Intro:

During the 1960s, theoretically-minded artists began to analyze and rethink the essentially material nature of art objects. If a work of art begins with an idea, could this idea itself be considered the work of art, separate from a unique expressive process leading to a concrete aesthetic realization of it? Artist Sol Lewitt, writing in the journal Artforum (June 1967) coined the term “conceptual art” to describe this radical approach. He argued:

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Photography emerged as an important tool for conceptual artists, particularly as a means to document performances, actions, and other ephemeral events, as in Vito Acconci’s Blinking Piece or Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series. It was also a convenient means to examine and record subjects in an objective, serial, mechanical manner, as in Lewitt’s Brick Wall. Later, a conceptual approach to photography took root with artists who sought to critique a burgeoning culture of mass-media imagery. For example, Dan Graham created a critical variant of the photo essay with his Homes for America, originally intended for viewing only in a magazine format. By the late 70s, artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were appropriating and re-photographing existing imagery to examine how context and attribution of authorship can create implied messages and manipulate perceptions of power and authority.

Lekha Hileman Waitoller

(Bernd and Hilla Becher: Blast Furnaces U.S.A., Luxembourg and Germany)

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Bernd and Hilla Becher (Germany, 1931–2007); (Germany, b. 1934)

Blast Furnaces U.S.A., Luxembourg and Germany. 1979–1986

Gelatin silver print

15 3/4 x 12 in. image size; 62 x 50 in. installed size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.22.1–9

Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery

The work of German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher comprises a lifetime project documenting industrial architecture and timbered homes found throughout Europe and America. Conceptually, the work constitutes series and groups of individual but related photographs. From a consistent viewpoint, each image captures a single structure. The individual photographs are then grouped in categories based on function, regional idiosyncrasies, or the age of the structures to draw distinctions between subtle differences. The Bechers called their subjects anonymous sculptures. Their systematic approach deliberately avoids monumentalizing or diminishing any of the buildings.

(Sherrie Levine: After Walker Evans)

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Sherrie Levine (U.S., b. 1947)

After Walker Evans. 1981

Gelatin silver print

7 1/4 x 9 3/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.95

Copyright S. Levine. Courtesy of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; Copyright Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Richard Edmund Prince: Untitled)

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Richard Edmund Prince (U.S., b. Canada, 1949)

Untitled. 1980 ‑ 1986

Chromogenic color (Ektacolor) print

29 1/2 x 44 1/2 in. visible image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.131

Richard Prince appropriated images taken from mass media, often turning to advertisements in an examination of their role in pop culture. This untitled photograph repurposes an image taken from a cigarette advertisement. Prince referred to such ads as “social science fiction”: depictions of larger-than-life people and situations constructed and circulated endlessly by the media. By focusing solely on the photograph without its accompanying text, Prince highlights the idealized view of the strapping cowboy, “The Marlboro Man.” The work speaks to advertising images’ capacity to seduce consumers through high production values and widespread distribution.

(Dan Graham: Untitled (from Homes for America series))

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Dan Graham (U.S., b. 1942)

Untitled (from Homes for America series). 1966

Chromogenic color (Ektacolor) print

9 x 13 3/4 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.72

Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris

Using an inexpensive Kodak Instamatic camera and a deliberately amateur approach, Dan Graham catalogued the cookie-cutter row houses of postwar suburban New Jersey. The photographs became the inspiration for Homes for America, Graham’s critical inquiry into the social, political, and cultural systems of the 1960s. Graham intended to publish his work in the pages of a glossy magazine, transforming this pop culture venue into a space for exhibition. The artist failed to tempt major publications like Esquire into printing it, so Homes for America first appeared in Arts Magazine in 1966. On a separate critical tangent, the artist also equated the banal repetition of prefabricated tract housing to the industrially fabricated forms of Minimalist sculpture

(Vito Acconci: Blinking Piece)

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Vito Acconci (U.S., b. 1940)

Blinking Piece. 1969

Gelatin silver prints and ink on index cards with typed text on paper

3 3/8 x 3 3/8 in. image size; 25 1/16 x 59 1/2 in. board size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.3 A

Courtesy of Acconci Studio

In Blinking Piece, Vito Acconci wrote down his thoughts and actions on index cards, then displayed those alongside photographs taken during a performance based on blinking. One card states “Performance as ‘double time’:  I see what’s before me in the present—I will see, in the future, what was before me in the past.” This statement reflects an important function of the photograph in conceptual art — to document the performances and events as an impartial tool. The disjunction between the ways in which the texts and the photographs operate as forms of communication highlights Acconci’s investigation into the way language shapes our understanding of visual art.

(Ana Mendieta: Untitled (from Silueta Works in Iowa))

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Ana Mendieta (U.S., 1948–1985)

Untitled (from Silueta Works in Iowa). 1978

Chromogenic color (Ektacolor) print

13 x 19 1/2 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, 2006.53

Copyright The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

(Sol LeWitt: Brick Wall)

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Sol LeWitt (U.S., 1928–2007)

Brick Wall. 1977

Gelatin silver print

6 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. each photo; 28 1/2 x 28 1/2 in. overall

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.97

Copyright 2013 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Brick Wall consists of sixteen prints that vary slightly in exposure. The piece surveys the repetition of form and texture to create a more complex whole, and exemplifies the utility of the camera to document processes and series, themes central to conceptual art.