Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979

Brian Dillon on Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979

Keith Arnatt, Self-Burial (Television Interference Project), 1969.

Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979
Tate Britain, London
April 12–August 29, 2016

IN AUGUST 1966, the British artist John Latham, then a tutor at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, borrowed Clement Greenberg’s Art & Culture (1961) from the college library. He invited colleagues and students to his home, where they tore pages from the book, chewed them, and spat them into a flask. The resulting mulch was dissolved in acid solution, then distilled, and a phial of liquid returned to the library. Latham’s teaching contract was not renewed.

A scurrilous piece animating the Tate exhibition’s otherwise largely sober take, Latham’s Art and Culture, 1966–69, was not the earliest work in this sprawling survey, but it encapsulated a central narrative that curator Andrew Wilson sought to highlight. That is: Conceptualism was a turn against traditional modernist formalism, with its veneration of the aesthetic work’s unity and transcendence, most famously championed by Greenberg—whose writings loomed large throughout the show as a bogeyman of sorts, even while receiving little direct mention. Throughout, exhibition didactics juxtaposing British Conceptualism’s milestones with concurrent regional developments (like the rise of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party and the Marxist art histories of scholar Charles Harrison) pointed to a commendable curatorial impulse to coax forth new connections between neo-avant-gardes in the UK and an array of wider sociopolitical developments, but those connections remained frustratingly obscure in a doggedly archival exhibition devoted mainly to tracing a movement’s repudiation of high-modernist ideals.

The work of Art & Language—and its watershed shift of emphasis from things to words, objects to institutions—dominated the first rooms of the show. Pieces such as Painting/Sculpture, 1966–67, with its twin gray canvas panels and laconic inscriptions, served as bridges between the objects initially deployed by the collective to critique abstract painting and the profusion of text that characterized their later work. Indeed, the group’s indexes, analyses, and theoretical bulletins, all on view, seemed to determine the texture and argument of the rest of the exhibition, in which typewritten pages were in bureaucratic abundance and no archival document—whether personal letter, logistical memo, or private-view invitation—was too lowly to be labeled and displayed in a vitrine.

View of “Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979,” 2016. Front: Roelof Louw, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967. Rear: Keith Arnatt, Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist, 1968; Bob Law, No. 62 (Black/Blue/Violet/Blue), 1967; Art & Language, Untitled Painting, 1965.

The exhibition’s approach underscored what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh memorably called Conceptual art’s “aesthetic of administration,” and as Wilson points out in his catalogue essay, the works themselves were typically dispersed across exhibitions, publications, conversations, and ephemera. But an emphasis on analytic impersonality and the bureaucratic language of institutions often made it hard to spot the satiric, ludic, and romantic aspects of certain practices: the poetry and politics of landscape in Richard Long and Hamish Fulton’s treks into the countryside, for instance, or the trickster personae assumed by Bruce McLean in his antic sculptural poses and by Keith Arnatt during deadpan photographic disappearing acts.

To be fair, the show was not entirely heedless of Sol LeWitt’s famous point that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.” Once the antimodernist tale had been told, a final gallery was given over to the mid-1970s turn toward more overt social, political, and vexedly personal content. Certain works survived in this cramped space, which had an air of afterthought. Burgin’s pointed detournement of advertising in Possession, 1976 (which famously juxtaposes a statistic about wealth inequality with text and image out of recycled advertising imagery) still looked furiously effective. But Mary Kelly’s diaristic, psychoanalytic Post-Partum Document. Analysed Markings and Diary Perspective Schema (Experimentum Mentis III: Weaning from the Dyad), 1975—a portion of that expansive work, at least—felt especially bracketed. The final work in this room was Susan Hiller’s Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972–76, with its gridded presentation of postcards showing rough seas around the country’s coast. It was arguably the most obvious precursor, in the show, to post-Conceptual British art in the decades following, as a piece that summons popular (seaside) culture, Romanticism and landscape, and a certain native impulse toward amateur collecting.

The show’s rigorous archival impulse was welcome at a time when the phrase Conceptual art is so often flung about with abandon and little historical purchase. But in its almost total insistence on a rebuttal of modernist strictures—not to mention the comparative neglect of film and video, which were relegated to a series of one-off screenings—“Conceptual Art in Britain” produced an impression of hermeticism that one had to work hard to counter, recalling (because the exhibition did not) that no movement in art is reducible to its stated aims. A more generous curatorial take on Conceptual art during the period in question would have admitted a good deal else in the way of context: connections with literary and cinematic avant-gardes, a quickening encounter between analytic and continental philosophy, the full extent to which Conceptualism in Britain was marked by humor and political activism alike. Such an exhibition might have returned the library book with unruly marginalia, not with pages ripped out.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London. His latest book is The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015).