Visit this show if you think that you hate conceptual art, but take a napkin for the orange

Geoff Hands

First impressions can be misleading, as we were left feeling indifferent after our first visit to ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979’ at Tate Britain. Perhaps it’s a bit like watching a football match where, as a neutral, you do not support either team. You might be interested in a few individuals (in our case, Barry Flanagan, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton) but you cannot rely on uncritical passion to inject into the spectacle to enhance personal engagement. But something kept nagging away. Later, we read a few reviews on-line and found that reactions from the mainstream press were mixed which more-or-less summed up our own first-take of the show. (By the way, we recommend Olivia Laing in The Guardian for a balanced, well written and enthusiastic response) But we felt that we had missed something.


So, returning a few days later, we were pleased that we had made the effort. This time we were more focused and made more time to stop and read. Read? Art exhibitions are about looking at images and objects, surely? But in this exhibition, curated with great attention to documentary detail by Andrew Wilson, with Carmen Juliá and Isabella Maidment, reading is important. In fact, even before entering the show proper, there is a fairly substantial display of printed material supporting the wall-mounted timeline (always a useful feature at the Tate), displayed in two extended vitrines. This provided a taster of what was to follow.


At this early point, one image worth mentioning (it’s framed on the wall and not encased in a vitrine) is Sol LeWitt’s, ‘Area of London between the Lisson Gallery, the Nigel Greenwood Gallery and the Tate Gallery’ [1977]. This mono-collage of a piece of printed paper (with an association to the Duchampian ‘found object’), simply and graphically, with its obtuse triangular shape, pinpoints three ‘trig points’ for the display and promotion of Conceptual art in London at that time. This image is also distinctive, as it is almost the last display of overt colour to be seen in the show, courtesy of the (now almost defunct) page from an A-Z map of London.


In fact colour, at its most sumptuous and natural, greets you immediately on entering the ‘New Frameworks’ room. Roelof Louw’s, ‘Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)’ [1967], literally involves the viewer in physical participation as the work is extended – by the taking of an orange from the diminishing pyramid. The artwork is ultimately ‘completed’ by consuming the fruit – an act to be performed and not thought about, although you will think about it first. And there is so much more to consider as ‘idea’ in this show (arranged in five rooms, excluding the foyer display). In this first gallery, there are several pick ‘n’ mix examples of work from, amongst others, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Bob Law, and Keith Arnatt. The latter’s self-portrait photograph, ‘Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist’ [1968] perhaps, inadvertently, shows his heart punctured by a vertical arrow-like shadow line: it is actually quite ‘beautiful’ – an adjective that may not often be used about Conceptual art as the term suggests aesthetics and the picturesque – anathema to a true conceptualist.


Adjacent to this piece is, ‘Painting/Sculpture’ [1966-7] created (or should I say, conceived?) by Art & Language duo, Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin. A&L get their own room next, but this Masonite panel text piece (two rectangles painted grey eschew any possibility of association with the varieties of the visible) might summarize Conceptual Art perfectly well – what you think, via the artist’s text, dominates over what you see. But, surely, all art is conceptual? We already understand that art is cerebral as well as visual – otherwise it would not be of interest. But ‘Conceptual Art’, as a definitive aspect and approach to the production and phenomenon of fine art in the late 20th century (and beyond), cannot be denied. For this we can thank, or blame, Marcel Duchamp, the Godfather of Conceptual Art. Duchamp is the great invisible presence for this show, although he is in our heads: Is he the grey ‘elephant in the room’? His undeniable legacy, which further opened up the possibilities for expanding the definition, purpose and appearance of visual art, must be acknowledged as truly revolutionary by all but the most conservative and reactionary.


However, this category of art does trouble many people, who otherwise, and most genuinely love ‘Art’. It’s always a wise option to ‘suspend judgment’ sometimes, and to arrive at a conclusion much later – or perhaps never (can you Imagine such a thing?). Expecting an exhibition to be purely visual sounds obvious and unchallengeable, but we cannot help but attend a show with our prejudices and art historical knowledge embedded in our consciousness. This means that an exhibition will always be perceived through some kind of ‘rose coloured spectacles’ – or whatever the converse might be.


There are many more compelling works of art in this survey show, supported by a more than adequate amount of printed documents. Understandably, the visitor cannot pick these artifacts up, which enforces the sense of the archaeological dig that Wilson and his colleagues have undertaken and it’s a shame that more of this graphical evidence was not reproduced in the otherwise excellent catalogue. But this is really as much a visual exhibition as it is textual. This is particularly evidenced by several iconic photographic works, including Bruce McLean’s, ‘Pose Work for Plinths 3’ [1973]; Keith Arnatt’s, ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ [1971]; and John Hilliard’s, ‘Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 Aperture, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors)’ [1971]. These are all sequential-image constructions suggesting the moving image, and as artists’ films were so much a part of contemporary visual culture in the 1960s and ‘70s; so a second criticism is that there was no film/video work. Nor were there works from Europe and the USA to put ‘Conceptual Art in Britain’ into a fully international context. However, it was still a curatorial success to offer up a reasonably broad summary of what was happening in Britain during these 15 years, where, in conjunction with the Pop artists, a seismic shift really did take British art towards the international stage it now occupies.


To conclude, the emphasis on the text, that ultimately still requires visible evidence for completion, was demonstrated perfectly by our favourite piece from the exhibition. Placed at reading height for a child, an interview (typed in red ink) explained the purpose of the objects selected by Michael Craig-Martin: a glass of water placed on a glass shelf, way above the viewer’s head height (253cm above floor level). If the artist says it’s an oak tree, it must be. The challenge is for the viewer to make the journey to this site of belief, with an understanding of his or her own visually perceptive experience mediated by a language-based thought process. Every viewer is implicated in the equation that is the totalised work of art. ‘An Oak Tree’ [1973] might be the one true ‘masterpiece’ in the show? (Discuss).


If you are visiting London between now and the end of August – visit this show if you can, especially if you think that you hate conceptual art. But take your reading glasses and a napkin for the orange.

April 19, 2016