Conceptual Art in Britain


advertisment for the exhibition at Pimlico tube station

There is a good video from The Tate to watch HERE as well as an explanatory article in The Guardian HERE. This is perhaps not an easy exhibition to understand owing to its’ complicated approach even though this is often quite simple such as the black canvas with a black frame. The OCA study visit helped to put it into perspective, to realise that what was originally anti-establishment has now become part of the establishment, and to see the humoristic aspect of it all.

Beforehand, I obtain a copy of the catalogue and read the introduction which makes sense but is complex as conceptual art seems to be itself. On the cover of the catalogue book published by Tate Publishing, is a black and white photograph of Arnatt eating a piece of paper on which is typed “artist”. This is from a series called Art as an Act of Retraction (1971) the meaning of which is not necessarily apparent although one might conclude that it has something to do with “eating one’s own words”; this idea is suggested in text within the book where the 11 photos from this series are shown.

I lived through this age of conceptual art although my knowledge of the British contributors is not great. I know of four which include Keith Arnatt, Richard Long, Victor Burgin and John Stezaker. The conceptual artist I am most acquainted with is Andy Warhol although he is known as much more than a conceptualist and more of a Pop artist!

Alex Farquharson, the current director of Tate Britain, writes, “Privileging ideas about art and its place in the world over aesthetics, conceptual art radically put into question the formalist version of modernism that had come to dominate art …” in his foreword to the catalogue. “Minimalism laid its foundations” while conceptual art, abandoning “the object altogether, putting an ontological and contextual questioning of art at the centre of artistic endeavour.”  Furthermore, “conceptual art also radically extended the spatial-temporal coordinates of art.


entry to Tate Britain with exhibition flyer

The exhibition is curated by Andrew Wilson who also writes an introduction.

Conceptual art changed the priorities of art, a hinge between modernist art and contemporary art. Occurred in the wider context of constructivism and kinetic art. Proposed “new ways of thinking about what art is, how it is made and what it is for.” Ideas and concepts were placed above material form. Process took charge as the uniqueness of the art object was challenged. In fact, the crisis of Greenberg Modernism was giving rise to conceptual art that was more concerned with everyday objects rather than the rarefied.

Conceptual art was not a movement. Black and white photography and text became a characteristic. By the early 1970’s it was accepted. There was more acceptance of social issues while a more philosophical approach gave way to semiotic concerns. Ascott described it as art in which concept and idea are located in behaviour. There was an abandonment of aesthetic judgement for an analytic critique, a dismissal of hierarchies, or as Burgin suggested, meaning no longer resided within the art object but the object’s context in the world.

Not a style or a national current, this kind of art defied boundaries and could travel with many voices and positions.

Of this era which ran from the Harold Wilson government to that of Margaret Thatcher, he writes, “Fixed definitions of art, the relative roles of art and audience and the artworks positioning in social settings were all challenged.” The book The Construction of Change from 1964 by Roy Ascott is attributed as proposing such change in the art world. Modernist orthodoxy was being challenged in particular the writings of Clement Greenberg.

Modernism was characterised by medium specificity as well as material objectivity, autonomy and visuality even reliance on compositional “syntax.” The new conceptualism was based on literalism. Michael Baldwin, an artist of that era, talked of “a kind of work that is purely experiential, non-referential, that presents itself for an interaction with the viewer, without having a referent.”

St.Martin’s School of Art in London proved fertile ground for the growth of conceptual art.


screen inside the gallery advertising the exhibition

While this text is interesting as an introduction, I turn to an essay at the back if the catalogue to better understand where photography comes in. Titled “Candid Cameras? British Conceptual Art Photography” by Luke Skrebowski, I read this with interest in an attempt to gain a further perspective on this exhibition.

Conceptual art analyses the concept of art and presents this as art! There are said to have been two phases. The first is the post-Duchampian that interrogates the late modernist idea of art and the second “emerged from the perceived limitations of the first.” The second concluded that “an ongoing, self-reflexive interrogation or the interrogation of of the late modernist idea of art” was what was required.

Photographic work considered conceptual is described as mostly “self-consciously amateurish black and white snapshots” although looking at some of the work in the catalogue I can not really agree with this. The images have been well crafted without the excessive contrast that tended to dominate photography at this time while tripods have also been used to maintain considered and occasionally consistent compositions. There is however, an apparently deliberate attempt to not make many of these images look as though they are the products of professional photographers rather possessed of a more ready made look. The original works often do look amateurish and originally this appears to be part of the artists’ strategy as in the self-burial photos of Keith Arnatt where there is a fuzzy patch to the lower right; this would appear to be part of the challenge to straight art that the conceptualists advocated.


dancers performing at Tate Britain

Little, if any, theoretical attention was paid to photography as a practice.” However, some of these works have since been digitally enhanced.

By discarding the paintbrush for the camera, artists were able to challenge high modernist ideas.Victor Burgin made work that bore an immediate relationship to it’s context; for instance, life size photographs of a floor onto which the photographs were then placed.

Some photographers made their presence part of the picture “which stood in for the negated sculptural object and acted as a new form of ontological guarantor.” Arnatt ironised his own position as an artist as in Self-Burial (1969) and other pieces.

In the second phase of conceptual art, there was more engagement with photography  by artists. Photography was itself investigated … “It’s indexical status as a transparent window on to the world was questioned.

Jeff Wall has written about photography and conceptual art and pointed out that photography was not really instrumental in making the kind of investigatory arguments that were part of the conceptual art movement.  However, the camera did play an important role as in the copying of text based imagery.

Photoconceptualism, as it became known, faced the challenge of mediation of real world events rather than the mediation of discursive events. Both faced the mediation of its discursive practice in art institutional settings.

Victor Burgin combined both photography and text “producing sharply discrepant juxtapositions” enacting a kind of situationist detournement. His best known piece is entitled possession and shows an embracing couple with accompanying text that mentions how so few own so much.


OCA students with tutor, Robert Enoch, centre right

Meet the group at the front entrance outside but not after meeting another student in one of the shops! We chat about OCA concerns.

Put a few questions to Robert beforehand which he answers!

Did not conceptual art start with Duchamp and his urinal!? If so, why did it take so long to flourish in the UK!? Duchamp’s urinal as art took time to assume the importance in now has. Modernism more or less dominated the half century that passed before the British conceptualists became known.

Why is not Peter Kennard included in this exhibition? He is probably one of the best known conceptual artists of the period. He recently had an exhibition at The War Museum. This is because the Tate Britain are showing from their collection.

Monty Python humour largely conceptual !? Yes! Although not actually considered conceptual artists there are obvious parallels with the Monty Python approach to humour and the conceptualists.

What does a term like conceptual mean?


Although not allowed to photograph the exhibition, a guard grants me temporary rights to make this one image of the oranges that once formed a pyramid.

There is or was, a pyramid of oranges, facing one on entry. One is invited to take one and so the pyramid is no longer! There is still a scent of orange however … I help myself to one!

Art acting within the world rather than being rarefied and set apart!? About containing more ideas that a picture can represent. Cubism related to conceptualism but conceptualism a much bigger shift in understanding art. Less about sculptural form and text was introduced. A challenge to the modernism espoused by C.Greenberg.

Quite a simple approach at times. 2 black squares by Mel Ramsden consists of a black canvas within a black frame. There is also another larger black canvas but other barely noticeable colours such as violet and blue are included.

Paintings like a grey or black canvas that challenge our notion of what art is.

Questioning art! Making a break from the established tradition.

Don’t need to get involved in theory. Art can be simple, need not be complicated. We do not need to bring our baggage to it. Concerned with the primacy of vision.

There is a pile of sand that forms a cone with a dip at the top.

Art and Language is found in the second gallery. Language becomes more of an object when you put it on a wall.

A lot of humour in some of the statements. “The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist.” This text is seen alongside a large dead black canvas.


exhibition artifacts in a Tate britain book shop

Hypocrisy of not being allowed to photograph in the exhibition when the artists involved were trying to make art that did not belong to the gallery but was more available and approachable by the ordinary man.

In the third gallery, there is a photograph of a man and then a couple of photographs of this photograph on the back of a bus in the London street where the original photograph was taken. A touch here of the surrealistic influence in conceptualism.

Another series of photographs is 11 images by Keith Arnatt of him “eating his own words” as one sees him apparently eating bits of paper with a visible word such as artist or word written on it. A photograph of this image has been seen in the advertising of the show.

The next gallery is considerably bigger than the first three.

A record of Victor Burgin’s work is on show in a glassed cabinet. As mentioned previously, he made photographs of a floor space and then put these photographs back in that space.

Richard Long makes earth art that he expects to be destroyed. Art that does not need to be venerated.

There is a maze on the wall rather than the floor. Can be viewed geometrically rather than at an angle. It is a record of an account of a maze recounted by an aboriginal to the artist, David Tremlett (1971-2) The panels marking the maze are cards that the artist rubbed graphite over.

Karen Gregory student at OCA  aka pdog19 whose work Robert advises me to look at. She sounds original! I think of my planned photos of different exposures of a Buddha statue to illustrate different meditational states.

There is a glass of water standing on a glass shelf hung high enough on the wall to stop visitors getting at it! This is called “An Oak Tree” and also consists of a page of text in which there is a discussion about whether or not the glass of water is an oak tree or not! The work is by Michael Craig-Martin and it is from 1973. The argument is far from convincing that the glass of water us an oak tree! This appeals to me because only last night I was reading about the oak having been photographing one regularly for sometime now.

There is a photo of Jack Wendler who looks uncannily like me! He is holding a canvas instead of it being hung on a wall. From 1973. The artist is Daniel Buren.

The final gallery is about the same size as the former. There seem to be a lot more photographs here. One of them is Burgin’s famous possession image with text (also mentioned previously).

Dedicated to the unknown artists from 1940 is a series of 305 photographs many in post card form of rough seas. I find this visually appealing! There is also some documentation, written text.


group discussion

We sit and discuss as a group, issues raised by the exhibition. Some students remember the time that this artwork was made.  Social interaction was more common in the past! Chatting over the fence, children playing in the street … ideas about community and the possibility of expressing these through art. A photo essay in a newspaper?

Conceptualists have lost that direct contact with the people they advocated.

See this work out of context both in time (the 60’s were revolutionary for the arts and much of this work questions the establishment) as well as space (the Tate now owns work that was originally made in spite of rather than for the gallery!)

This work arose out of groups of people who fused ideas with each other that resulted in new artworks.


pigeon in the Tate restaurant

Any questions? Yes, what is it all about?! A joke but there is no one concept to take away. This kind of work questions art and it the awareness of looking at art rather than just consuming it that is of relevance.

Is the attractiveness of the art work important? Attention can be grabbed by something unappealing.


Robert Enoch and Karen Gregory in discussion

The day ends with a chat near the entrance to the Tate where the circular staircase descends. Karen talks about her body of work which concerns a lake! Robert stays on. I mention my Monmouth Rebellion work.

There is a need to find text or texts that one can relate to also photographer/s!


damage from the Second World War can be seen on the western walls of Tate Britain


Robert who has been my tutor for 2 level 3 modules listens to my plan for a Landscape of the Monmouth Rebellion as a body of work and suggests the following practitioners, Anselm Kieffer and Luc Tymanns as well as those who have done work about memory and conflict such as Hannah Collins and aftermath photographers like Chloe Mathews etc

Warns that there is a danger of it becoming too descriptive; about culture being embedded in landscape.

Kate Aston from Devizes has made photos of village that got washed away; her write up is HERE.

Anne Bryson writes up the day HERE




For over a couple of years, Photobook Bristol has been running events in Bedminster, South Bristol; in this post, I am including links to all their events which have been helpful in my photographic education. The portraits are journalistic and the writing is largely in note form yet the records form memories from which I and perhaps others can draw …

Bristol Photobook Festival 2014 – fridaysaturdaysunday

Bristol Photobook Festival 2015

Photobook Day October 12’th

Bristol Photobook Festival 2016 – fridaysaturdaysunday

Designing a Photobook – workshop 13.06.2016