Ian Wilson, an artist who spent 50 years talking about making art instead of actually producing it, died at 80 on Thursday. His death was confirmed his gallery Jan Mot in Brussels.
Wilson was a core member of the Conceptualist movement during the late 1960s. Wilson, along with his colleagues Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Robert Morris, and Lawrence Weiner, sought to turn viewers’ attention away from aesthetics, placing the emphasis instead on ideas. Through a heady blend of concepts culled from philosophy and art theory, these artists often worked to dematerialize the art object entirely.
But one could say that Wilson was more committed to that impulse than some of the artists in his circle. Wilson stopped making art objects in 1968, and documentation of his ephemeral works from then on is unavailable because the artist did not allow for them to be photographed or recorded. He also preferred for transcripts of the events not to be published.
For more than 50 years, Wilson staged what he termed “Discussions,” events in which ideas about art-making and knowledge were communicated purely by oral means. He often described having been spurred to stage the “Discussions” after meditating on the concept of time. All that exists of these works are the invitations for them and certificates of their happening that are given to attendees.
“I am interested in the shape of ideas as they are expressed, spontaneously, at the moment itself,” he once said. “By concentrating on spoken language as an art form I have become more distinctly aware that I, as an artist, am a part of the world.”
But Wilson did at one point make art objects. Born in 1940 in South Africa, Wilson moved to the United States in 1960. (He worked in New York City from 1966 to 1986, and then moved to the nearby Hudson Valley area after that.) Early on, he began making monochrome-like works, which were influenced by Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich’s spare abstractions, and he briefly created sculptures.
Wilson’s material output ended with works that involve placing circular forms in gallery spaces. One of his final physical works, 1968’s Circle on the Floor (Chalk Circle), is a circle with a six-foot diameter drawn on a floor. Although the work’s form is extremely simple, it was produced using precise instructions that could allow it be reproduced as needed.
For the later stages of his life, Wilson may not have been known as well as some of his Conceptualist colleagues, perhaps because the immaterial nature of his art makes it difficult to exhibit, but he was an integral member of the movement from its beginnings. He did a number of “Discussions” at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and he was included in the Documenta 7 quinquennial in Kassel, Germany, in 1982. In 2017, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin surveyed his art.
“Language is the most formless means of expression,” Wilson once wrote. “Its capacity to describe concepts without physical or visual references carries us into an advanced state of abstraction.”