How British artists made art with language
by Dan Duray | 12 April 16
Let us be hard on the artists of today: nobody now makes art as political, philosophical or radical as the conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s did. The movement’s UK roots are explored in Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-79, which opens at Tate Britain this month. The show includes work by artists such as Michael Craig-Martin, Keith Arnatt and Bruce McLean and members of the influential Art and Language movement. The show’s curator, Andrew Wilson, says the show acts as a link between “Modern art and what we know as contemporary art”, adding: “You can’t really understand the art of today without understanding the critical strategies these artists were evolving.”
A historian, a philosopher and an artiston conceptual art
The best thing about this exhibition is its effort to expand the scope of conceptual art to include important artists such as Susan Hiller, Mary Kelly, Conrad Atkinson and Margaret Harrison. Apart from that, however, the show is a bust. It’s the same old narrative about conceptual art as a response to Clement Greenberg’s “formalist Modernism”. I suppose I understand the need for the Tate to nationalise its focus, presenting a British perspective in the midst of Tory rule, but the warp of this regionalist orientation presents a problematic context for the inherent internationalism of conceptual art.
• Alexander Alberro is a professor at Barnard College and the editor of Art After Conceptual Art (MIT Press)
The early days of conceptual art are far more experimentally diverse and full of political energy and humour than one is led to expect by the established image of an affectless “linguistic” art. A lot of the po-faced seriousness is dryly ironic—even in the Art and Language group. There is an absurdist dimension to [the art’s] relationship to philosophy, which takes a visual form in some of the photography. In Britain, there was also a strong connection to leftwing politics—critical reflections on the welfare state in particular—and, by the 1970s, to a feminism that developed in and against that politics. It feels very different from the New York-based stuff, even when the project is closely aligned.
• Peter Osborne is the author of Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, published by Verso
I don’t know what conceptual art is, to be perfectly honest. I appeared in the first issue of [the UK-based publication] Art and Language, along with Dan Graham and Sol Le Witt. Most of the reason I was interested in Art and Language was that they were coming from [the philosopher Alfred North] Whitehead and the British positivist philosophy that interested me when I was younger. I have nothing to say about British conceptual art except that there was some good art in the 1960s and 1970s coming out of Britain, and some good art coming out of Vancouver and Mexico City and Tokyo and Ohio. It was art of our time. The only mark of a successful conceptual artist is they’ve had a lot of children. I only have one daughter, I only conceived once, so I suppose I’m a failure as a conceptual artist.
• Lawrence Weiner is regarded as a seminal conceptual artist. His exhibition Lawrence Weiner: Full Circle is at the Frederick Kiesler Foundation (until 30 June)
• Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-79, Tate Britain, London, 12 April-29 August