This exhibition’s long title, like much of its content, is a little cryptic. “Six Years” is shorthand for a landmark book that critic and curator Lucy Lippard assembled to track the development of idea-based art between 1966 and 1972. Even knowing that, you’re likely to feel slightly lost-often happily so-amid the show’s welter of typescripts, broadsides, index cards and snapshots. The originating volume notionally took the form of a bibliography but was actually an annotated sourcebook, with lists of exhibitions and of individual artworks that were, in many cases, based on text, and sometimes existed only as documentation. Suitably, the show that materializes the book—and occasionally extends it—has a dead-serious loopiness that perfectly captures the era it recalls.
That’s not to deny the stand-alone appeal of many works shown, starting with John Latham’s Art and Culture (1966-69), the product of an event in which several artists chewed, literally, on pages of Clement Greenberg’s most famous volume, which were then further digested chemically; vials (ostensibly) containing the results are among the objects presented as evidence, boîte-en-valise style, in a briefcase. Fishing for Asian Carp (1966) is a film by Bruce Nauman and William Allan, in which they show themselves angling in knee-deep water-an exercise, Nauman said, in not thinking about art. Similar in spirit is a 34-second looped film in which Bas Jan Ader falls off a roof, a harmless stunt as beguiling as it is silly. The surprising humor of much of this work infects even those entries not meant for laughs, such as Joseph Kosuth’s dictionary definition of “nothing,” a 48-inch-square negative photostat called Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), [Nothing], 1967—itself a definitive example of concept-driven art. While Conceptualism as an impulse, and Lippard as a writer, would both soon be firmly associated with political and social issues, and with feminism in particular, politics play little part in the work shown. The book’s dominant figures, including Sol LeWitt, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler and Seth Siegelaub, were all concerned in one way or another with dismantling the luxury art object and defying the system that marketed it; even Hans Haacke’s work at this time was not addressed to the larger world.
Presented under the aegis of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the exhibition doesn’t really conceal these conditions, although it does reach beyond the borders of the original book to suggest the activism toward which its author was heading, and to feature more work by women. Along with their surprising lacunae, both the book and this exhibition have some unexpected inclusions. The question of whether Minimalist painting counts as Conceptualism isn’t fully resolved by the work of Jo Baer or Robert Ryman, who are both in the show. Sculptural “Eccentric Abstraction,” as practiced by Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse, among others, was never really a good fit either, though they both appear here.
In the book, Lippard tried to explain her choices: “Art in this case [is] being used as a broad term meaning any sort of not necessarily visual framework imposed on or around real or imagined experience.” Such attempts to redefine art’s parameters put her—as did much of her radical curatorial activity at the time—in the same role as the artists for whom she was advocating. And if Conceptualism was among other things an attempt to preempt criticism, Lippard thought it was about time. In the book’s preface, she wrote that most observers had missed the boat on the new work, but then added, “Generally, though, the artists are so much more intelligent than the writers . . . that the absence of critical comment hasn’t been mourned.”
The tangled relationships among writers, artists and curators in Conceptualism’s early years continue to bedevil anyone trying to sort out the period’s legacy. This exhibition’s catalogue, with essays by its curators Catherine Morris and Vincent Bonin, and by Julia Bryan-Wilson, will serve as an essential tool. Lippard had begun to question the publication’s contents by the time she wrote its postface; she did so again in a 1997 reprint, and yet again in the introduction to the new catalogue. But the spirit of Six Years still animates Lippard’s writing. “The book came out of a lived experience, which is where I like to work from,” she told me in a recent conversation at her New Mexico home. Forty years after the publication appeared, Conceptualism has bled into the art world so broadly that it is nearly impossible to trace its outlines. But the many challenges lodged within this book’s covers continue to provoke.