Conceptual Art is not a movement. Conceptual Art is not a style. Conceptual Art is a set of strategies. — Andrew Wilson, Curator of the exhibition

Roelof Louw’s Soul City (left) and what your reviewer did with one of the oranges that viewers are invited to take (but not eat in the gallery): a photographic simulacrum of the orange with ceramic simulacra of other fruit; the orange on the folder given to those who attended the press view, and your reviewer holding the orange. Last photograph by Ruth M. Landow. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Encountering Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) upon entering the exhibition, I recalled The Put On, a very short book I came upon sometime in the 1960s – I can't recall the author – whose main point was that most contemporary art was created tongue-in-cheek and therefore best thought of as a Put On. An important implication of the satirical book, which the author himself probably didn't realize, was how much radical art of the late twentieth century turns out to be fundamentally romantic, at least in the sense described so valuably by M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp. Sincerity becomes absolutely crucial once literature and the visual arts abandon accurate imitation of nature (external or human) or ability to move the audience emotionally as the chief criteria of aesthetic success. Since romantic critical theory assumes that the arts express a personal, individual experience of the world, the audience’s only guarantee that any particular work is not a joke (or a Put On) must be the artist’s or poet’s sincerity. Furthermore, this set of assumptions about the arts also posits that great artists and poets are always in advance of their audiences – a point most clearly made by the Wordsworth in 1815 when he pointed out great poets “must always create the taste by which they are to be enjoyed.” The audiences of such avant garde work will always be a bit lost. This emphasis on emotional authentication comes accompanied by other criteria that are very much still with us in art, literature, and music high and low — the requirements, in other words, that the work must exemplify not only originality (and with it alienation) but also intensity.

Encountering the pyramid of oranges, I recalled The Put On because it reminded me that without some assurance that Louw and the artists in this exhibition were sincere when creating the works this audience encounters, we cannot know how to approach them, or, even more important, if we should want to devote time and energy to looking at and thinking about them. Why work hard to understand what a particular image or text wants us to perceive, or think, or feel if one cannot trust that it as born of that old Victorian high seriousness? We come again, as Oscar Wilde put it, to the importance of being earnest.

Certainly, one of the things about which these young artists were very earnest was finding a way to have their works seen — and hence to make a living. Turning to our left immediately upon entering the exhibition, we read that the young people who first created Conceptual Art in England did so because they found themselves fundamentally dissatisfied by the teachings of high Modernism, particularly as theorized in Clement Greenberg. As Andrew Wilson, the chief organizer of the exhibition, explained, Conceptual Art is essentially, intentionally, the antithesis of Modernist art. Whereas Modernist art holds that the work needs no external references — or even that it should not (or could not) ever have  any external references, Conceptual Art, as Wilson puts it, “is all external references.” With this emphasis on rejecting the ideas of someone named Greenberg from New York, one might mistakenly assume the artists and art works that are the substance of this exhibition acted from a narrow nationalism, but, as Wilson explained, most people who know anything about Conceptual Art think it began in New York, so this show is not about people who bravely set out alone the deep dark woods. Rather the point of the show is that important work in this School or genre or mode was also done in England. It's not all New York.

Of course, these artists repeated something quite common in the history of British art and literature. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, the young art students who took to Conceptual Art held that everything they were taught at art school was wrong, and therefore the path to a new true honest art was to do the opposite. Since the Royal Academy of the 1840s required students to use triangular groupings, one main and one minor source of illumination, and an emphasis upon tonality or chiaroscuro, Hunt and Millais at the beginning of their careers did just the opposite, emphasizing the bright even lighting of the early Renaissance and different compositional arrangements. In a similar manner, the young practitioners of Conceptual Art who had been taught that art should not refer to anything outside the work, made art that was all reference, abandoning as much as possible shape and color and the pleasure they might provide. Of course, for all the talk, however sincere, about questioning the very nature of art, one goal of conceptual art program was the same as that of the high Modernists and before them the PRB — to attack and if possible destroy the status, power, position of their older rivals, thereby making it possible for them to have all those good things – especially exhibitions and money – possessed by their elders. There's nothing new in this. We see if again and again in romantic and post romantic art — in art, in other words, that relies on claims of originality and being a member a small, endangered avant guard. We see it with the Expressionists, the Post-impressionists, the Cubists, the Abstract Expressionists. So in this sense for all its artistic radicalism Conceptual Art moves along a very traditional arc.

Left: David Tremlett’s The Spring Recordings. Right: Bruce McLean’s Their Grassy Places (1969). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Back to earnestness and sincerity: The works in this exhibition, at least the very earliest ones, are as serious as the words of any preacher in Dickens or Eliot. Or at least we have to assume they are. Take David Tremlett’s The Spring Recordings (1972), which the chat label tells us consists of “81 cassette tapes with plastic cases and tape labels, glass shelf, metal brackets” and explains,

In May 1872 David Tremlett traveled for two months through all of the 81 counties of Britain, making a 15-minute tape recording in each. He had experimented with making recordings for tape loops – for Tremlett, the tape recording was a way of notating an activity or image, but as a loop it could become “a serial, endless line of noise, a musical version of a photograph.” The Spring Recordings describes specific locations showing in the way that is nondescript and generalized, so that when installed – the cassette tapes on one long shelf mounted on a wall – the impression is of a sculptural intervention in space and geographical mapping through sound and line.

Like the Tate when it purchased The Spring Recordings in 1973, we have to accede to an implicit request that is exquisitely naive — that is, we have to be credulous enough to believe everything in that preceding paragraph. We have to believe that Tremlett really did go to 81 counties and didn’t give up after 79 or 45 or three. Equally important, we have to believe that those plastic cases not only contain tapes but that they contain those, which we can never experience or otherwise authenticate. We have no evidence, just assurance. Which is why Bruce McLean’s Their Grassy Places is so interesting, since, as the museum label explains, it failed. McLean purchased the rights to the photograph from the Daily Mail, exhibited it as Conceptual Art in a gallery, and then tried to sell it back to the newspaper, which didn't go along. In other words, this was an experiment with a null result. As far as I'm concerned, McLean’s concept didn't work.

Left: Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers (1977). Middle: Stephen Willats’s Living with Practical Realities (1978). Right: Victor Burgin’s Possession. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

For me the projects that worked most successfully appeared in the last room of the exhibition, which contained works — whether or not one wants to call them Conceptual Art is another matter — that made powerful political statements. Turning away from half-baked philosophizing and occasional amusing self-parodies found in the first part of the exhibition, Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers (1977), Conrad Atkinson’s Northern Ireland 1968-May Day 1975 (1975-76), Stephen Willats’s Living with Practical Realities (1978), and Victor Burgin’s Possession all had powerful things to say, and they did so because they relied heavily upon text and what designers call information architecture. Asking viewers about how they defined poessession — something John Ruskin had done a full century before in Unto This Last — Burgin’s work of that name then adds “7% of our population owns 84% of our wealth.” (Note the our.) Harrison’s similar use of statistics about the exploitation of women workers, like Atkinson’s one-sentence statements of the fears of Roman Catholic and Protestant children about their homes being burned by Northern Irish of the other faith, have enormous power, as do the information graphics Stephen Willats summons to explain the plight of the elderly who have moved to high rise blocks of flats. All these works seem doubly to abandon virtually everything about the Conceptual Art that dominates the first rooms in the exhibition. They not only forgo thinking about what is art, they also — may we admit it? — indulge in the aesthetic pleasures of color and form.

Still, one runs into problems when one tries to say something important, and such problems arise in that old matter of reference — of pointing to something outside the art piece. Burgin’s Lei-Feng juxtaposes nine repetitions of a large advertising photograph of a family drinking sherry to celebrate the appearance of their daughter on the cover of Vogue to single sentences from a would-be soldier who learns about proper self-sacrifice from reading Mao. In 1973 when Burgin created Lei-Feng, Mao was accepted by Europeans and Americans on the left as the wonderful embodiment of “communism with a human face.” Now after all we have learned of Maoist genocide and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution — I know someone whose biggest point of pride is that unlike others she didn’t turn in her parents — Burgin’s quoting Maoist drivel as The Truth comes across as sickening. “7% of our population owns 84% of our wealth” on Possession works better.

Last modified 11 April 2016