Opposite materiality in art is its negation, its “dematerialization.” The term first appeared in an essay Lucy Lippard wrote with John Chandler in 1967, which was published the following year in Art International (1). This foundational essay had enormous impact on art writing, first and foremost on the theorization of conceptual art and minimalism. Eventually, it was also applied to other fields, music for instance, and even to the most material field of architecture.
Lippard and Chandler saw a shift that started during the 1960s, in which
the anti-intellectual, emotional/intuitive processes of art-making characteristic of the last two decades have begun to give way to an ultra-conceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively. As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen. as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art. The studio is again becoming a study. Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object becoming wholly obsolete.
The essay mentions a staggering number of artists, proof of the prevalence of such a dematerialized approach to art making, while also confirming the concept’s relevance. Lippard and Chandler underscore Marcel Duchamp’s pioneering role. They note “the breakup since 1958 or so of traditional media, and in the introduction of electronics, light, sound, and, more important, performance attitudes into painting and sculpture the so far unrealized intermedia revolution whose prophet is John Cage” (p. 259 in the 1971 edition). Re-reading this text today one cannot fail to notice a prescient passage when the authors talk about the artist becoming a writer (“Sometime in the near future it may be necessary for the writer to be an artist as well as for the artist to be a writer”; p. 275). One is thus reminded of the crucial role that the artist statement plays today, inescapable complement to the artwork. The present journal with its emphasis on writing by artists is another illustration of such a shift.
Six Years Later
In 1973, Lippard published Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972. To flesh out and develop the notion of dematerialization, she assembled, edited, and annotated a collection of texts,
a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries: consisting of a bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically and focused on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, antiform, systems, earth, or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones).
Lippard included both a Preface and Postface in which she revisits and takes stock of the concept of dematerialization, six years after its first coining. Given the fundamental importance of these texts, we thought we would make them easily available to our readers. For the 1968 article, click here (in a 1971 reprint); the Preface and Postface of Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 are reproduced here below.
Preface and Postface from Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, pp. 5–9 and 263–64)
Because this Is a book about widely differing phenomena within a time span, not about a movement, there is no precise reason for certain inclusions and exclusions except personal prejudice and an idiosyncratic method of categorization that would make little sense on anyone else’s grounds. I planned this book to expose the chaotic network of Ideas In the air, in America and abroad, between 1966 and 1971. While these Ideas are more or less concerned with what I once called a “dematerialization” of the art object, the form of the book intentionally reflects chaos rather than imposing order. And since I first wrote on the subject in 1967, it has often been pointed out to me that dematerialization is an Inaccurate term, that a piece of paper or a photograph Is as much an object, or as “material,” as a ton of lead. Granted. But for lack of a ] betterterm I have continued to refer to a process of dematerialization, or a deemphasis on material aspects (uniqueness, permanence, decorative attractiveness).
“Eccentric Abstraction,” “Anti-Form,” “Process Art,” “Antl-lllusionism,” or whatever, did come about partly as a reaction against the industrialized geometry and sheer bulk of much minimal art. Yet minimal art was itself anti-formalist in its nonrelational approach, its insistence on a neutralization of “composition” and other hierarchical distinctions. Sol LeWitt’s premise that the concept or idea was more Important than the visual results of the system that generated the object undermined formalism by insisting on a return to content. His exhaustive permutations reintroduced chance into a systematic art, an idea that he has successfully investigated in his serial drawings, which are executed directly on the wall according to very specific Instructions that allow for infinite generalization, or variety. Other artists were more concerned with allowing materials rather than systems to determine the form of their work, reflected in the ubiquity of temporary “piles” of materials around 1968 (done by, among others, Andre, Baxter, Beuys, Bollinger, Ferrer, Kaltenbach, Long, Louw, Morris, Nauman, Oppenheim, Saret, Serra. Smithson). This premise was soon applied to such ephemeral materials as time Itself, space, nonvisual systems, situations, unrecorded experience, unspoken ideas, and so on. Such an approach to physical materials led directly to a similar treatment of perception, behavior, and thought processes per se. The most effective method in this case has often been the accent or overlay of an art context, an art framework, or simply an art awareness, that Is, the imposition of a foreign pattern or substance on existing situations or Information (e.g., Barry, Dibbets, Huebler, Oppenheim, Smithson, Weiner, and others). The addition of accents rather than the delineation of an independent form led away from marking the object into remarking directexperience. (“Ephemeralization” is the term Buckminster Fuller uses for “the design science strategy of doing even more with even less per unit of energy, space, and time.”) Fragmentation Is more like direct communication than the traditionally unified approach in which superfluous literary transitions are introduced. Criticism Itself tends to clog up these direct reactive processes with irrelevant Information, while the terseness and the isolation of much or the art reproduced here forces mental jumps; these in turn facilitate a heightened alertness to sensorial or visual phenomena.
I would like this book to reflect that gradual deemphasis of sculptural concerns, and as the book evolves, I have deliberately concentrated increasingly on textual and photographic work. This is not to say, of course, that many artists whose work greatly interests me have not continued to work in sculpture or painting, but simply that the phenomena examined In this book tend to avoid those solutions. The anti-individualistic bias or its form (no single artist’s sequential development or contribution can be traced without the help of the index) will hopefully emphasize timing, variety, fragmentation, and interrelationships above all. In fact, I have included some of the work here because it illustrates connections to or even exploitation of other, stronger work, or repetition of Ideas considered from very different viewpoints, or how far certain Ideas can be taken before they become exhausted or totally absurd. In any case, I enjoy the prospect of forcing the reader to make up his or her own mind when confronted with such a curious mass of Information.
Proto-conceptual art in the guise of the Fluxus group’s “concept art,” the performance and body works or the Japanese Gutai group, Happenings, concrete poetry, most performances and street works, and even such impressively eccentric manifestations as Ray Johnson’s use of the postal system or Arakawa’s exotically referential canvases have been omitted partly through spatial necessity and partly because, confused as the issues are, they would be unmanageable if some similarity of esthetic intention were not maintained. This is not a book about alI dematerialized art and the point I want to make is phenomenological rather than historical. I am probably safe in saying, as I have of some exhibitions I have organized, that no one but me (and my editors) will read the whole book through.
Because Six Years is about ideas changing over a period of time, it seems only fair to subject myself to the same lack of hindsight about which the artists themselves had reservations when I asked permission to use old work or old statements. Therefore, the following excerpts from a December, 1969, interview by Ursula Meyer with me, have not been revised according to what I think now, but stand as things looked then. The Postface offers some contradictions.
LL: A lot of this business about object art and non-object art gets very confused. People use it like a value judgment. “It’s still an object” or “he’s finally got past the object.” It isn’t really a matter of how much materiality a work has, but what the artist is doing with it.
UM: But I think it is very obvious that concern with the object is the fundamental issue of what has been going on the last few years.
LL: Probably it’s typical forthe first half of the twentieth century. Ad Reinhardt’s making black-square identical paintings in 1960 was by implication a very important ending point. Now I think things have opened up to where the business of going “beyond”anything is less Important. The fragmentation is so obvious. There’s more chance of people doing what they want and not having it measured against the Greenbergian standard of “advance,” or anybody else’s standards. . . . It’s strange how Reinhardt relates to much of the new art, because these artists often make art out of unadulterated life situations and Reinhardt was so very determined that art should relate to nothing but art. Doug Huebler sees the connection between his work and Reinhardt’s in the way he imposes an art framework on life. In a broad sense, anyone taking a photograph is geometricizing life. Most of the artists who are now called “conceptual” were doing “minimal” work in 1967–68. Weiner and Kosuth, maybe Barry and Huebler less so, are very much concerned with Art, with retaining a consistency or coherency; they work in a straight, definite line and exclude far more that they include, which is fundamentally a formal or structural point of view. Morris and Baxter and Nauman come closer to a Dada-Surrealist viewpoint, an acceptive instead of a rejective approach. There’s always been that kind of split. It used to be the old classical-romantic thing, but in the last couple of years those terms have become pretty irrelevant, or confused. Barry,for instance, is a very classical and a very romantic artist at the same time. The break, and it’s often a very subtle one too, comes through acceptance or rejection of the multiplicity of non-art subject matter, or in the case of Barry or Huebler or Weiner, who use non-art, immaterial situations, it’s the imposition of a closed instead of an open system. Barry doesn’t “claim” all psychic phenomena, as lain Baxter might; he selects his pieces very strictly even when he can’t know or name the phenomena, but can only impose conditions on them. Fundamentally it’s a matter of degree of acceptance.
UM: Do you think visual art may eventually function in a different context altogether?
LL: Yes. but there’s going to have to be an immense educational process to get people to even begin to look at things, to say nothing of looking at things the way artists look at things. . . . Some artists now think it’s absurd to fill up their studios with objects that won’t be sold, and are trying to get their art communicated as rapidly as it is made. They’re thinking out ways to make art what they’d like it to be in spite of the devouring speed syndrome it’s made in. That speed has not only to be taken into consideration, but to be utilized.
UM: What do you think about the way the art journals have been pertaining to the new art?
LL: For the most part they haven’t pertained, or even entertained the idea that ideas can be art. They’re just beginning to realize they’re going to have to treat this new art seriously. Generally, though, the artists are so much more Intelligent than the writers on the subject that the absence of critical comment hasn’t been mourned. . . . If Time and Newsweek were more accurate, they’d probably be better art magazines than most of the art magazines. The trouble is they hand out incorrect and oversimplified information. . . . If you respect the art, it becomes more important to transmit the information about it accurately than to judge It. Probably the best way of doing that is through the artists. Let the readers make their own distinctions about the extent to which the artist is slinging it. That way they have to look at his or her work too, and they’re getting first-hand rather than second-hand Information.
UM: Do you believe the impact of what is happening now—with conceptual art and what I call the other culture—that impact is going to hit the so-called art world, the galleries, the museums? What changes do you envisage?
LL: Unfortunately I don’t think there are going to be many changes taking place immediately. I think the art world Is probably going to be able to absorb conceptual art as another “movement” and not pay too much attention to It. The art establishment depends so greatly on objects which can be bought and sold that I don’t expect It to do much about an art that Is opposed to the prevailing systems. Whenever I lecture and start talking about the possibility of no art or non-art in the future, I have to admit I think I’m going to be able to tell who the artists are anyway. Maybe another culture, a new network will arise. It’s already clear that there are very different ways of seeing things and thinking about things within the art world even as it stands now, not as clear as the traditional New York “uptown” and “downtown” dichotomy, but it has something to do with that.
One of the Important things about the new dematerialized art is that it provides a way of getting the power structure out of New York and spreading it around to wherever an artist feels like being at the time. Much art now is transported by the artist, or in the artist himself, rather than by watered-down, belated circulating exhibitions or by existing information networks such as mail, books, telex, video, radio, etc. The artist is traveling a lot more, not to sightsee, but to get his work out. New York is the center because of the stimulus here, the bar and studio dialogue. Even if we get the art works out of New York, even If the objects do travel, they alone don’t often provide the stimulus that they do combined with the milieu. But when the artists travel, whether they’re liked or disliked, people are exposed directly to the art and to the ideas behind it in a more realistic, Informal situation. . . . Another Idea that has come up often recently that interests me very much is that of the artist working as an interpretive device, a jolt, in present societal systems. Art has always been that, in a way, but John Latham and his APG group in London, among others, are trying to deal with it more directly.
UM: There’s a strange reawakening in Europe now.
LL: It may be more fertile for new ideas and new ways of disseminating art than the United States. Certainly Canada Is. Charles Harrison has pointed out that Paris and the various European cities are in the position that New York was in around 1939. There’s a gallery and museum structure, but it is so dull and irrelevant to new art that there’s a feeling that it can be bypassed. that new things can be done, voids filled. Whereas In New York, the present gallery-money-power structure is so strong that it’s going to be very difficult to find a viable alternative to it. The artists who are trying to do non-object art are introducing a drastic solution to the problem of artists being bought and sold so easily, along with their art. Not, God knows, that the artists making conventional objects want that any more than anyone else, but their work unfortunately lends itself more easily to capitalist marketing devices. The people who buy a work of art they can’t hang up or have in their garden are less interested in possession. They are patrons rather than collectors. That’s why all this seems so inapplicable to museums, because museums are basically acquisitive.
UM: That one word “idea” contradicts any sort of central establishment. You might have many idea centers that are made by living artists rather than one chauvinistic art enterprise.
LL: Yes. I was politicized by a trip to Argentina in the fall of 1968. when I talked to artists who felt that it was immoral to make their art in the society that existed there. It becomes clear that today everything, even art. exists in a political situation. I don’t mean that art itself has to be seen in political terms or look political, but the way artists handle their art, where they make it, the chances they get to make it, how they are going to let it out, and to whom—it’s all part of a life style and a political situation. It becomes a matter of artists’ power, of artists achieving enough solidarity so they aren’t at the mercy of a society that doesn’t understand what they are doing. I guess it’s where the other culture, or alternative information network. comes in—so we can have a choice of ways to live without dropping out.
Hopes that “conceptual art” would be able to avoid the general commercialization, the destructively “progressive” approach of modernism were for the most part unfounded. It seemed in 1969 (see Preface) that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it, for a xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed, words spoken but not recorded; It seemed that these artists would therefore be forcibly freed from the tyranny of a commodity status and market orientation. Three years later, the major conceptualists are selling work for substantial sums here and in Europe; they are represented by (and still more unexpected—showing in) the world’s most prestigious galleries. Clearly, whatever minor revolutions in communication have been achieved by the process of dematerializing the object (easily mailed work, catalogues and magazine pieces, primarily art that can be shown inexpensively and unobtrusively in infinite locations at one time), art and artist in a capitalist society remain luxuries.
On the other hand, the esthetic contributions of an “idea art” have been considerable. An informational, documentary idiom has provided a vehicle for art ideas that were encumbered and obscured by formal considerations. It has become obvious that there is a place for an art which parallels (rather than replaces or is succeeded by) the decorative object, or, perhaps still more important, sets up new critical criteria by which to view and vitalize itself (the function of the Art-Language group and its growing number of adherents). Such a strategy, if it continues to develop, can only have a salutory effect on the way all art Is examined and developed in the future.
Conceptual art has not, however, as yet broken down the real barriers between the art context and those external disciplines—social, scientific, and academic—from which it draws sustenance. While it has become feasible for artists to deal with technical concepts in their own imaginations, rather than having to struggle with constructive techniques beyond their capacities and their financial means, interactions between mathematics and art, philosophy and art, literature and art, politics and art, are still at a very primitive level. There are some exceptions, among them certain works by Haacke, Buren, Piper, the Rosario group, Huebler. But, for the most part, the artists have been confined to art quarters, usually by choice. As yet the “behavioral artists” have not held particularly rewarding dialogues with their psychologist counterparts, and we have had no feedback on the Art-Language group from the linguistic philosophers they emulate. “Art use” of elementary knowledge, already accepted and exhausted, oversimplification, and unsophistication in regard to work accomplished in other fields are obvious barriers to such interdisciplinary communication.
The general ignorance of the visual arts, especially their theoretical bases, is deplorable even in the so-called intellectual world; the artist’s well-founded despair of ever reaching the mythical “masses” with “advanced art”; the resulting ghetto mentality predominant in the narrow and incestuous art world itself, with its resentful reliance on a very small group of dealers, curators, critics, editors, and collectors who are all too frequently and often unknowingly bound by invisible apron strings to the “real world’s” power structure—all of these factors may make It unlikely that conceptual art will be any better equipped to affect the world any differently than, or even as much as, its less ephemeral counterparts. Certainly, few of the artists are directly concerned with this aspect of their art, nor can they be, since art that begins with other than an internal, esthetic goal rarely produces anything more than illustration or polemic. The fact remains that the mere survival of something still called Art in a world so intolerant of the useless and uningratiating indicates that there is some hope for the kind of awareness of that world which is uniquely imposed by esthetic criteria. no matter how bizarre the “visual” manifestations may initially appear to those unacquainted with the art context.
- Art International was published from 1957 to 1991, first in Lugano, Switzerland, and then in Paris, France. At the time of the publication of the essay, Lippard was one of the journal’s four Advisory Editors.
Lippard, Lucy R. and John Chandler. “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International XII.2 (1968): 31–36. The journal can be consulted online; for this issue, click here.
—–. “The Dematerialization of Art.” In Lucy Lippard, Changing: Essays in Art Criticism, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1971. 255–76.
Lippard, Lucy R., Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. New York: Praeger, 1973.
Image at top: Detail from the table of contents of the February 1968 issue of Art International with Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler’s essay on “The Dematerialization of Art.”