There is a pen tied to a string tacked to a wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Close by there is a fan blowing air at this pen so that the pen hits the wall, and eventually creates a cresent that looks like a smile made of tiny pen marks. Interestingly, the artist did not install this piece.
Actually, the majority of the pieces at MoCAD are installed by MoCAD’s staff based on the artist’s or the artist’s gallery’s instructions. After all, the artist is not concerned with his or her complete control over the materials or the look of the piece, rather the artist is concerned with the concept of the piece. Welcome to conceptual art. Conceptual art is difficult to corral, because a lot of artists and critics will use it to describe varying pieces of art. Yet its overarching quality is that it focuses on an idea rather than the artist’s dexterity in creating a piece of art. And it started with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” A recent surveyof art critics cited Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain as a work of contemporary art that they liked more than any other.
It is a confusing form of art, which is often the artist’s intent. This week we will review the two shows at MoCAD that focus on conceptual art. We will also try to figure out where conceptual art stands today—and how far it has or has not come from the “Fountain.”