Conceptual Materials

Walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City a few weeks ago my eye caught a glimpse of an open hole in the plaster gallery wall and I honestly assumed there was a repair in progress. It seemed odd that it would be left exposed like that. Upon closer inspection I was entirely wrong. This was a "piece of art". A 1968 conceptual work by Lawrence Weiner titled "A 36" X 36" removal of lathing or support wall of plaster or wallboard from a wall".  I was slightly stunned, but also caught in the trap of ambiguity that is the very intention of this work. Weiner's sculptures are about language and gesture as much as they are about materials. The work exists as soon as the artist expresses the intent of removing the section of plaster from the wall. Another well known piece by Weiner from this time period is "Two minutes of spray paint directly on the floor...".  These works are considered the building blocks of post-minimal conceptual art.

Lawrence Weiner
"A 36" X 36" removal to the lathing or support
wall of plaster or wallboard from a wall"
Museum of Modern Art

A few moments later I stumbled upon (literally)  Carl Andre's stack of 120 firebricks in the middle of the floor. There are several versions of this work, the most notorious being Equivalent VIII (1966) which was purchased by the Tate Museum in 1972 for $3600 (USD), causing an outrage among art critics and the general public. Tate money is taxpayer money, and the debate over spending public funds for a "pile of bricks" went viral with over 1000 articles written in the papers and magazines. Turns out that $3600 may have been the bargain of the century as another version of Equivalent sold at a Sotheby's auction in 2008 for $1.1 Million.

Carl Andre
Equivalent V  (1966-69)
Museum of Modern Art

Later that same day at the Whitney Biennial I came across a jumble of hanging electrical wires, part of an assemblage of found objects by Kate Levant. Now I was beginning to laugh out loud. I am a carpenter and builder by trade, and here I am walking through major museums in New York City looking at panels of plywood, stacks of bricks, and old wiring. I've seen these a thousand times before.

Kate Levant
Whitney Biennial (2012)
The Whitney Museum

There is a part of me that loves this type of art.Architectural elements sing to me. The industrial design rooms at MoMA are a perennial favorite. Art is everywhere we look. Isn't that the fun and challenge of photography? Finding art in the everyday world?

Another side of me loathes this type of art. Especially conceptual work. Why should a bunch of old wires be considered worthy of inclusion in the Whitney Biennial ? What makes a stack of 120 bricks worth over a million dollars?  I look at work like Levant's wires and feel like I am being slapped in the face, or spit on. The curators are saying "Screw you if you don't understand the meaning or value in this work, we say its art!"  And isn't that the foundation of most conceptual art?