Nineteenth-century Nature Painting
to Conceptual Art
Art criticism, like politics, is plagued by words which mean different things to different people in different places at different times. When the contemporary American artist Mel Bochner says, 'In the early 'sixties the formula was "art= object",' the word 'object' is different in meaning and reference from what it was for Picasso, for whom it meant the source object in the visual world which served as the point of departure for art's inventions. He told Zervos, 'There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There's no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.' 1 Picasso meant by 'object' more what Kandinsky had in mind when he called his abstract painting 'non-objective', whereas Bochner was referring to the paintings and constructions of such artists as Frank Stella, Robert Morris and Sol Lewitt as objects. The whole problem is more a question of what is the object, than of what an object is; or one might say it is more a question of where than of what. Is it something 'out there' in the external world (a river, a mountain, a haystack); or is it something 'in here' (either the artist's personal vision and his emotional reaction to the external world, or the work of art turned in on itself, focusing on its own properties and processes); or is it something having no visible substance and/or no direct cause-effect relationship to physical reality (a philosophic proposition or similar idea) ?
Thus, in considering modem art from naturalism to conceptualism, we speak first of the object as that part of the external world which served as the departure point, the subject matter, for the work of art. Then gradually we switch, with the artist, to thinking about the object as the work of art itself, a tangible thing among things, which 'lives its own life', to use Picasso's well-worn phrase. Perhaps less familiar is a statement he made to Françoise Gilot: 'One of the fundamental points about cubism is this: not only did we try to displace reality; reality was no longer in the object. Reality was in the painting.' 2 Finally, we encounter the widely held contemporary stance that the art object has sunk to the level of a commodity and it is to be spurned by artists. So, the object is dead;