoner also quotes art critic John Canaday, reflecting that, by 1959, “Abstract Expressionism was at the zenith of its popularity, to such an extent that an unknown artist trying to exhibit in New York couldn’t find a gallery unless he was painting in a mode derived from one or another member of the New York School.” Stoner Saunders, p274.
In Sentences on Conceptual Art, LeWitt also writes: “When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.” Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.

[20] As noted by Allan Kaprow, “the point [was] to make something new, something that does not even remotely remind you of culture.” Allan Kaprow, How to Make a Happening, LP album, produced by Mass Art Inc, 1966,
And Buchloh writes that Conceptualists engaged in “…artistic practices that explicitly insisted on being addressed outside of the parameters of the production of formally ordered, perceptual objects, and certainly outside of those of art history and criticism.” Buchloh, p2.
LeWitt confirms these attitudes when he writes in the Sentences: “The conventions of art are altered by works of art. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.” Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.

[21] Buchloh, p119.

[22] As Lippard put it, with Conceptual Art “austerity took precedence over hedonism.” Lippard, xvi.

[23] Lippard, xv.
Lippard also quotes artist David Wojnarowicz saying: “I’m beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gestures is the imagination.” Lippard, xxi.

[24] LeWitt writes in the Sentences: “Perception is subjective”. Echoing LeWitt’s thought, in 1968 another Conceptual artist, Lawrence Weiner stated: “The decision as to condition [of an artwork] rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.” Lippard, xvii.

[25] Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.
Lewitt goes on to say: “The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.”

[26] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), in Artforum 5 (June 1967), pp12-23, p14.

[27] Fried, p14.

[28] In 1948 essay, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture”, Greenberg critiqued the art that presents itself as a theatre (i.e. representational art). See Clement Greenberg, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” (1948), in Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p155.

[29] Lippard writes: “Clearly, whatever minor revolutions in communication have been achieved by the process of dematerialising the object … art and artists in a capitalist society remain luxuries. […] the escape was temporary. Art was recaptured and sent back to its white cell, …” Lippard, xxi-xxii.


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