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The Crystallization of Concept Art in 1961

Henry Flynt

(c) 1994 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.

[This sketch was prepared in conjunction with an interview. It is not comprehensive, and could not be. Other published treatments of the concept-art program are

"Introduction," Blueprint for a Higher Civilization

Henry Flynt: Fragments and Reconstructions from a Destroyed Oeuvre, 1959-1963 (Backworks, 1982)

"Philosophy of Concept Art," Io #41: Being = Space x Action

"Authentic Concept Art, Past and Future" in Workshop Meetings (Art Meets Science and Spirituality, Amsterdam, 1990)]

Concept art differs from the schools of art in that it was prompted by what I saw as an intellectual opportunity. It was not one style in a succession of styles seeking to appeal to the public; it was a recognition of a debacle of mathematics--cross-related to what I saw as an incoherence of aims in "new music." The intellectual hammer-blows which impelled concept art were logical positivism; the ascendency of syntax in metamathematics; and crucially, my own iconoclastic philosophy. (E.g. Philosophy Proper, written in 1961, published in Blueprint for a Higher Civilization.)

Concept art was meant to replace all of mathematics with an endeavor which involved a Rorschach-blot semantics; and which did not claim to be cognitive, at least not in the inherited sense. Mathematics had already been disconnected from claims of realism; and I was extending that disavowal to a disconnection from claims of a priori truth. Concept art's value consisted in beauty, a beauty which was non-sentimental. Later I would say that its value consisted in "the invention of new mental abilities." Popularity had nothing to do with whether this avenue was worth taking.

With that background, it was easy for people to object that concept art had nothing to do with art. At the end of the original concept art essay, I offered that thought myself. My observation was quoted by the reviewer of An Anthology in the Times Literary Supplement of August 6, 1964.[1] Admittedly, concept art does not belong to a traditional artistic branch or medium (e.g. painting), and it is not pictorially sentimental. On the other hand, there is a very strong tradition in mathematics which claims artistic value for mathematics (in effect). What is more, there was a period in which "serious music" became intellectually pretentious and nonsentimental--and the serious music establishment backed this development.

Even if the objection that concept art is not art has a grain of legitimacy, it really is a dismissal by those who never saw what motivated concept art in the first place. We hear this objection because of the way publics for culture have been assembled: a camp of science, and a camp of unreason, which pride themselves on their ignorance of each other.

The juncture called concept art cannot be classified, nor can its future role be assigned, until it has been seen for what it was in the first place. Mere incomprehension is not a verdict on concept art. Thus, I find myself repeatedly explaining concept art's moment of origin.

Again, the juncture which elicited concept art had two tributaries. One was so-called new music and the avant-garde, especially in New York around 1960. The other was mathematics as interpreted by the twentieth-century discipline called metamathematics. I framed concept art by way of reacting to, and cross-relating, these precedents. My iconoclastic philosophy, again, was crucial; without it one would never see the cross-connection I did, much less turn the connection against mathematics and new music. Additionally, explaining myself to an art audience, I have to motivate concept art by building a bridge to it from the "new music" of the Fifties. Then I have to argue that it is permitted for a "visual" form to have musical structure as a source.


Two observations about the art world in 1960 as I knew it in New York.

- In the so-called new music, a computational, nonsentimental cleverness had been accepted as art.

- By the time we arrive at La Monte Young, Robert Morris, etc., the boundaries between the mediums become unimportant. There was a milieu which may have consisted only of Young, Morris, myself, and one or two others, and which was never chronicled in art history.[2] This milieu regarded the mystique of the separate arts--painting, sculpture, music, poetry, drama, ballet, opera--as "uptown," as corny. Methods (e.g. minimalism) were freely transferred from one medium to another.

(An example of how invested the art public in general was in the boundaries between media was Motherwell's decision to title his Dada anthology The Dada Painters and Poets. No matter how "transgressive" Dada was, painters were supposed to keep painting, and poets were supposed to keep poetizing.)

With Cage's "chance" or "indeterminacy," what I might call metasyntactical dissociations begin to enter the picture. This aspect becomes more pronounced with Brecht's "Time-Table Music," Young's word pieces, my "participation" in the March 31, 1961 Harvard concert, etc. (All explicit citations are in the Appendix.)

Young's word pieces are notable. (His 1960 compositions were published in An Anthology.) One of their aspects is pure cleverness in manipulating the conventions which frame a genre. Dialectical ingenuity, one might say; absurd logic. These pieces were classified as music; but most of them do not mandate sound or are not confined to sound. (Some of them are "music" only because they use a piano as a prop.)

Also Young had started a battle to be the "newest" with Lecture 1960. That battle came to a head, among other places, in the concert which I organized at Harvard, March 31, 1961.

Also notable are John Cage's word pieces, which were not written until after Cage had seen many word pieces by his juniors. 0' 00" and Variations III. (In July 1962, Cage had seen my 4-page "Anthology of Non-Philosophical Cultural Works."[3])

What is equally germane (I may have known of it but did not explicitly list it as a precedent) is Tristan Tzara's recipe for composing a dadaist poem, written before 1920.

To make a dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.[4]

Other notable junctures:

Robert Morris, "Make a box" (1960)
"Project for Sculpture" (1961)
certain of my short pieces in early 1961
(Again, all explicit citations are in the Appendix.)

Richard Maxfield told me at his studio after my loft concerts of February 1961 that his tape compositions were (in effect) derivational process art. He said that it did not even matter to him whether the resulting tape was played. He did not become notorious for this position, probably, because he was only posturing. But this precedent influenced some of my early concept art pieces--the ones which began as "Colored Sheet Music."

Comparing the Eighties, and after, with 1960, I sense that there has been an aesthetic counter-revolution, or a retreat from the aesthetic frontier (if that matters). The boundaries of the mediums have been reaffirmed.[5] This accompanies the reaffirmation of success (fortune) as the goal of art. The option of an unsentimental art has been forgotten. The "art world" has either forgotten the episodes I have just reviewed; or else has co-opted the canonized pieces to literary postures. To my chagrin, I find myself having to teach the chapters in art history which preceded concept art--because they are unknown to the art public.


I worked out the original concept art rationale c. June 1961. The first public presentation of a concept-art piece was my exposition of "Innperseqs" at the A/G Gallery in July 1961. The first circulation of concept art pieces in multiple was the aforementioned "Anthology of Non-Philosophical Cultural Works."

Most of the early concept art compositions involved visual displays in one way or another (even though the actual phenomenon was not an inscribed image). Either that, or they were text pieces. Thus, to the extent that I was reacting to "new music," I transferred methods from sound (if the "music" even involved sound) to a visual medium. But, as I have intimated, not to painting or sculpture; instead, to images which are personal mirages, or to process objects.


Over the thirty-five years that I have been in the cultural arena, I have taken positions opposite to the positions a person would take who wanted to be successful or who wanted to be considered au courant. In what follows, we might as well acknowledge this and not try to downplay it. I announce that I am against art. I announce that I show mathematics to be "false."

It may be asked why I did not publicize concept art aggressively in the period from 1962 to 1967. The answer is that I made a critique of art and became an anti-art campaigner. That threw the intellectual lessons of concept art in limbo. At the end, I will return to these changes of direction in the mid-Sixties.


In college in the late Fifties, I studied mathematics, and expected to become a professional mathematician. That goal or aspiration had changed beyond recognition by the time I formulated concept art in 1961.

By 1961, I was convinced that I had destroyed all knowledge, all truth-claims. The early statement is "Philosophy Proper," published in Blueprint for a Higher Civilization. To expound my orientation here--and to deal with the issue of formulating "cognitive nihilism" in a way which is not self-defeating--would be too much of a digression, hopelessly beyond the scope of this sketch. What is germane here is that it followed that I had destroyed the knowledge-claims of mathematics.

Not only that. New music, computational as it was, claimed to be an intellectual achievement by virtue of its objective structure. The listener's appreciation of the music involved cognition of its structure. A paragraph from Jackson Mac Low's KOH (1962, unpublished) is characteristic.[6]

Works of art present, point out, cause us to perceive the various elements and relations contained in them. One comes to "know" the art objects or processes themselves. Every work of Serious Culture has the "cognitive value" of provoking in part of its audience the activity of perceiving its elements, apprehending the relations between them, and thus coming to know the object or process as a whole.

I was convinced that I had shown this phase of appreciation, strictly, to be delusive.

That recognition of structure in music can be delusive was illustrated by Stockhausen's analysis of a cantata by Nono, and the excuse he subsequently had to make for it.

Soon after the publication of [my] interpretation, Nono informed me that it was incorrect and misleading, and that he had neither a phonetic treatment of the text nor more or less differentiated degrees of comprehensibility of the words in mind when setting the text -- not even with respect to a possible representation of the sense of these farewell letters, and if I could interpret a quasi-serial vocal structure into II, it was a mere coincidence. The reader must therefore not take my reflections and analyses as being demonstrations of Nono's composition, but rather of my own -- demonstrated in the work of another composer.[7]


Again, I cannot here launch into advocacy of my philosophic orientation. Such advocacy forms the balance of my work of the last thirty-five years. But the curious onlooker has to accept that "outrageous" premises underlie the direction I take. Otherwise my rationale, in applying "new music" to metamathematics, will be incomprehensible.

It is necessary to say something about how mathematics came to be conceived in the twentieth century--by the discipline called metamathematics. Mathematics had long been conceived as the intuitive study of a realm of ideal entities, a Heaven of mathematical objects.[8] At the same time, there is a long tradition among mathematicians of considering pure mathematics to be the most perfect kind of mathematics, and of conceiving the value of pure mathematics to be aesthetic. I have been told that the lay public is entirely unaware of the image mathematicians have of themselves as artists. In any case, there is a passage from Lorenzen in the Appendix which gives the flavor of the quarrel over aesthetic claims among mathematicians. Another characteristic statement was made by the Dutch mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer in "Consciousness, Philosophy, and Mathematics":

... the fullest constructional beauty is the introspective beauty of mathematics, where instead of elements of playful causal acting, the basic intuition of mathematics is left to free unfolding, This unfolding is not bound to the exterior world, and thereby to finiteness and responsibility; consequently its introspective harmonies can attain any degree of richness and clearness.

By the twentieth century, Platonism in mathematics had come under attack as hopelessly theological. An attempt was made to conceive mathematics as a game with tokens which did not have to possess a meaning. Some sort of analogy was made between mathematics and games such as chess. (David Hilbert, stroke numerals.) The tree-structure of proofs, or what was called syntax, came to be the part of mathematics which "mathematicians of all philosophical denominations" agreed on. A characteristic statement is the one by Paul Lorenzen in "Constructive Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem":

There is one thing in common to mathematicians of all philosophical denominations: assertions of the type that a certain formula X is derivable ([turnstile sub F]X) according to the rules of a formal system F. There is no difficulty in interpreting "[turnstile]" as "derivable," because in spite of the modal flavour of the word the assertion [turnstile] X may be understood in the following sense: if you assert [turnstile]X I may ask you to write down a derivation of X. Only after this has been done -- and this is a finite affair -- I have to agree to your assertion.

This is the simple basis which in spite of all philosophical controversies still unites the mathematicians all over the world into a family-like group which enjoys a perfect mutual understanding.

Another notable expression of the syntactical focus of metamathematics is Joseph Schoenfield's textbook, Mathematical Logic.

I saw an analogy between the syntax which metamathematics arrived at, and the computational character, or derivational process character, of much new music. It was also evident that Young's word pieces concerned the metasyntax of music. [Not using the rules that define music, but twisting the rules.]

The original concept art was a genre which used visual displays or process objects or text. It was a genre of syntax, or of derivational process. The notion that the sort of structure which subtended mathematics could have aesthetic value was already established from ancient times for mathematics; and it had been proclaimed for new music.

The crucial step can be explained only with all of the above background. I had repudiated knowledge-claims, in particular the knowledge-claims associated with mathematics and with structure in art. Only in that context could I proceed to invoke the projection of mathematics to its logical tree-structure, and apply the dialectical ingenuity found in new music to that flattened activity. Rather than upholding mathematics or the objectivity of structure, concept art had the goal of breaking the framework of objectification. By lifting structure off from "music" and from mathematics, and pursuing avenues which break the framework of objectification, one accedes to uncanny structures. I originally considered their value to be aesthetic.

Referring back to new music, the claim of that body of work to be "music" was far more objectionable than the claim of concept art to be art. Music was traditionally sentimental, to say the least. The public presentation of what amounted to diagrams or derivations via the pomp of a symphony concert was absurd. As for the word pieces, it was only a convention to call them music. (In some cases, they were called music solely because they used a piano as a prop. Unavoidably, the public interpreted these pieces as mockery.) And because the structural exploration had to comply with the tradition of arithmetic form in music, and with concert protocol, it could never become independently uncanny.

It is well worth mentioning that I formulated concept art about a year before I made my critique of art. Originally, I had no reservations about committing to art.

Concept art was meant to exhibit syntactical structures which broke the framework of objectification. We find that for the first time ever, I used a perceptual illusion as a logical notation. I relativized the existence of a derivation to the perceptual agility of the "knowing subject" or "viewer." "Work Such That No One Knows What's Going On" augured that metasyntactical dissociations could be cumulated to the point of saturation.


So far, public discussion has not taken the first step in acknowledging the intent of concept art.[9] Actually, even though a few key philosophical texts of mine have been published, my philosophical orientation has not become a topic of comment; it has not been publicly pigeon-holed. The circumstance that I say that logic and mathematics are "false" has proved to be an impassable barrier; my stance in this regard has not been discussed or pigeon-holed.[10]

As far as I am concerned, the public today knows nothing about the much-trumpeted "new music" of the Fifties--and knows little about Tzara. If the public did understand the history, they would not be so baffled by an art-form which is not sentimental, which is about metasyntactical dissociation, dialectical ingenuity, derivational process.

Coming back to the mathematical community, I have often had occasion to note that everybody who is intelligent enough to learn some mathematics becomes an ardent partisan of mathematics. When a mathematician finds out that you do not venerate mathematics, he becomes your enemy for life. Aside from the question of sheer partisanship, a mathematician could say that what I was doing in the Sixties was a degenerate or illicit case; and this would be reinforced by the fact that even though mathematical philosophy had supposedly moved from Platonism to syntax, mathematicians remained utter Platonists. The point, though, is that these complaints would not arise if there were a context for what I was doing--if notions of mine such as "logic of contradictions" and "a priori neurocybernetics" already had public standing.

Probably the only two people who ever understood my project of cross-connecting avant-garde music with proof theory were Tony Conrad and Christer Hennix.

To me, the first concept art pieces, for what they prefigured or heralded, are still turning-points. Let me horrify the mathematicians even more, if that is possible. Translating into the received jargon, these pieces were meant to show the inconsistency--or nullity--of all finite formal theories: the finite systems whose consistency is claimed to be ascertainable by inspection.

On the other hand, the first pieces did not realize the intentions accompanying them in a decisive way. "Transformations" could be said to be merely a degenerate case in syntax. The fact that "Illusions" mixes perceptual considerations in syntax could be said to be illicit. To put it in the simplest terms, the first pieces are bluffs which do not intellectually oblige the mathematician or logician to live in my world. The obdurate mathematician could say that my cases were unnecessary and irrelevant.

Again, such objections would not arise if the supporting developments were well-known.

However, I myself am not satisfied by the early pieces. It was not until many years later that I knew enough to contrive concept-art pieces which arguably break the framework of objectification. In 1987, I resumed being a concept artist; the works from that time on realize the original intentions far better than the first pieces did.


The syntactical conception of mathematics evolved by twentieth-century metamathematics is not necessarily a good analysis of the mathematical process in an "anthropological" sense. However, that is not really an objection to concept art. Concept art had to be an extrapolation of the syntactical conception, for two reasons:

- It was the twentieth-century's attempt to demystify mathematical knowledge.
- Dialectical ingenuity, metasyntactical dissociation, were appropriately transferred to syntax, not to "semantics."

As for the latter, mathematics had to have been projected onto its logical tree-structure so that this tree-structure could then be manipulated in a blind and cruel way--a la Tzara and Cage. I have cited Tzara's recipe for making a Dadaist poem. One may pass directly from that to my exposition of "Haphazard System" in Blueprint for a Higher Civilization, pp. 97-99.

If one demands that a syntax has to be accompanied by a semantics or model (because that is the litany in mathematical logic), then the way "models" entered my early work was in "Representation of the Memory of an Energy Cube Organism." (My original label for this avenue was "strange culture description."[11]) The relevant features were, briefly, the inconsistent time-determinations; the history which is changed by the order in which its symbolization is remembered; etc. I asked that an overtly inconsistent "theory" be given a realization. Visionary as this was, like concept art, it was only a bluff. When you pursue these notions with the intent that they should affect "reality," you get critiques of the logic and epistemology of science, etc.

In the early Sixties, I did not dwell on the separate avenues, concept art and strange culture description, long enough to tie them together. That came with "1966 Mathematical Studies."


My positioning of the concept-art venture in the Sixties took some peculiar turns. As I said, as of 1961, I had no hesitation about committing to art. Mathematical cognition had been replaced by the search for uncanny structure, for ideas such that the possibility of thinking them at all was amazing. The defensible value of the enterprise, I thought, was aesthetic. Thus it was that all of mathematics and all of art (mainly music) which had syntactical pretensions were to be collapsed to a new genre of art. It was right to call it art, not "science." Even so, at the end of the concept art essay, I noted that concept art was entirely unsentimental, and I forthrightly acknowledged that that cast doubt on the appropriateness of classifying it as art.

Once I launched the panoramic critique of culture called From Culture to Veramusement/Brend, I shifted the emphasis from the pursuit of concept art to the reinforcement of my critique of the two sources of concept art, pure mathematics and "structure art." Objective aesthetic value could no longer justify an activity for me; and I discontinued concept art. Then, around 1966, there began a long period in which I revisited concept art; and reworked it discursively. (As investigations in formal language and in models of inconsistent theories--to put it in the jargon which my work seeks to supplant.)

Abbreviated References

"Concept Art," An Anthology, ed. La Monte Young (1st edition, New York, 1963)

"Concept Art" (revised), An Anthology, ed. La Monte Young (2nd edition, New York, 1970)

Blueprint for a Higher Civilization (Milan, 1975)

Henry Flynt: Fragments and Reconstructions from a Destroyed Oeuvre, 1959-1963, catalogue (New York, Backworks, 1982)

"The Apprehension of Plurality: An instruction manual for 1987 concept art," Io #41: Being = Space X Action (Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, 1989)

"Concept Art" (1970 version) reproduced in Christian Schlatter, Conceptual Art Conceptual Forms (Paris, 1990)

"Mutations of the Vanguard," Ubi Fluxus, catalogue (Mazzotta, Milan, 1990)

"Challenge to Conceptual Artists: Early Returns," in Lightworks magazine, No. 20/21 (Detroit, 1990), pp. 11-14

Tim Guest and Germano Celant, Books by Artists (Toronto, Art Metropole, 1981), p. 90

"Henry Flynt," review in Artforum, Summer 1989, pp. 139-40.

Robert C. Morgan, "Concept, Idea, System," Arts Magazine, September 1989, pp. 61-65

Richard Kostelanetz, Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1993), p. 45

Robert C. Morgan, Conceptual Art (1994), p. 13-14, 118-121