Montclair Art Museum explores conceptual art in new ‘do it’ exhibition

Attendees can express themselves at the new "do it" exhibit at the Montclair Art Museum.

Attendees can express themselves at the new “do it” exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum.

On one of the walls in one of the stairwells of the Montclair Art Museum, there is currently a message: “Whatever you do, do something else.” It’s not a piece of unusually polite graffiti, but a part of the museum’s exhibition, “do it” which focuses on the ideas, not the artifacts, of art.

Some of the pieces are, literally, interactive, and some aren’t, but what they have in common is that they started as a set of instructions — by artists such as Robert Barry, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Barry, Simryn Gill, Hannah Weinberger and Hrienn Fridginnssen.

There are written rules for “do it,” which has been presented at many other museums as well. Museum staffers pick at least 20 sets of instructions from the book “do it the compendium,” which has 250 of them. (This exhibition features 27). They then have to create the art, by themselves or with the help of local artists, students, community members, etc. The art must be documented, but destroyed or “returned to their original context” after the exhibition closes, “thus removing the possibility that ‘do it’ artworks can become standing exhibition pieces or fetishes.”

Take, for example, Yoko Ono’s “Wish Piece,” which is the first work of art most people will see after they enter the museum. The instructions are:

Make a wish.
Write it down on a piece of paper.
Fold it and tie it around a branch of a Wish Tree.
Ask your friends to do the same.
Keep wishing
Until the branches are covered with wishes.

That’s all the museum got: those words. Then the exhibition’s coordinators — Leah Fox, who is the director of the museum’s new Vance Wall Art Education Center, and Gail Stavitsky, its chief curator — had to figure out how to create the tree itself, and display it in a way that would encourage people to add their messages.

The roots of the exhibition can be found in the work of the boundary-pushing artist Marcel Duchamp, who said, in 1946, that he was “interested in ideas — not merely in visual products.”

Later, the term Conceptual Art became popular. “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product,” wrote Sol LeWitt in his 1967 essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.”

Or, to look at it another way, the museum, in this case, is like an orchestra getting a score. The orchestra doesn’t get the music. So why should the museum get the art, rather than create it itself?


Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled.”

The instructions for Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ““Untitled” (1994) are even simpler than the instructions for “Wish Piece.” Just 13 words: “Get 180 lbs. of a local wrapped candy and drop in a corner.” “Untitled” is part of the Montclair exhibition, too. You can even take a piece of candy; the pile will be replenished when necessary.

The instructions of a piece by Uri Aran are boiled down to just one word: “Doodle.” Exhibition attendees are invited to do that, on one of the museum’s walls, if they want.

There are some more traditional works of art in the exhibition. Sol LeWitt created the following instructions, for instance —

A black not straight line is drawn at approximately the center of the wall horizontally from side to side. Alternate red, yellow and blue lines are drawn above and below the black line to the top and bottom of the wall.

— and three Montclair State University M.F.A. students (Maryann Ficker, Brooke Garlick and Colleen Smith) have created a beautiful abstract mural to those specifications, working with MAM instructor Elizabeth Seaton.

Naturally enough, given the interactive potential of social media, there is a social media component to the exhibition as well. Every Monday, instructions are shared via Facebook for a “do it” project that can be done outside the museum’s walls.

For instance, this week’s instructions, by Simryn Gill, encouraged people to “approach a stranger who you perceive to be somehow different to yourself,” and take a photo with him or her. For instructions in subsequent weeks, visit the museum’s Facebook page.

“do it” will be open through Dec. 31; visit


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