Developing from the mid-1960s onwards, Conceptualism marked another breakthrough in the modern approach to art as it championed the notion that the artist’s idea itself was more important than the physical work. Because of, inter alia, its mainly intellectual dimension, the current was very popular in Central and Eastern Europe. While in Poland and Yugoslavia Conceptual art was tolerated by the authorities and in some ways even sanctioned officially, in Hungary it took a more radical, contesting form.

Conceptualism as a current in 20th-century art was born in the United States in the mid-1960s and was a response to forms of artistic creation using objects. It developed intensively at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, when it had many supporters in Europe and also in the USSR-controlled countries. The basis of the current was the aim to transmit an idea, or a concept in the artist’s head in a way as direct as possible, undisturbed by its medium. That is why the Conceptualists avoided traditional forms of artistic expression, i.e. paintings or sculptures – which according to them deformed the author’s ideas – and sought much more innovative methods of communication with the audience. Conceptual works would be often limited to a spoken or written message, a configuration of words or numbers on a sheet of paper or canvass, a short staging, photograph, etc.
One of the more characteristic features of the creative output of Conceptual artists was their focus on art itself, its subject and language, as a kind of reflexive self-commentary. A prime example in that regard is the emblematic work One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth from 1965. In it, the American artist juxtaposes a wooden chair, its dictionary definition as well as the object’s photo. The work is a reflection on the ‘essence of the chair’ as well as the relation between physical (object), linguistic (definition) and representational (photograph) reality. Kosuth-style Conceptualism gained relative popularity although it was not the only variety then practised in the West.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the current developed quite differently as here it was not seen as an attempt to radically break with the artistic tradition, or dominant modernism, but rather a smooth evolution. The 1970s was a the time when the countries of the Eastern Bloc still championed the doctrine of Socialist Realism although Yugoslavia and Poland enjoyed more tolerance by the authorities for neo-avant-garde art. What was common to such currents as Art Informel or Neo-Constructivism and Conceptualism according to artists from the region, apart from the slightly different case of Hungary, was the political independence of such creative activity. Focused on language and itself, art used laconic yet often intellectually complex messages and was the opposite of simplistic and schematic Socialist Realist propaganda. Consequently, from the point of view of the communist authorities it did not pose a threat to the system and was perceived mainly in terms of artistic fancy.
The soaring popularity of Conceptualism in the USSR-controlled countries was also to a large degree a result of technical conditions. In order to become an artist one no longer needed any physical material and sometimes not even an exhibition space. What mattered was the idea, message and finding a way to effectively communicate with the audience. At a time of many deficits and limitations, Conceptualism seemed to be a perfect kind of art and developed so rapidly that soon debates began about what the actual value of the Conceptual work of art was and how to distinguish between a true artist and an impostor.
Where Conceptual art was generally accepted and such artists were able to participate in official artistic life, political subjects were largely ignored. Over the period in question, the Polish art scene with its vibrant official and alternative galleries had many important Conceptualists like Zbigniew Gostomski, Zdzisław Jurkiewicz or Jarosław Kozłowski. Already in the 1960s, the eminent artist Roman Opałka started working on 1965/1 – ∞ – one of the most famous Conceptual designs in the history of the current. Much freedom was also enjoyed by Yugoslavian Conceptualists such as Goran Trbuljak. The system was more oppressive in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where the style was able to develop exclusively outside of the official field of art. Things were at their worst in East Germany and Romania.

Out of all the countries mentioned, Hungary presented a markedly different vision of Conceptualism.(1) Although works focused on art itself and its language were also created there, due to more oppression from the regime following the 1956 revolution the contesting current of Conceptualism was very powerful and represented by, inter alia, Endre Tót and László Lakner. Unlike their colleagues from other Socialist countries, they would relatively often take up political themes in their works. That was done mostly without aggression, yet was clearly legible for the audience. In a series of works entitled I am glad if… by Endre Tót (1973–75) a photograph of the artist appears reading the Russian Pravda – a symbol of communist propaganda. Through a hole cut out in the middle, one can see his smiling face. The photograph is entitled I am glad if I can read a newspaper, an intelligent allusion to censorship and constant Soviet surveillance. Even more openly political were conceptual works by Lakner, who after the events of the Prague Spring created a number of suggestive works on the subject (Wounded Knife and Czechoslovakian Radio (1968); Portable Trench for Three Persons (1969)); additionally, he did not hesitate to expose, analyse or even ridicule communism.

Regardless of the form assumed by Conceptualism in a given country, it was a kind of liberation for artists by making their intellect the key artistic tool while the mind was one of the very few things in the life of the citizen of the Eastern Bloc not directly influenced by Soviet authorities.

(1) Piotr Piotrowski, Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1989, Rebis, Poznań 2005, p. 341–67.