Surveying art that tries to reach beyond itself and the limits of our knowledge and experience, The Quick and the Dead seeks, in part, to ask what is alive and dead within the legacy of conceptual art. Though the term “conceptual” has been applied to myriad kinds of art, it originally covered works and practices from the 1960s and ‘70s that emphasized the ideas behind or around a work of art, foregrounding language, action, and context rather than visual form. But this basic definition fails to convey the ambitions of many artists who have been variously described as conceptual: as Sol LeWitt asserted in 1969, conceptual artists are “mystics rather than rationalists.” Although some of their work involves unremarkable materials or even borders on the invisible, these artists explore new ways of thinking about time and space, often aspiring to realms and effects that fall far outside of our perceptual limitations.
The exhibition title derives from a biblical phrase describing the judgment of the living and the dead at the end of time. But it has been used in innumerable ways since, including by the designer and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller, who in 1947 lauded what he called the “quick realities” of modern physics, condemning the “dead superstitions” of classical, object-based Newtonian theories. This distinction between objects and events underlined many conceptual practices of the late 1960s and ‘70s that pressed at the edges of the discernable—the work of artists like George Brecht, who seamlessly transformed objects into motionless events and asked us to consider “an art verging on the non-existent, dissolving into other dimensions;” Lygia Clark, whose foldable sculptures sought to dissolve the boundary between inside and outside, each “a static moment within the cosmological dynamics from which we came and to which we are going;” and James Lee Byars who, obsessed with a magically gothic idea of perfection that included metaphorical enactments of his own death, declared that “the perfect performance is to stand still.”
With an international group of 53 artists in a range of media, The Quick and the Dead expands beyond the here and now, reaffirming conceptual art’s ability to engage some of the deeper mysteries and questions of our lives. The exhibition brings together more than 90 works, juxtaposing a core group from the 1960s and ‘70s with more recent examples that might only loosely qualify as conceptual. Included in the show are new works made specifically for the exhibition and a number that have not been previously shown or realized. The presentation expands beyond the Walker’s main galleries to its public spaces, parking ramp, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and the nearby Basilica of Saint Mary.