László Beke once said: ‘we can consider conceptual art as anti-painterly, or, anti-traditionalist art. For this reason, everyone, especially painters with a good perspective, had to decide for their own how to handle this. [...] The same problem occurred again at the beginning of the 80s when the same artists, who had become conceptual, had to decide whether to begin to paint again. [...] This can be described as the great conflict between traditional and conceptual art in general.’ This conflict that I would call La querelle des conceptuels et des traditionnels is presented in this paper through the work of the Hungarian artist Gyula Konkoly and his twofold, controversial relation to the tradition of painting and to conceptual thinking. Konkoly, a classically-trained painter, who is mainly known as a pop art artist and as one of the earliest protagonists of object art in Hungary, with his Manifesto from 1971/72, ceased every kind of ‘grand art’ activity for almost two decades, until the end of the Eighties, when he returned to painting.
In most of his works from the Sixties, it was the episteme of painting that he was dealing with. On the one hand, he quoted the great masters of art history in many of his paintings, using their works in a pop art context, pairing them with abstract, hardedge surfaces. On the other hand, as a skilled painter he inserted resin imprints of his own hand on the canvases that represented the notion of craftsmanship and also the idea of the ready-made. It was the motif of the skilled hand of the artist that had to be destroyed when he got involved in conceptual art and in anti-art activities. At the first Iparterv exhibition he presented his seminal work Cage: An Academic Study (1968). In an unrealized project for a solo exhibition it was also the artist’s hand that he planned to bury. By the deconstruction of the artist’s personality and by the symbolic destruction of the artist’s hand, the symbol of the mastery of his métier, Konkoly came to the conclusion that this process, the total dematerialization of art and art object has reached its end making every kind of artistic activity pointless.
The great paradigm shift of conceptual art thus led in Konkoly’s career also to a major turning point, to an almost two-decade long pause in his work. When returning to painting at the end of the Eighties, it was again, through his skilled artist’s hand with which he resumed his meditation on medium and métier, on colours and forms, and on the episteme of painting in general. Thus the thesis of this paper is that Konkoly’s work may be seen as a continuous and – almost – lifelong meditation on painting, on its basic structures, its relationship to its tradition and to the reality it expresses, and its epistemological value when compared with other, more abstract and philosophical, conceptual modes of art making.