In the 1960s artists began to abandon traditional approaches and made ideas the essence of their work. Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979, currently on show at Tate Britain, explores this pivotal period in British history through an extensive group of key works by pivotal artists. The presentation gathers together practitioners who took art beyond its traditional boundaries to suggest new ways of engaging with the realities of the world beyond the studio, which ultimately led to a questioning of the function and social purpose of art. We speak to Andrew Wilson, Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art and Archives, about this landmark exhibition and its accompanying publication.
A: Conceptual Art at Tate Britain captures a pivotal chapter in art history in Britain. What can audiences expect to see throughout the exhibition?
AW: Audiences will be met by a wide range of artwork using media from the traditional (painting/photography) to the less expected (oranges, sand, water). This is a moment in which culturally the boundaries between disciplines were breaking down and art was very much a part of that. Conceptual art here is typified by a multiplicity of voice and position.
A: Featured artists cover a range of controversial themes prominent in the 1960s and beyond. In your opinion, which works on display have been the most influential?
AW: It would be wrong to identify one single work as ‘the most influential’, however, what has been influential for art subsequently is the category shift that conceptual art enacted on art. Art stopped being an art of contemplation and became a critical activity; ‘looking at’ being partially replaced by ‘reading in’ both for the viewer and the artist. Of course this does not stop conceptual art being visual, it redefines visuality.
A: How did you go about curating this complex selection of pieces, and which key themes / ideas can be identified?
AW: Any exhibition, by its nature is selective, and this no more than any other. The exhibition sets up conditions that might help in understanding what conceptual art was in terms of a stance critical of the dominance of formalist modernist art in the mid-1960s and show how an attention to sculpture (e.g. at St Martin’s) and painting (e.g. at Coventry) pulled the course of conceptual art in different directions. One of the strategies evolved by conceptual artists was a specify use of photography which played into different approaches to document and also relations to what the artwork is. Another might be (in terms of placing the concept of art under question) the recourse to text in different ways, the place of theory, the use of philosophy etc. not as a tool, or subject (as content) but rather as the art itself – so not a second-order but a first-order activity.
Another theme might be the significance placed on context and the artwork’s critical relationship to this (and this plays into the subsequent development of institutional critique). Another is the place of publications of many different types as a site for art but also as art (an attention to distribution being a key factor for conceptual art). In all this conceptual art carries out – in different ways – a re-engagement with the everyday, and this underpins the narrative thrust of the exhibition – from 1964 to 1979 – which concerns ideology; so if artists are putting the material and aesthetic conditions of the art object (and of art) in question by the mid 1970s many artists were doing that but also using the strategies they evolved to also put the conditions of society in question and it is this that links the last room to the first room.
A: The exhibition focuses on a specific and short time-period. In your opinion, how important or relevant is this presentation in terms of its impact on present day artists?
AW: I think that an understanding of conceptual art can only enrich how one approaches art of today – art of the last 30 years or so. We cannot underestimate how important conceptual art has been for the art that followed it.
A: Conceptual Art is accompanied by a new book from Tate Publishing. In which ways does this catalogue support the show and audiences’ appreciation of the movement?
AW: I would hope that any curiosity about conceptual art that the show might stimulate might in turn encourage visitors to turn to the publication, which both provides a greater focus on individual works in the show and also widens the frame of the show by attending both to areas of activity that the show couldn’t address – such as the significant place that film took (and which is the subject of a sequence of film screenings in the Tate Britain auditorium) – or by placing the show in a wider historic and critical context. For instance, one of the publication’s essays addresses the particular use of photography by conceptual artists.
A: Can you talk about Tate Britain’s overall output and explain how this exhibition fits into the gallery’s ongoing aims?
AW: Tate broadly champions art and its value to society, and this exhibition directly addresses such a stance showing how a pivotal tendency in relatively recent art is absolutely positioned in terms of an engagement with everyday issues – which can be construed personally as well as more broadly politically.
Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979, until 29 August, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG.
For more, visit www.tate.org.uk.
1. Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967. Tate: Presented by Tate Patrons 2013.