“Light Years” at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute surveys conceptual photography from 1964–77.
 (Photograph: � John Baldessari)
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Photograph: � John BaldessariJohn Baldessari, Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) (detail), 1973.
 (Photograph: � Eleanor Antin)
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Photograph: � Eleanor AntinEleanor Antin, 100 Boots (detail), 1971-73.
 (Photograph: � Eleanor Antin)
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Photograph: � Eleanor AntinEleanor Antin, 100 Boots (detail), 1971-73.
 (Photograph: � Eleanor Antin)
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Photograph: � Eleanor AntinEleanor Antin, 100 Boots (detail), 1971-73.
 (Photograph: � Mel Bochner)
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Photograph: � Mel BochnerMel Bochner, Surface Dis/Tension (detail), 1968.
 (Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS))
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Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS)Alighiero Boetti, AW:AB =L:MD (Andy Warhol: Alighiero Boetti = Leonardo: Marcel Duchamp) (detail), 1967.
 (Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS))
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Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS)Alighiero Boetti, Twins (Gemelli) (detail), 1968.
 (Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS)/SABAM)
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Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS)/SABAMMarcel Broodthaers, Portrait of Maria Gilissen with Tripod (Portrait de Maria Gilissen avec Statif) (detail), 1967.
 (Photograph: � Jan Dibbets)
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Photograph: � Jan DibbetsJan Dibbets, Horizon III - Sea (Horizon III - Zee) (detail), 1971.
 (Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS))
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Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS)Annette Messager, Voluntary Tortures (Les Tortures Volontaires) (detail), Album-Collection No. 18, 1972.
 (Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS))
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Photograph: � Artists Rights Society (ARS)Bruce Nauman, Light Trap for Henry Moore No. 1 (detail), 1967.
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By the time I reached the end of “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–77,” I wondered if the title refers to how long it takes to travel through this sprawling, overhung exhibition.

“Light Years” presents more than 140 works of conceptual photography and film, ranging from classics by art stars including John Baldessari (pictured) and Vito Acconci to excellent but less familiar pieces, such as Braco Dimitrijevic’s monumental portraits of Casual Passersby I Met at 1:15pm, 4:23pm, 6:11pm in Zagreb, 1971.

Detailed wall texts explain how photography intersected with conceptual art during the 1960s and 1970s: Artists challenged assumptions about the medium’s objectivity, incorporated it into performance and installation art, and used it to address the landscape, the body or more traditional media like painting. Some, like Laurie Anderson and Adrian Piper, tackled feminism and racism, but the show mentions these issues only briefly.

So far, so fascinating. Problems arise because the entire exhibition accords more importance to ideas than to their physical manifestations as art. True, the concepts underlying these conceptual artworks were groundbreaking. “Light Years” still offers plenty of visual appeal: Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots (1971–73), a postcard project significant for its evasion of the gallery system, charms viewers with photos of 100 identical boots crossing a street, swarming a shop and getting into other scrapes.

But when you must read approximately 140 artists’ explanations to understand what you’re looking at, fatigue sets in. And despite the information overload, it’s unclear how these artists, particularly the European ones, influenced each other, and how the era’s wars and political movements shaped the art on view.

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