When the Idea Is the Thing

Berkeley Art Museum showcases conceptual art.


Ant Farm's "Media Burn" was performed at the Cow Palace and holds up well decades later at the BAM exhibition.

BAMPFA Collection Photo/John C. Turner

In the sci-fi homage comedy movie Galaxy Quest, a race of benign, squidlike aliens monitoring television transmissions from Earth, mistakes episodes of a Star Trek-style space opera for “historical documents” and alters its entire civilization. It’s one of the ironies of contemporary art that the anti-commercialist, anti-object, anti-art experiments from the fertile period of the late 1960s through the 1970s—including Minimalism, land art, mail art, happenings, performance, and conceptual art—are now accepted as “historical documents,” milestones on the way to the current conceptualist aesthetic.

The Berkeley Art Museum in Mind Over Matter: Conceptual Art from the Collection traces how 1970s avant-gardist art embraced intellectual processes and a scientific or documentarian aesthetic abandoning the pleasure principle, following the example of Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptualism with his Fountain urinal. A century ago, he derided the merely “retinal” aspect of painting—all painting.

In her curatorial essay, Constance M. Lewallen quotes artist Lawrence Weiner’s 1968 dictum placing idea over execution or material: “The piece need not be built.”

“The artists represented in Mind Over Matter share an emphasis on concept and process and resistance to art as a commodity. Indeed, much of what they created was ephemeral—such as posters, fliers, announcements, pamphlets—or produced and disseminated free or at little cost,” she said. Adding, “Steven J. Leiber . . . collected posters, ephemera, mail art, multiples, artists’ books, and correspondence from the seminal years of Conceptualism (late 1960s to mid-1970s).”

Assisted by students from Julia Bryan Wilson’s class in Contemporary Art in the Americas, Lewallen divided the works into two major groups: those exploring words and language (with artworks incorporating images, often photographs, as well as artist books); and performance works (represented by photographs, film, video, and ephemera.)

Among the words/language artists are Carl Andre, Ant Farm, John Baldessari, John Cage, Walter De Maria, Howard Fried, Gilbert & George, Jenny Holzer, Douglas Huebler, Richard Long, Tom Marioni, Bruce Nauman, Paul and Marlene Kos, Yoko Ono, Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, and Lawrence Weiner. Among the performance-based artists are Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Ant Farm, Eleanor Antin, Chris Burden, Terry Fox, Stephen Laub, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Tom Marioni, Jim Melchert, Linda Montano and Carolee Schneeman.

While many of the works on view will be familiar to Bay Area art mavens, there are some surprises here as well; and a good many pieces have aged gracefully. Jenny Holzer’s fortune-cookie aphorisms (e.g., “The only way to be pure is to stay by yourself.”), printed en masse on eight large panels in Truisms, have a mock-biblical faux-advertising authority that endures. Ant Farm’s Media Burn video of a flaming wall of television sets smashed by a modified Cadillac seems more relevant in media-circus 2016 than in staid old 1975. Linda Montano’s 1977 ritualistic film of mourning for her husband, Mitchell, remains powerful and affecting. Alice Hutchings’ 1966 Homage to Ingres (La Baigneuse) covers a postcard of the iconic neoclassical nude with a grid of Letraset numbers, presaging the Matrix and the current digitization of thee and me.

While the show is installed downstairs, a selection of related exhibition posters is hung on the ground floor, above, opposite the projections of three Bruce Nauman films from 1967 to ’68. An exhibition booklet featuring informative and scholarly essays is on BAM’s website.

Mind Over Matter: Conceptual Art From the Collection, through Dec. 23, Berkeley Art Museum, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808. BAMPFA.berkeley.edu.


This report appeared in the December edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Nov. 30, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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