Wikipedia describes conceptual art as is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Kosuth puts this idea forth by simply saying:
“We don’t work with forms and colors. We work with meaning. How you make the work is far less important than why you make it.”
– Joseph Kosuth (link)
I’m not sure though, if I understand this completely or if I can agree with it. Because although concept artists prioritized meaning over material, I have often seen concept artists using forms that are different, radical and meant to catch attention. For instance, consider Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (which used a shark suspended in formaldehyde), or Joseph Kosuth’s Four Colors Four Words (which used striking lights), or Doris Selcado’s untitled sculpture made out of chairs in an empty space.
Form was indeed an important aspect of concept art, just that the form was not traditional and conventional challenged art practice. In fact most of Kosuth’s work revolved around the literal interpretation of words into form. Consider Glass Words Material Described or One and Three Chairs or Five Words in Orange Neon, as examples. Therefore, form was not irrelevant to concept art (just that the use of form had to be synchronous with the meaning). I see conceptual art more as a marriage between form and meaning, rather than meaning over form.
That said, It’s time to move to the art piece that I’m going to write a response to. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning. Most of what is to be known about this brilliant piece is spoken by Rauschenberg himself in this video (as was shared in class). Erased de Kooning was made at a point in time when Willem De Kooning was highly revered, and Rauschenberg was still struggling to gain recognition in the art community.
“They didn’t take my work seriously, which would make me even friendlier, as far as they were concerned. Because I, in no way, could be considered a competitor. So, I was not a threat.”
– Robert Rauschenberg
This clearly explains how Rauschenberg consciously stood out from traditional art practice, and was trying to make an identity through his work. Rauschenberg wanted to create something in off white, and had been erasing his own work. However, he soon realized that it meant nothing more than an erased Rauschenberg, which would have been insignificant at the time. He was looking for meaning in erasing. Which led him to erase a painting by one of the most venerated painters of the time.
It was a strong statement, indeed. And it was, by no means, easy. The original contained pencil, charcoal, paint and crayon (if Rauschenberg is to be believed). He spent an entire month erasing it (if Rauschenberg is to be believed). But regardless, I find the painting highly effective in terms of delivering a message, violation of art practice, and deskilling of art. This particular piece is conceptual in the sense, that the meaning takes precedence over the form. And the superseding of form can’t be more blatant than an erased painting.
Drawing a comparison to Rauschenberg’s other works, this piece is unique. The artist generally worked with paint over newspaper/magazine cutouts, and added third dimensional elements to it (Combines). However, all his work is highly conceptual. It compels the viewer to contemplate over the meaning through the means of a concept. The concept can be a goat enclosed within a tyre, it can be a sack hanging from a painting or it can be an erased painting. Most of his work is highly chaotic, and is reflective of his own self.
“I only consider myself successful when I do something that resembles the lack of order that I sense.”
– Robert Rauschenberg (link)
Kosuth said the prioritization of meaning over form, and most of his work was about literal translations of words through form. Rauschenberg’s related his own success in the reflection of his inner chaos, and consequently most of his work is chaotic, to the extent that it breaks the two dimensional space. Perhaps, I can also associate Joseph Beuys to this list.