But What IS It? Conceptual Art Works Explained

The hidden meaning behind 8 installation pieces

Conceptual art can be everything from video to performance to painting and sculpture. At first glance it might seem way out there, but there are accessible ideas behind it all. Here are eight artists who might change how you view the world through their work.

1. Marcel Duchamp (French)
Reconsider the culture (you think) you know

Marcel Duchamp, one of the original conceptual artists, made us question what art even was with his ‘ready-made’—the idea of taking something that’s lowbrow (a urinal) and elevating it to art by signing it with an assumed name and putting it on a gallery wall.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917-1964 (From the collection of La Galleria Nazionale)

Just by reframing the idea of what could be ‘art’, Marcel’s work pushes you to think outside of normal culture.

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, 1920 (From the collection of Sound and Music)

2. Marina Abramović (Serbian)
Make Yourself Mindful

If you want to become an attentive, relaxed person, look no further than the Serbian artist Marina Abramović. Her piece Sleep provided space for people to rest amid a busy art fair rush.

Sleep (Presented at Kaldor), Marina Abramović (From the collection of Marina Abramović Institute)

Marina’s work is attuned to the body, encouraging everyone to mindfully live in the moment, and to push through fears to evolve into a stronger self.

By slowing down, no matter if through sleep, moving step-by-step, or just sitting, adding her "live in the moment" awareness into your day-to-day could result in a more thoughtful existence.

Kaldor Public Art Project 30: Marina Abramović (From the collection of Kaldor Public Art Projects)

3. Sol LeWitt (American)
Put the Power in Your Hands

Sol LeWitt’s work gives artistic power back to the people. His art embraces color and geometry, but he wasn’t the sole creator of it. Instead, his drawings and paintings were assembled by other people using detailed guidelines.

Wall Drawing #831 (Geometric Forms), Sol LeWitt, 1997 (From the collection of the Guggenheim Bilbao)

By taking himself out of the execution, Sol’s work brought you, the viewer, into it, and the result was something beautiful and perfectly fitted to each space. His work made art an accessible concept to be approached by anybody.

Wall Drawing #146A, Sol LeWitt, 2000-06 (From the collection of MASS MoCA)

4. Marcel Broodthaers (Belgian)
Take Nothing Seriously

If you were to sum up Marcel Broodthaers’ approach it might be "take nothing seriously". When he put plaster over a poetry collection he published as his first piece, he started questioning the role of art and of museums in his later work. Marcel’s work encourages us to take nothing at face value—everything is up for debate and interpretation.

Salle Blanche, Marcel Broodthaers, 1975 (From the collection of Monnaie de Paris)

Marcel’s approach might lighten your own world and push you outside of your familiar.

Musée d’Art Moderne - Département des Aigles, Section des Figures”, Stȁdtische Kunsthalle, Dűsseldorf (From the collection of Monnaie de Paris)

5. Kara Walker (American)
Put Yourself in Another Person’s Shoes

Kara Walker takes a long hard look at history—the good and the bad—and her work urges you to think from other perspectives outside of your own.

A Subtlety, Kara Walker, 2014 (From the collection of Creative Time)

She puts a twist on classical structures like the Sphinx and on classic silhouette cutouts to show what people who came before her endured throughout time.

Kara Walker at work, 2014 (From the collection of Creative Time)

By opening your mind up to others’ lives, inspired by Kara, you could become more compassionate and caring about the people all around you.

6. Yves Klein (French)
Bring Yourself Back to the Basics

Yves Klein’s art brings life down to its elemental forces: nature and art and color. His obsession with the color blue might seem a little extreme until you think about it.

Portrait Relief of Claude Pascal, Yves Klein, 1962 (From the collection of Galleria Civica di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino)

Much of his work is monochrome, and oriented around blue. He saw the color as "representing all the primary elements of the universe", since it’s so close to the color of water, and relaxing at the same time.

Table bleue (Blue Table) (From the collection of Muzeum umění Olomouc)

Letting yourself float back to the basics, like Yves, and just meditating for a moment on a color might let you transcend the everyday stress of life.

7. Ilya Kabakov (Russian)
Remember What Shaped Your Own Culture

Ilya Kabakov’s art nudges you to remember and question your own cultural history. Kabakov’s art pieces, like Where Is Our Place?, are layered and compress his time with references to what came before him, and what might come after. He encourages us to not take anything for face value and to remember the past.

Being mindful, like Kabakov’s art suggests, could teach you history’s lessons and help you avoid mistakes in your own time.

Where Is Our Place?, Ilya Kabokov, 2003 (From the collection of MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts)

8. Vincent J.F. Huang (Taiwanese)
Take a Long Look at the Future

Vincent J.F. Huang’s pieces, like Crossing the tide, show us what the world around us could look like if environmental change hits hard. His work pushes us to think about how we live in the present and consider the effects we might have on our only home, Earth.

Crossing the tide, Vincent J.F. Huang, 2015-07-30 (From the collection of Tuvalu – Biennale Arte 2015)

Huang’s art doesn’t preach at us, but it does show how we should put our home first, and live with care.

Crossing the tide, Vincent J.F. Huang (From the collection of Tuvalu – Biennale Arte 2015)

Collectively, these artists make us think about the world around us and how we can be more considerate in all ways. When you boil it down to what it can teach us about ourselves, it’s really not so abstract or conceptual at all. Just keep an open mind and keep on learning, they tell us.

Written by Jesse Aylen
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