Review of study day: Conceptual art in Britain: 1964 – 79.

OCA Study Day

Themed exhibition: Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 – 1979

Tate Britain, London.

20th August, 2016

Curator: Carmen Julia

 Setting: 5 spaces: new frameworks; art & language; the new art (x2);action practice.   I found the space given to the art & language section crammed, dwarfing the viewer  and made objects of the articles which I do not think, with few exceptions, was their intended function.  Generally the spaces allowed you to circulate among the exhibits freely.  There was a good variety of large and small exhibits.   There were many vitrines of magazines and  newspapers & artefacts  which added to the variety on show.

 New frameworks: Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Bruce McLean used photos, maps or texts to document their work. Bruce McLean’s ‘Six sculptures’ engaged me in a way I had not anticipated (see below).

Art & language: the exhibition pivoted on this questioning of the meaning of art & “what sort of concept is art?” The subsequent discourse had to be in written form. In Terry Atkinson’s piece “Painting / Sculpture”, the text rather than the object is of primary interest for the viewer.   There was an enormous amount of text in the space allocated to this examination, much more than a viewer can engage with in a conventional exhibition, even one dedicated to an examination of the concept of art. Did the curator expect viewers (not readers) to engage with this in the same way they would engage with visual exhibits?)

The new art: “an overturning of material objectivity for an art that was fluid, contingent and determined by time as an event, and not considered to be an object; the pursuit of art that was not defined by its own condition – its self-referentiality – but which drew its material and its content from the world in which it existed and acted within.” … a renewed concern with reality (2. p 53) This led to many artists taking up photography, first as a means of documenting, then reconceived as the work itself.  David Tremlett “To Charlie and the Bush” is a striking disply of graphite on card , grounded in an idea of travel or journeying & the work reflects the mobility of the artist and artwork.  The glass of water changed into an oak tree as well as the painted door frame made me laugh, which is something I rarely do in a visual exhibition, and I am sure that both Sue Arrowsmith, exploring the ambiguous perception of her exhibit being a white frame painted black or vv,


and Michael Craig-Martin ‘An Oak Tree’ (1973) intended us to laugh.  Is the object put beyond our reach (physically = conceptually) on purpose – how much of this is the work of the curator?


as did the recorded conversation:


David Tremlett’s ‘The Spring Recordings” (1972) recording ‘in a loop … a serial, endless line of noise’ (2:p.82) acquires a new , aesthetic dimension when it is photographed as an exhibit, where the lights add new lines which viewers, rather than listeners, can appreciate.


Action Practice: ‘Art for effecting personal, social or political change was the ambition for art practice in the 1970’s.’ ( 2:p 87) ‘Is the production of meaning different from the production of commodity?’ (idem). There is an enormous amount to see & digest here. The one I spent most time on was the 3 panel, Stephen Willats “Living with practical realities” (1978) reflecting different aspects of the life of an elderly woman, Mrs Moran, living on her own in a Tower Block. Her words and attitudes are reflected in the exhibit too, making her contribution just as valuable as that of the photographer/artist.


There were many highlights for me which I would have missed had I paid heed to my feelings that I didn’t need to go afterall since I had read the Guardian article by Laura Cumming (1) and I had had a good read of the exhibition catalogue beforehand. Seeing the exhibits suddenly changed all that. I had almost dismissed the orange pyramid as being an attention-seeking gimmick. Through a miss-communication, we were told that we were not allowed to take photos, but then we were told that we could … then another message that we weren’t! I continued to photograph having missed the last instruction, and started with the obligatory one of the oranges

IMG_3089which must be different at different periods of the exhibition,; here was the aftermath of my having taken one = I had swallowed Roelof Louw’s parody!


The item which most engaged my attention was Bruce McLean’s “Six sculptures” (1968 – 9) in which he is challenging the permanence and material solidity of modernist sculpture. His work emphasized the ephemeral quality of art and used natural materials such as mud and ice and reintegrated them into the environment of his hometown ,Barnes, , declaring that his work centred on ‘the movement of people rather than a scattering of objects’ (2:p 30) He wanted the elements of sculpture to relate to one another and to the environment they were sited in and emphasized his move from studio work to the street which gave his work a wider, social significance. Considering he wanted the work to be ephemeral, I wonder why he photographed it? Just for the record? Yet what we see as his art today is in photographic form and, given the shift to photography at the time, was he secretly hoping to give more permanence to his art or was the photographing to preserve the concept? Why didn’t he just write about it? I am glad he didn’t because I found his construction intriguing.  It was great at this point to be able to bounce ideas off fellow students and to have the input from tutor Robert Enoch- this is what makes a study visit so powerful.


What I took away with me about the work:

How would we, in a post-modern time, question what we are doing in terms of art?   After this exhibition space I went to Tate Modern and saw work by Josef Beuys entitled: Is everyone an artist (1975), and this “What is art?”:



There was so much that I had never seen in terms of challenging concepts . I found the quantity of text in the Art & Language section overwhelming. I was glad I could read extracts covered in the catalogue when I got home. There was so much that is not considered today, like McLean’s concern that the elements of sculpture should relate to one another, to the place and to the people who would be circulating around them.

I also liked the fact that some of the work made me laugh with it – Sue Arrowsmith, and that the last piece by Stephen Willats made me think again about Le Corbusier’s design, never materialized, of blocks of high-rise tower blocks housing differentiated professions / jobs = would all pensioners be housed in the same tower?

I am not sure what Laura Cumming meant when she described the show as ‘antiseptic’ – the infection I caught was that of questioning – everything.   But then she sees the ‘Gilbert & George posing as living sculptures deserving more than a bleary photo in an ancient magazine.’ Would she have asked them to stand there, live? I thought that they, like so many other artists, were given appropriate coverage. Her article is unbalanced and, as such, encourages the reader to see the opposite of what she reports

What I took away with me about me:

I can be freer than I am currently letting myself be about making stuff that is different; that I must question what I am doing more than I currently do.


Michael Craig-Martin: ‘ the viewer has to see (the work) as art because the artist says it is.’

The power of the artist over the viewer, and the viewer’s right to challenge the concepts presented.

Next steps:

What are the directions / questions artists need to ask today about their work & working practices? If everyone is an artist, do we need to ask the question?

Star rating: 4*


  1. tate-britain


  1. Wilson,A.(Ed): 2016. Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964 – 1979. Tate Publishing.

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