= The Crawford Arts Review: Tate Britain: Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979

Monday, 25 July 2016

Tate Britain: Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979

Until Monday 29 August 2016

This excellent Tate Britain exhibition is subtitled "See the works that changed the way we think about art today". Such works certainly 'started' to change the way we think about art today. But I would say that it was looking outwards to Europe (joining the European Union in the mid-1970s) and America that also influenced the process that changed the way we think about art, as well as the way we think about so many other things.  

Let me start with cake (you'll see why in a minute). Fruit and custard (crème anglais) tart, the pastry thin and crisp. Accompanied by mocha, that seductive blend of coffee and hot chocolate. A visit to the Tate teashop, however brief, means that you are more likely to take your time - and art often needs that. You will enjoy the exhibition more - plus gain the advantage of familiarising yourself with the other wonders (most of which are free) of this place - flooded with sunlight at the moment.

This is a large exhibition, covering the work of 28 artists, Arrowsmith and Arnatt to Tremlett and Willats. No photographs (or mobile phones) are allowed.

The work is of its time of course. Made in 1964 to 1979,
it is art that references the first Labour government of Harold Wilson in 1964 and runs up to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In fact it amounts to a monument to the art of the time. 

It was a period where artists were asked to intellectualise their practice. I can well imagine art schools in the late 1960s setting assignments that required students to get their minds around "concepts" rather than "subjects". To focus on "ideas", to "combine art and language" (art was their language); to "make art but avoid ego". It must have given rise, I also imagine, to quite a few sleepless nights among the student population.
But as this exhibition shows, they made an extraordinarily brave stab at it.

Part of Keith Arnatt's, Art as a Work of Retraction (1971) adorns the posters for the exhibition. The artist looks for all the world as if he were sucking appreciatively on an ice lolly. Then I remember myself. This is a play on the idea of the artist eating his own words (it's paper he's chewing); later we see him, with much artistic drollery, engaging photographically in 'Self-Burial' - Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) (1969).

Other gems are Stephen Willats's Clipboard analysing lunch (complete with pencil on a string, presumably for adding comments or perhaps new dishes. Bruce McLean's Their Grassy Places (1969), I take to be a pun on 'Their Graces', the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. It shows wonderfully executed blue grass silhouettes of the then Duke and his Duchess laid out on the greenery of the lawn at their country seat (and assiduously cared for by the gardeners).

Nothing captures the solemnity with which this art was received than the interview with artist Michael Craig-Martin by what I suppose to be an imaginary journalist/critic - or indeed the viewer:

(detail 1)

J. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water [there it is, sitting on a shelf above the viewer's head] into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

The piece goes on, all typed meticulously on paper using the red part of an accountant's black/red typewriter ribbon, until:

(detail 2)

J. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it.
Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree (1973), Glass, water, shelf and printed text
Tate. Lent from a private collection 2000
I like the way at least some of the artists got their revenge. The catalogue will tell you how, in 1966, the artist/teacher John Latham withdrew the St Martin's School of Art Library copy of Art & Culture, took it home with him, and, aided by Barry Flanagan and a group of artists and critics, tore out the pages, handed them round and proceeded to chew them and spit them out. The resulting pulp was then distilled and returned to the Library in a glass phial.

There are quite a few print periodicals on show too. The no doubt iconic 'Art & Language', vol. 1, no. 1 - somewhat male dominated in terms of editors and contributors - but that again is of its time (right?) as well as heady experiments with font size and painstaking records of temperatures and the like (just the numerals: no need I suppose to add the unit because at that time ALL temperatures were measured in the units of Mr Fahrenheit's scale). 

I was left with the rueful thought that if ever a country needed the colour and vivacity of Europe it was this one. 

Tate Britain
London SW1

Tate Membership
Tickets can be booked up to 8 hours in advance online or up to 24 hours in advance by telephone on +44 (0)20 7887 8888
£12 FREE for Members
Adult £12.00 (without donation £10.90)
Concession £10.50 (without donation £9.50)
Under 12s FREE (up to four per family adult)
Family tickets available (two adults and two children 12–18 years) by telephone or in the gallery

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