At the beginning is an invitation. Roelof Louw’s playful ‘Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)’ (1967) encourages you to take an orange from the stack, and with it, to alter the form of the work over the exhibition’s duration. The work is a square-based pyramid of over 3000 oranges – the oranges will rot unless taken by the audience and consequently refreshed. This gentle provocation apart, there is little colour, tactility, or participation in Tate Britain’s ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979’. However, Louw’s work – a clear forerunner to Cuban-American Félix González-Torres’ evocative minimal sculptures about loss – sets the tone for a display of work that is contingent, fluid, and given to an exploration of time, duration and process.
Conceptual art sought to question the autonomy of a formalist, modernist art practice in which meaning was not to be found outside of the work. Particularly at the then St Martin’s School of Art, a young group of artists such as Barry Flanagan, Richard Long and Bruce McLean began to favour things in the world; ideas and concepts over form. The ontological questioning of art became their medium.
This spirit of dematerialisation initially lends the exhibition an austere tone. The dominant aesthetic throughout – black and white, textual, documentation-heavy – risks painting a dreary picture of intellectually vivid work. In the case of Art & Language – a changing conceptual artistic collaboration – a turn away from the visual is partly the point. The second room is given over entirely to their dense theorisations and language games. Contextually useful in setting out the new priorities of conceptual art, the intentional information overload is hard going. For what can feel at times like an in-joke, the primacy of text, wordiness and philosophy underscore the seriousness of their project.
Having said this, the artists’ joke dominates; artists laugh at both the perceived stifling taxonomies of modernist practice and at themselves. Formalist art historian Clement Greenberg’s 1961 treatise ‘Art and Culture’ reasserted the supremacy of painting and sculpture. His words come to eat themselves. This metaphor is embodied – ingested, even – by John Latham. A generation older than many artists in this show, Latham taught at St Martin’s. He invited his students including Flanagan to participate in his now seminal 1966 happening, ‘Still and Chew’, where the group literally chewed up and spat out selected pages from Greenberg’s text.
In a nice juxtaposition, Keith Arnatt later eats his own words. His work ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ (1971) consists of eleven photographs and one adjacent text panel. In the photographs, Arnatt is pictured eating one word at a time, with the full sentence displayed at the end of the sequence. It reads ‘eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words’. The work continues the theme of undoing the art object, and introduces photography as central to the conceptual questioning and framing of performances and actions. In ‘Pose Work for Plinths 3’ (1971) McLean awkwardly poses between plinths, ridiculing the po-faced monumentality of traditional plinth-based sculpture. Originally conceived as a performance, the artist later had himself photographed repeating the poses. As with Arnatt, it is photography that delivers the punch line.
If playful typologies of language, action events and humour characterise the exhibition up to this point, the too-small final room – dedicated to later, more politically engaged work – feels like an attempt to reorient what comes before. Mary Kelly’s seminal ‘Post-Partum Document’ (1975) – in which she documents her changing relationship with her young son – foregrounds the motif of the index as a tool of categorisation and a demarcation of time. Yet Kelly uses that format – favoured by Art & Language – as a means to subversively reinsert biography and sexual difference into a coldly analytic form. The work’s addition in the exhibition rightly highlights how conceptual art was dissatisfied not just with the artistic climate of the time but with aspects of society too.
This final room is vital to a fuller picture of British conceptual art. Early performances by McLean and Arnatt contributed to an artistic climate that broke with old classifications. The exhibition highlights how later works by Kelly and Conrad Atkinson in particular understood the conceptual artwork as an open-ended project of critical research. It was one that could act within society. Conceptual art was much more than an in-joke; it was profoundly serious too.