The 20 Greatest Works of Conceptual Art
Conceptual art refers to creations that stress the concept or idea behind their production rather than their perceived beauty or artistry. Nevertheless, most of the artworks on this list are pleasing to the eye, so aesthetics may have played a part in their creation. The works on this list are in no particular order, and an item's position on the list does not indicate that it is better or worse than any other.
1. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp (1917)
Perhaps the first great work of Conceptual art—if not the most famous—Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a readymade object, a men’s porcelain urinal actually, which Duchamp submitted to an art exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists and displayed upside down and signed with the pseudonym, R. Mutt. Considered one of the first so-called anti-artists, Duchamp wanted to produce an artwork that wasn’t meant to please the eye—but instead, serve the mind. This “sculpture” became the inspiration for Dada, an avant-garde art movement in NYC and Europe. Referring to the artwork, philosopher Stephen Hicks wrote: “In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: Art is something you piss on.” Interestingly, Duchamp’s replicas of Fountain have sold for as much as $1.7 million apiece.
2. Collection of One Hundred Plaster Surrogates by Allan McCollum (1982–1990)
Alan McCollum began creating conceptual artworks in the 1960s and ‘70s in the Los Angeles area. One in a series of McCollum’s Surrogate Paintings, which he began in 1978, Collection of One Hundred Plaster Surrogates deals with the perceived value of mass produced objects de art compared to that of unique, handmade artworks. McCollum would ask, If you have a mold that can produce a unique work of art, why not use the same mold to produce hundreds of artworks so everybody can have one? Surrogates shows a collection of more or less identical, picture-like depictions made of enamel on cast hydrostone. Notably, McCollum began showing solo exhibitions of his work in 1970 and has produced over 130 in his impressive, prolific career.
3. Cadillac Ranch by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels (1974)
Comprising an installation by Ant Farm, an experimental architectural, graphics arts and environmental design group founded in San Francisco, California, in 1968, Cadillac Ranch shows 10 Cadillacs automobiles, all of which buried front-first in a cow pasture along Interstate 40 near Amarillo, Texas. These Cadillacs are models from 1949 to 1963, all of which manufactured during the tailfin era of American cars. Incidentally, anyone can visit these cars and paint whatever they want on them, producing a kind of interactive art. And many movies or videos have been made at this pop culture magnet, including a scene from the film, Bomb City (2017).
4. The Physical Impossibilities of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst (1991)
British artist Damien Hirst likes to create artworks about death, and The Physical Impossibilities of Death in the Mind of Someone Living certainly deals with death in a cadaverous way; it consists of a dead tiger shark preserved in a vitrine filled with formaldehyde. Funded by businessman Charles Saatchi, the shark cost Hirst £6,000 and £50,000 in total for displaying this “fish without chips,” as one journalist called it. Keep in mind this shark deteriorated so badly it had to be replaced by another shark in 2006, a process that cost another $100,000. In 2007, an article in the New York Times said “the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate. In its tank it gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form.” Responding to people saying anyone could stick a dead fish in a tank and call it art, Hirst said, "But you didn't (do it), did you?"
5. Surrounded Islands by Christo and Jean-Claude (1983)
Christo and Jean-Claude, a married couple born on the same day—June 13, 1935— produced works of environmental art for decades, the first of which in 1972. Jean-Claude died in 2009, but Christo continues to produce such artworks. For two weeks, Surrounded Islands could be viewed on 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. A floating, pink polypropylene fabric was wrapped around each island by 430 workers wearing pink and blue outfits, designed and produced by fashion designer Willi Smith. Christo and Jean-Claude have said their outdoor artworks don’t have hidden meaning, they’re simply meant to have aesthetic impact. Incidentally, all of these “enhancements” are removed after a short time. Christo said, “I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain."
6. You Are Not Yourself by Barbara Kruger (1981)
Barbara Kruger lives in NYC and LA and is a Distinguished Professor of New Genres at the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture. Most of Kruger’s art work comprises black and white photos or collages containing first person declarations about sexuality, feminism, identity, power and consumerism. Other such pithy statements on her artworks include: “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground.” You Are Not Yourself shows a woman staring at herself in a mirror that’s apparently been struck by a bullet. In 1991, Kruger said: "I would venture to guess that many people heed their mirrors at least five times a day and that vigilance certainly can structure physical and psychic identity."
7. The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria (1977)
Located in Catron County, New Mexico, and situated at an elevation of 7,200 feet on a remote, treeless, desert plateau, The Lightning Field comprises 400 stainless steel rods with pointed tips arranged in a rectangular grid, one mile by one kilometer in size. As the title seems to imply, The Lightning Field does attract lightning from time to time, though not often and, during thunderstorms, balls of St. Elmo’s Fire may roll through. Created by the Dia Art Foundation, which maintains the site, each of the poles has a concrete footing designed to keep the poles in place in winds up to 110 mph. In her book Glittering Images (2012) Camille Paglia wrote: “The work is not so much about lightning as about waiting for lightning—God’s wrath or the flash of revelation, the thunderbolt of artistic inspiration or love at fight sight.”
8. Skylanding by Yoko Ono (2016)
Yoko Ono initiated her artistic career in London, England, where she began a relationship with Fluxus, a group of avant-garde artists who experimented with performance art that emphasized the artistic process over results. But, for the most part, Ono remained an independent conceptual and performance artist, regularly exhibiting her work through the 1960s, when she met John Lennon, who helped further her artistic endeavors, and then she married him in 1969. Skylanding is an outdoor sculpture and Ono’s first permanent art installation in the US. Located in Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois, the work promotes peace. Ono was inspired to create the work when she visited the Garden of Phoenix in Chicago in 2013, at which time she developed an affinity for the city of Chicago. Yoko Ono, often getting bad press for allegedly breaking up the Beatles, has produced artworks that seem to have passed the test of time.
9. Film Star by John Latham (1960)
A Rhodesian-borne British artist, John Latham often painted with a spray can, and he shredded, or otherwise tore up or chewed up books or other materials to create collage material for works such as Film Star. Latham’s work was popular with performance artists such as Gustav Metzger, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell and Al Hansen. Interestingly, Latham was associated with the rock band Pink Floyd; he produced “Interstellar Overdrive,” a nine-minute instrumental track on their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967).
10. Wall Drawings From 1968 to 2007 by Sol LeWitt (2012)
Sol LeWitt was considered a founder of Minimal and Conceptual art. He was a particularly prolific producing wall drawings, both two and three-dimensional works, more than 1,270 of which were drawings on paper featuring various geometric shapes—pyramids, towers and cubes, etc. The sizes of these drawings ranged from those covering the walls of a gallery or outdoor works monumental in size. Wall Drawings from 1968 to 2007 featured works drawn directly on the walls of galleries, using materials such as graphite, crayon, colored pencil, India ink or acrylic paint. And in the 1980s LeWitt began producing large sculptures using concrete blocks; he also produced abstract works using gouache, an opaque water-based paint.
11. Electronic Superhighway: Continental US, Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik (1995–1996)
Nam June Paik, a South Korean-American artist, worked with various media, though his main interest was video art, of which he is considered the founder. He also coined the term “electronic super highway,” when referring to the eventual explosion of telecommunications across the globe. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Paik became a celebrity, because of his creative works in TV and early video recording. The video art extravaganza, Electronic Superhighway: Continental US, Alaska, Hawaii, is permanently exhibited in the Lincoln Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Over the years and decades, numerous retrospectives have shown Paik’s work and many public collections include his artwork in locales around the world. And in 1992, Paik was awarded the Picasso Medal.
12. Polaris & Octans by Marinus Boezem (1997)
A Dutch artist and one of the proponents of Conceptual art and Arte Povera, Marinus Boezem builds his sculptures in environments or landscapes that bring to mind objects of Land or Earth art. Located in the Novotel Rotterdam Brainpark, The Netherlands, Polaris & Octans depicts the heavenly regions where the pole stars—Polaris in the northern sky and Octans the southern sky—are located in the celestial vault. Notably, Boezem’s imposing and thought-provoking artworks are often seen as revolutionary in the art world.
13. Device to Root Out Evil by Dennis Oppenheim (1997)
An American conceptual and performance artist and photographer, Dennis Oppenheim expounded upon the definition and nature of art, particularly as it relates to form, context and location of artworks, often confounding his critics in the process. Device to Root Out Evil, is a public sculpture comprising a topsy-turvy, country church mounted on the tip of its steeple. Shown at the Venice Biennale, the work contains hand blown Venetian glass in its roof and steeple. If this piece doesn’t challenge one’s definition of art as it relates to form, location and context, what would it take?
14. Work No. 200: Half the Air in a Given Space by Martin Creed (1998)
Martin Creed, a British artist, composer and performer, works in many different media, including films, installations, paintings, theater and sculptures of all kind—even those not designed to last very long. Work No. 200: Half the Air in a Given Space, is composed of a room mostly filled with white balloons, some of which clinging to the ceiling while others rest on the floor. When asked why he produces conceptual artworks, Creed said, “I want to make things because I want to communicate with people, because I want to be loved, because I want to express myself.” Notably, in 2001 Creed won the Turner Prize (named after the British painter J.M.W. Turner) for two exhibitions: Martin Creed Works and Art Now: Martin Creed.
15. The Mahogany Pavilion (Mobile Architecture No. 1) by Simon Starling (2004)
British conceptual artist Simon Starling won the Turner Prize in 2005 for his work entitled Shedboatshed, for which he took a wooden shed, built it into a boat, and then sailed in down the Rhine River; thereafter, he turned the boat back into a shed. The Mahogany Pavilion depicts another one of Starling’s boats and, judging from the look of this fine little vessel, it probably would have sailed the Rhine while pleasing the eye. Notably, Starling’s artworks have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world.
16. Shadow of Light by Maurizio Nannucci (1993)
A contemporary Italian artist, Maurizio Nannucci specializes in photography, video, neon and sound installations, electronic and experimental music, as well as artist’s books. Since the 1960s, Nannucci has organized over 200 exhibitions and events, including the creation of Zona Radio, a radio station dedicated to presenting the audio work of other artists’. Shadow of Light is a neon installation created by Nannucci and shown at the Kasseler Kunstverein Friedericianum, a grand art museum located in Kassel, Germany. Shadow of Light dazzles the eyes with enigmatic symbols and images, creating what could be called a halo of neon musical forms.
17. Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice by Olaf Nicolai (2014)
A German conceptual artist of great renown, Olaf Nicolai obtained a doctorate in 1992 at Leipzig University, studying the Poetics of Wiener Gruppe, an Austrian group of writers and poets. Nicolai’s conceptual approach translates scientific theories into artistic forms of expression, about which he refers to a quote by sociologist Jeremy Rifkin: “The production of art is the final step of capitalism, whose driving force has always been to co-opt ever more human activities into economic processes.” Located in Vienna, Austria, Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice, is constructed in the form of a concrete X, which includes an inscription atop that reads: all (repeated many times) and alone written just once.
18. Case N by Adolf Bierbrauer (1952)
Adolf Bierbrauer was a German conceptual painter and sculptor. He is well-known for his “hypnosis” and “somnambulistic” paintings, which he produced in the 1950s and ‘60s. A medical doctor before he became an artist, Bierbrauer specialized in psychotherapy and hypnosis. Bierbrauer would hypnotize his patients and watch them as they related their traumatic experiences during WW II. He hoped to connect with these troubled people and also help his development as an artist and thereby become a kind of healer. The painting, Case N., is an example of his hypnosis technique. Bierbrauer is considered one of the founders of Conceptual art in Europe during the 1960s.
19. Kitchen by Thomas Demand (2004)
A German sculptor and photographer living in Berlin and Los Angeles, Thomas Demand likes to make three-dimensional models of what appear to be actual living spaces, offices or control centers, particularly ones with social and/or political undertones, and then he photographs these models; therefore, photography is an important aspect of his creative process. When the photos are exhibited in galleries, the models are then destroyed. Kitchen depicts the living space of soldiers stationed near Tikrit, Iraq, where Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was arrested and taken into custody in December 2003. Interestingly, Demand shows no people or written language in these curious photographs.
20. Infinity Room by Yayoi Kusama (1963)
A Japanese contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama works primarily in sculpture and installation art but is also creative in painting, performance, film, fashion and fiction. Beginning her artistic career in the avant-garde art scene in NYC in the late 1950s to early ‘70s, Kusama worked in the Pop Art scene with such artists as Georgia O’Keefe, Eva Hesse and Donald Judd. For the Infinity Room installation, Kusama showed her penchant for the use of mirrors off all sorts, including infinity mirrors, all of which situated in purpose-built rooms filled with dangling neon-colored balls and lights, creating a cosmic ambience of never-ending space. Unfortunately, Kusama didn’t make much money with such exhibits, so she became depressed and tried to commit suicide a time or two. She often says, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago."
© 2020 Kelley Marks