India’s only daily art newspaper

Conceptual Art: Challenging Traditional Notions of Art-Making

Smriti Malhotra


Sometimes art is paintings, sometimes it is a sculpture and sometimes it is simply a chair. In this reading, we shall be exploring the concept of Conceptual art.

Joseph Kosuth ‘One of the Three Chairs’ (1965).
Courtesy: Artland Magazine

Consider encountering a picture of a chair, an actual chair and a dictionary definition of a chair in an art institution, this artwork is by an Ohio-born artist Joseph Kosuth called ‘One of the Three Chairs’ (1965). In the years preceding this artwork, the arts and artists were questioning the traditional method of making and understanding art, such as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity ‘Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field’ (1965). Paintings were simply not pieces that were hanging on the walls any longer, they were immersive experiences that were invading your space.

When Conceptual Art in the contemporary art period emerged with Pop Art and Minimalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the definition of the arts saw an expansion. Conceptual Art is characterised by its emphasis on the idea or concept behind the artwork, rather than the visual aesthetics or technical skills required to produce it. The aim of Conceptual Art is to challenge traditional notions of what constitutes art and to shift the focus of art-making from the object to the idea. It allows artists to explore a wide range of themes and issues, including politics, identity, culture, and social change, often using non-traditional materials and techniques to create their work. It also provides a platform for artists to engage with audiences in new and innovative ways, inviting them to participate in the creative process and contribute to the meaning and interpretation of the artwork.

Vito Acconci ‘Following Piece’ between October 3 and 25, 1969.
Courtesy: Khan Academy

Artist Sol LeWitt went on to talk about Conceptual Art, he stated,

“The concept is the most important aspect of the work. Without the concept, the work is meaningless.”

The idea becomes the machine that makes the art. Sometimes people were the machines, for Vito Acconci’s ‘Following Piece’ 1969, he followed random passersby until they reached their private residence and he covered that movement in his photographs. Conceptual Art also often involves the use of performance, installation, and other non-traditional art forms. For example, in Yoko Ono’s “Instructions for Paintings,”1961- 62 the viewer is invited to imagine a painting, rather than actually seeing one. Ono’s artwork challenges traditional notions of what art is and what it can be.


In Kosuth’s rendition of the chairs, Kosuth is pointing out the existence of pieces in a particular time and place which is reminiscent of Rene Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” in 1929. The artwork invites the viewer to consider the relationship between the object, its representation, and the language used to describe it.

Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp Retrospective, (1963)
Courtesy: Arsty

Conceptual Art has its origins in the artworks made by the likes of Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. In 1913, he attached a bicycle wheel to a wooden stool and called it a readymade work of art, Kosuth’s rendition is similar, he places a mundane simple object within an art frame or art context.

An important aspect of Conceptual Art is its rejection of traditional notions of craftsmanship and technical skill. In Conceptual Art, the idea behind the artwork is often more important than the physical object itself. For example, the artist Sol LeWitt created a series of drawings consisting of instructions for other people to execute. The final product was not important; what mattered was the idea behind the work. Conceptual Art also often involves the use of performance, installation, and other non-traditional art forms. In Yoko Ono’s “Instructions for Paintings,” the viewer is invited to imagine a painting, rather than actually seeing one. Ono’s artwork challenges traditional notions of what art is and what it can be.


Conceptual Art was not simply art that was to be consumed in galleries or museum spaces, but it was political and blended with activism, especially in regions where it began. It questioned the status quo and the foundations of traditional art and all the defining features of ‘art’ were never to be seen in Conceptual Art. One of the key debates surrounding Conceptual Art is whether or not it can be considered “art” at all. Some critics argue that because the emphasis is on the idea rather than the object, Conceptual Art is not really art in the traditional sense. However, proponents of Conceptual Art argue that the idea behind the work is just as important as the physical object and that this emphasis on the idea expands the definition of what art can be.


In the Indian context, Conceptual Art entered the region in the 1960s and 70s as well. The Indian context offered a unique platform for Conceptual artists to explore issues of cultural identity, globalisation, and political upheaval.

Subodh Gupta ‘Ray’ (2012)
Courtesy: Frieze

Nalini Malini was one of the first Conceptual artists of the country who explored the concepts of gender marginalisation, violence, a human condition often juxtaposed with underlying themes of societal injustice. She incorporated her artworks with video projections, elements of performances and installations. Other notable Indian artists working under the albeit of Conceptual Art are Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Jitesh Kallat and many more. One of the most significant exhibitions of Indian Conceptual Art was the 1981 exhibition “Place for People,” which was organised by the artist Bhupen Khakhar. The exhibition showcased the work of a group of artists who were exploring issues of social and political change in India, and it helped to establish Conceptual Art as a significant movement in the Indian art world. Today, Indian Conceptual artists continue to push boundaries and challenge traditional notions of art-making. They draw on a range of influences, including Indian mythology, history, and contemporary culture, to create work that is both thought-provoking and visually striking.


Conceptual Art has been gobbled up by art institutions, museums and artists since its inception and has faced many controversies and critiques over the years, many not considering it art. Despite its sometimes controversial reputation, Conceptual Art continues to inspire and influence artists around the world, as well as challenge audiences to think critically about the role and purpose of art in society. As such, it remains a vital and important movement in the ongoing evolution of Contemporary Art.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *