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Art as an Idea, Art as an Action

When Lucy Lippard and John Chandler considered art as an idea as opposed to art as an action (or product) in their foundational essay “The Dematerialization of Art” (1967-1968), I don’t think they meant that the two were irreconcilable. Though, the essay does suggest that ideas will one day become art, and our need to realize those ideas through actions or tangible creations will be eliminated.

Art as an Idea, Art as an Action | "L-Beams" (1965) by Robert Morris

Take, for example, Robert Morris’s 1965 work L-Beams and the minimalist movement he was a part of, which focused on the conception of modular units deprived of personal expression. Formed by three identical L-shaped objects positioned in different stances, the work is about the perceptual experience of the viewer. It is less concerned about every subjective interpretation that it can produce, and focuses on the role of the subjective in the construction of meaning – that is, shifting the emphasis from expression to interaction.

Similarly, Sol Lewitt’s (1928 – 2007) conceptual art, as exemplified by his 1967 work 46 3-Part Variations on 3 Different Kinds of Cubes (featured in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972), allows the viewer to project his or her consciousness onto these cubes.

As for art as an action (or product), the work of Shigeko Kubota (1937 – 2015), especially Vagina Painting (1965), and the aesthetic ideas of her group, Fluxus, may be a good example. This international collective was strongly positioned against the elitism of art, and advocated for the blurring of the line between art and life with their anti-art and anti-commercialism views, as well as their social and communitarian sensibilities. Painting with a brush attached to her underwear in order to apply red “drips” on the flat surface, this work takes on Jackson Pollock’s action painting technique, and cleverly criticizes its ejaculatory connotation.

Art as an Idea, Art as an Action | "8 Natural Handstands" (1969) by Robert Kinmont

This performance-based side of art was used as a way of channelling energy in order to directly impact the viewer; it was seminal for artists such as Robert Kinmont and his Eight Natural Handstands (1969), where the artist was photographed while performing handstands, which was also mentioned in Lucy Lippard’s book.

By looking at specific examples of works produced between 1966 and 1972, we could argue that art as an idea merged with art as an action (or product), which led to the production of artworks that were both about ideas and actions. Take a look at the conceptual art of Lee Lozano (1930 – 1999), especially her Dropout Piece (1972) in which she decided to withdraw from the New York art scene. Her work was comprised of action through prolonged non-action and alludes to the notion of presence (or lack there of) in a given context – to the idea of the artist being a part of a greater whole.

Additionally, consider On Kawara’s (1933 – 2014) Today Series/Date Paintings produced between 1966 and 2013. “The series speaks to the idea that the calendar is a human construct, and that quantifications of time are shaped by cultural contexts and personal experiences.”

I believe that what Lucy Lippard and John Chandler meant was that ideas and actions (or products) in the context of art are very closely related – so much so that ideas may eventually become the art. Whether we take On Kawara’s repetitive paintings or Lee Lozano’s action through non-action pieces, these works seem to embody the fusion of art as an idea and art as an action (or product).

*Note: Images were sourced from: 1) The Whitney Museum of American Art, © artist or artist’s estate; 2) Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands, © Alexander and Bonin, New York

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