Not much to look at: conceptual art at the MoMA

Gilbert and George

Conceptual art can be funny, poignant and clever, but overall, with a few exceptions, I find it to be one of the most visually underwhelming schools of art. I suppose that’s bound to happen when the artist lays out the framework or provides only the idea (the concept) and leaves the rest of the work – in some cases the entire visual element of a piece – to the viewer. It’s curious then that the artist I like best out of the bunch is Lawrence Weiner. It has a lot to do with our mutual love of the letterform, but I also genuinely enjoy thinking (conceptualizing) about the concrete thing his words describe.

I like when language is used as an integral part of a work, but so many of the conceptual pieces use it as a crutch, relying on the placard to explain what the artist was unable to convey. Allen Ruppersberg, for example, uses language in “Where’s Al?” as a tool for self-promotion. I feel like I see this sort thing (personal pictures of friends laid out in a grid) all the time. In this case, Ruppersberg has placed an index card between each photo with the dialogue of people who are just dying to know where Al is, and of course Al is off doing something extraordinarily interesting or artistic or quirky like traveling to an exotic location, or not answering his phone because he’s “hibernating on Sunset” or hanging out “in some junk shop in Solvang or something.” It’s the kind of art that was probably fun and full of inside jokes between the artists as young men, only now it’s in a museum. 

The exhibit is worth seeing if only for the pieces by conceptual sculptors Gilbert and George, who make it seem easy to ride the line between producing meaningful work and having a good laugh (at themselves and at art) at the same time.

In & Out of Amsterdam at the MoMA until Nov. 9, 2009