If, after a long, tiring day walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you came into a gallery containing a folding, wooden, slat-backed chair, sitting against the wall, what might be your first inclination? You'd probably sit down on it. If you did, you'd become part of a work of art. Realising that, you'd probably get back up, no matter how much your feet hurt. In 1965, Joseph Kosuth installed in the MOMA a typical, wooden, folding chair. Next to it he posted on the wall, a black and white, life-size photo of that chair. On the opposite side, he posted a sign, a word-for-word definition of the word chair from Webster's Dictionary. "You call this art," you ask? The work was designed to call attention to the differences in appearances and concepts. The picture of the chair was no match for the object itself, and the definition no match for either one. This is what was called Conceptual Art.
Conceptual Art is not hard to understand, but it IS hard sometimes to accept. Basically it is a case where the idea comes first, followed by a problem-solving exercise in which the artist tries to figure out how to creatively express that idea using any medium that he finds adequate to do so. For Kosuth, the idea was "chair." His solution: a photo of a chair, a real chair, and the definition of a chair. It was designed as a textbook demonstration of how Conceptual Art worked. In teaching art, as one of the projects in my advanced class, I designed a computer program that demanded the student input ten nouns. From that, the computer would randomly spit out hundreds of more or less nonsensical similes. "A wet forklift is like an educated tomato," for example. The random juxtaposition of various nouns and adjectives created some rather humorous but sometimes profound phrases. The student's job was to select, from hundreds the computer generated, one such simile and then create a work of art to express it. That was Conceptual art and at first, it looked to the kids like a piece of cake. Only as they began to face both the choice of a simile and how to express that concept did the come face to face with the fact that, hey, this is HARD!
This past spring, the students in the advanced art class at my son's high school took a different approach to the chair that, while not quite as conceptual, was nonetheless quite innovative. Using an identical old-fashioned, wooden, slat-backed, folding chair as had Joseph Kosuth, (the instructor had over a dozen donated to the department), each student was instructed to research a well-known painter from the past, or a painting style, and then to paint their chair to reflect the style and subject matter of their chosen artist. The results were stunning. One was done using a cave painting motif. One, in a Mondrian style, was my favourite. Another chose Escher. Still another painted a beautiful Monet. There were about 15 in all and each was readily identifiable to a given artist. Like Kosuth's chair, each everyday object became a work of art. Conceptual art is very much problem-solving art, in this case, how to pay homage to a gifted artist by dedicating a memorial chair to his talent. You should have seen the one dedicated to Jackson Pollock!