Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977
December 13, 2011–March 11, 2012
Regenstein Hall
Member Previews: December 10–12, 10:30–5:00

Bertrand Goldberg

From the mid-1960s, at a time when photography was commonly kept separate from the fine arts, a variety of artists associated with the nascent Conceptual Art movement began making and exhibiting photographic works as an integral contribution to debates about avant-garde painting and sculpture. Within a few years, their efforts had brought photography definitively into the mainstream of contemporary art.

Conceptual Art questioned habitual expectations of a work of art—for example, that it should be singular and self-contained, or that it should emanate from an indescribable authorial sensibility. Uses of photography in the movement went hand in hand with an emphasis on art as information and on the roles played by spectators, critics, museums, and market values in validating the status of a work as art.

Conceptual photography also brought a new range of expression to progressive art, from humor to political critique, grounded in the mimicry of vernacular and commercial photographic genres. In exploring these areas, Conceptual artists helped to redefine the relationship of fine art to the broad public sphere of image creation and consumption.

Conceptual photography took many forms—from photo-canvases and mixed-media sculptures to photobooks, magazine articles, slide and film projections, and postcards, as well as "straight" photographic prints shown singly or in series. It is this diversity of objects and presentation methods, rather than any fixed, categorical notion of photography or art in general, that is the lasting legacy of Conceptual Art: the establishment of contemporary art as a field without a medium.

As befits the presentation of this innovative exhibition, a special opening event occurred on Friday, December 9. Beginning at 6:00 p.m., the Art Institute projected Andy Warhol's 1964 film Empire—a single, eight-hour-long nighttime take of the Empire State Building—from the museum's Bluhm Family Terrace across Millennium Park to the upper stories of the Aon Center. Warhol's work thus set the stage for the artists featured in Light Years, who redrew the boundaries of both photography and contemporary art.


An extensive catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with a lead essay by Matthew S. Witkovsky, curator and chair of photography at the Art Institute, and further contributions by Mark Godfrey, Robin Kelsey, Anne Rorimer, Giuliano Sergio, and Joshua Shannon, as well as artist Allen Ruppersberg. It is available for purchase online or at the Museum Shop.


Major funding for this exhibition is generously provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Additional funding is provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; the Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam; and the Glenstone Foundation.

Major funding for the catalogue is generously provided by the Lannan Foundation with additional funding provided by Sotheby's.

The outdoor screening of Andy Warhol's Empire is presented with a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Generous support is also provided by the Exhibitions Trust: Goldman Sachs, Kenneth and Anne Griffin, Thomas and Margot Pritzker, the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, Donna and Howard Stone, and Melinda and Paul Sullivan.

Alighiero Boetti. AW: AB = L: MD (Andy Warhol: Alighiero Boetti = Leonardo: Marcel Duchamp), 1967. Colombo Collection, Milan.