The mid-century East Coast variety of Conceptual art was all about rules—dictums defined the idea, like lines in a drawing. Artists like Sol LeWitt established procedures through which a work of art could be reproduced by anyone with the instructions to make it. Others, like Adrian Piper, posited rules to a viewer who, by following along, participated in an artistic act. This notion that an idea could be defined as a work of art was seen as radically democratic and anti-authorial. It was hailed as a "dematerialization of the art object" by critics like Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, and a challenge to the prevailing mythology of the artist's hand. But for all this air of iconoclasm, it took a real jokester to truly turn these paradigms around, to show how opaque and forbidding orders could actually reinforce stoic notions about art.
Or so might argue Doug Eklund, curator of Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism, on view through July 15, 2018. William Wegman and his California compatriots—artists such as John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Vija Celmins, Douglas Huebler, and David Salle—are represented in this small survey of Conceptualism as it manifested on the left coast, where it took on a decidedly whimsical air. Visitors to the exhibition in gallery 851 will notice the space's new layout—the middle third of the gallery has been reinstalled as a small theater, in which Wegman's video works from the 1970s play, a selection of the 174 videos gifted to the Museum by the artist last year.
As Eklund and I spoke in the galleries, we raised our voices over the sounds of frequent laughter and the barking of Man Ray, Wegman's Weimaraner named after the famed Surrealist, and a frequent collaborator in the artist's work.