Conceptual art and the politics of publicity by Alexander Alberro (2003)

This book is a particularly important reference on the Art Design Publicity front. The following is a review offering a short introduction.

Christine Sevilla
Art Design Publicity at ADC

| 20 November 2009
This review was previously published in afterimage, May/June 2003, p. 14.


Conceptual art and the politics of publicity by Alexander Alberro (review)

Conceptual artist Mel Ramsden called conceptual art, “…modernism’s nervous breakdown.” After nearly forty years critics and artists are still defining conceptual art, even as it has since been assimilated by succeeding artists. Art historian Alexander Alberro provides the context, influences and legacy of conceptual art through the person of dealer/curator/consultant Seth Siegelaub, whom he describes as a co-founder of the movement. Several shows Siegelaub arranged are illustrated in abundant detail, including their contents and creations, within the context of trends and influences in the art world.

Conceptual artists closely associated with Siegelaub, among them Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler, altered the form of art from object to concept, and challenged the prevailing values and strictures, seeking to democratize art and free it from its dependence on the marketplace, paralleling the radical social movements of the 60s. At the same time, paradoxically, these artists cultivated a strong public persona, providing the moneyed a reason to buy cutting-edge work.

Siegelaub’s work with conceptual artists challenged the relationship between artist and art industry. Siegelaub used advertising and mass media to make the art available universally, freed from the confines of museums and galleries. He explained, “You don’t need walls to show ideas.” The publicity surrounding a show of conceptual art was defined by Siegelaub as “primary information” about the works. Thus, his ad for Douglas Heubler’s November 1968 exhibition documented the show and became a material part of the show. The information communicated about the art. Publicity was used as a vehicle for disseminating ideas widely; it also became synonymous with the art.

Siegelaub’s involvement expanded beyond curator, to participant and even architect in the overall design of the art. He masterminded works like The Xerox Book, directing the seven artists to contribute twenty-five pages each. Here, a low quality technology was to be employed to achieve mass distribution of the art. As a legacy of conceptual art, and of Siegelaub himself, the role of the curator has surpassed that of the critic in both influence and interpretation.

Alberro describes the ironic last significant act of Siegelaub before he exited the art world— an advocate for artists rights, he created a contract for artists to safeguard their interests and ensure that they shared the profit if their work gained value. This act actually participated in the definition of conceptual art as a commodity, taking it far from the artists’ original aspirations of freeing it from dependence on the marketplace.

Scholarly, detailed and appropriately illustrated with images of the art and the artists, Conceptual art and the art of publicity is a noteworthy contribution to the literature on conceptual art. We can now argue conceptual art’s significance more aptly.