Review: Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 for Art Monthly


I’ve written a review on the Conceptual Art exhibition at Tate Britain for the June issue of Art Monthly. Buy it HERE. Or read my review below:


On entering ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979’, visitors encounter a depleted pyramid made up of thousands of oranges. Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967, offers a rare moment of colour among the numerous black-and-white photographs and yellowing archival material exhibited nearby. Louw invites visitors to take an orange but, unfortunately, the artist’s intentions are partially thwarted by a wall label warning us not to eat it in the gallery. From the outset, Conceptual Art offered problems for museological structures by opposing the thematic and taxonomic separations between painting and sculpture as well as the privileged authorial voice of Modernism. The prominence of Louw’s work articulates its paradigmatic presence within the narrative of Conceptual Art, operating as a forerunner to the relational practices of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Félix González-Torres among others.

In a nicely intuitive curatorial move Barry Flanagan’s ringn ’66, 1966, is situated nearby. The cone-shaped mound of sand echoes the pyramidal forms of Louw’s stack of oranges, heightening the central temporal metaphor. The pyramid, of course, is a symbol of permanence, and sand’s subliminal connection to the hour glass, along with the fruit’s brief ripeness and steady depletion, combine to render the subject explicit. This focus on time and what to do with it is a recurring motif within the exhibition. For Sixty Second’s of Light, 1970, John Hilliard photographed a stop clock under artificial light. Each image, in a sequence of 12, is gradually more exposed (and lighter) as the artist incrementally changed the shutter speed. Hilliard’s tautological formalism renders time as both content and method, a gesture typical of many of the works on display.

While Conceptual Art asked deep questions about the ontology of the artwork, its early adherents remained wedded to the elemental forms of Modernism: lines, circles and squares feature prominently. Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, 1967, counters the hermetic formalism of Modernism by embracing contingency and ephemerality. The title sums up the work, with the black-and-white photograph documenting a line on the ground created by the artist repeatedly walking over the same patch of grass. One can draw comparisons between Long and the laconic figure of a young Bruce Nauman, seen in his film work pacing his studio at around the same time on the other side of the Atlantic. While Nauman is often centre stage, Long’s body is absent, documented through what is left behind. Both Nauman’s and Long’s works evoke the seriality of Minimalism and, with it, the attendant issues of labour and time – although the purpose of the work seems uncertain, characterised by a sense of aimlessness.

The impermanent and anti-heroic nature of much Conceptual Art counters the authorial certainty and perceived heroism of Modernism. I’m reminded of Sean Landers’s quote about emerging as an artist in the early 1990s and feeling like a folk singer entering the stage after the pyrotechnics and exaggerated production values of 1980s expressionist painting. After Jackson Pollock (or Julian Schnabel), where could art go? For figures such as Keith Arnatt, the artwork became a site of erasure, at one point the artist physically buried himself under soil (Self Burial, Television Interference Project, 1969), and then famously turned his back on art to take up a career as a ‘photographer’. Bruce McLean, in works such as Six Sculptures, 1967-68, takes aim at Henry Moore by placing his own body in awkward poses, evoking the forms of the older sculptor. More stand-up comedian than folk singer, humour enabled McLean to negotiate the overbearing legacy of his artistic forebears.

So what led to all this soul searching? Why did John Latham feel so compelled to take Clement Greenberg’s 1961 book Art and Culture, out of St Martin’s library and, accompanied by his students, chew the book, returning the fermented remainder in a glass phial? Latham’s gesture was literal to an absurdist degree, replacing Greenberg’s cultural values with a live culture and translating a perceived form of connoisseurship into an act of collective authorship. Born in 1921, Latham was a generation or two older than the other artists in the exhibition, most of whom were born just before or during the Second World War. Their formative postwar years were conditioned by a widespread questioning of (recent) history and criticality fostered by art schools at a moment of accelerated change. Artistic self-reflectivity mirrored broader social and political upheaval, marked by a certain pluralism and experimentation. The work of art collective Art & Language dominates the early part of this exhibition, with the group’s influential engagement in language and wordplay seemingly synonymous with the era. With vitrines stuffed full of photocopied articles and self-published magazines, information literally becomes a type of material. If Louw’s work can be physically and metaphorically grasped within seconds, Art & Language suggest a different type of temporal engagement. Freed from the burden of having to make things, artists began to see writing as a more integral aspect of their practice. Art & Language, for their part, seemed to suggest that it was time that the viewer did their homework.

What is apparent, reading copies of Studio International and Artforum from the 1960s, is the abrupt shift in both art making and art writing during the middle of that decade. Opinion is replaced by analysis, creativity by the rhetoric of criticality – and, importantly, theory as much as looking becomes the framework for judgement. Often Conceptual Art’s native environment is the magazine. Cheap and easily dispersed, the pages of Studio International became a platform for artists’ work as much as its documentation. For a small group of gallerists, artists and writers in Europe and the US, the magazine did much to network them together. The now canonised curatorial legacies of Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub, Charles Harrison, Germano Celant and Harold Szeeman attest to the scale of the art world at the time, and while it is a cliche to refer to the expansion of the art world, it is interesting to note how the same figures crop up over and over again.

If Conceptual Art offered an opposition to dominant institutional narratives, it nevertheless quickly developed its own tropes and dogmas. It is interesting to note that McLean, Flanagan and Long as well as David Tremlett and Michael Craig-Martin, in different ways, embraced more formal and aestheticised practices later in their careers; it seems that some artists had found answers to those fundamental questions. Seen in retrospect, Art & Language’s visual puns (is it a map of the ocean or a plain piece of paper?) can feel like a thematic cul-de-sac. After the unrelenting monochrome photographs, colour, and women (beyond an early student work by Sue Arrowsmith), only really appear in the final room.

As curator Andrew Wilson notes in his catalogue essay, later conceptualism is distinguished by an increased political urgency. As 1960s optimism gave way to the political and economic malaise of the 1970s, Conrad Atkinson started to explore the political climate of Northern Ireland while Stephen Willats turned his attention to social housing and more participatory strategies. Also presented in the final room is Mary Kelly’s seminal Post-Partum Document, 1974-78, which reveals the often hidden labour of childcare, tracing the relationship between a mother and her son’s socialisation. Exhibited alongside Margaret Harrison’s tapestry Homeworkers, 1977, we start to see both a return to making and an attempt to articulate the political frameworks of different forms of labour; questions of time and what to do with it is a luxury some don’t have.

I’m left with the feeling that there is ample opportunity for a follow-up exhibition exploring parallel histories here, with the feminist movement only hinted at through a couple of works. ‘Conceptual Art in Britain’ is a snapshot of a moment and, like many exhibitions, is defined by its absences (no non-white artists, for instance). For an art movement articulated through its networks and its questioning of authorship, it seems a shame that so much of this material is calcified under vitrines. One can imagine the endless and impassioned debates that would have fuelled much of the work. It would have been curious to see, for instance, how younger artists or designers would have dealt with this material, putting it back into the hands of artists, bringing it back to life.


George Vasey is a writer based in Newcastle and curator at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland.


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