In 1974 Michael Craig-Martin exhibited an ordinary glass of water on a shelf, the type you normally find in bathrooms, and called it “An Oak Tree.” That’s what it was, because that’s what he said it was. These days, when all contemporary art is more or less conceptual, “An Oak Tree” seems pretty tame. Coming across it at this new show at Tate Britain, the only incongruous element is the accompanying text, in which Craig-Martin goes to considerable lengths to explain why he chose not to call it “A Glass of Water.” If he were making it today, I doubt he’d bother to give his reasons.
Conceptual art, the leaflet accompanying the exhibition helpfully explains, “is about ideas or concepts. It is not about objects and materials.” It was never a movement as such, says curator Andrew Wilson, still less a style; more a “set of strategies” used to determine what art should be. Essentially, It’s about the idea behind the artefact rather than the artefact itself.
Marcel Duchamp showed his first ‘readymades’ over a century ago, but Conceptual art didn’t really take off until the 1960s, largely in reaction to Modernism, and in particular abstract art. Leading exponents in the United States were Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt and John Baldessari, although more mainstream artists flirted with conceptualism as well. This exhibition looks at the British contribution, taking the period between the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 and the coming of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Among the featured artists are Keith Arnatt, Art & Language, “living sculptures” Gilbert and George, and Richard Long, many of whom later moved on to other things. (Why have so many conceptual artists gone back to painting? Because it’s a good idea.)
It’s a small exhibition – only four rooms – yet it manages to pack in 70 works and over 250 archival objects. As befits a movement – sorry, “set of strategies” – concerned with thinking rather than looking, it’s rather text-heavy, both in terms of the artworks and of the explanatory labels (the two are often difficult to tell apart). There’s more stuff in showcases than there is on the walls. A lot of the early pieces are fairly light-hearted, but the later ones have a harder political edge, as in the work of the feminist artist Mary Kelly or in Conrad Atkinson’s examination of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Almost the only splash of colour is Roelof Louw’s “Soul City” (1967), a five-foot pyramid of oranges immediately opposite the entrance. There’s a label encouraging you to help with its dematerialisation by removing an orange, although I didn’t notice any takers at the press view.
Oddly, given that it’s supposed to be more about thinking than looking, this is a very visual show. Almost monochrome, it has an austere and cerebral feel to it. And there’s plenty to entice the eye, such as Richard Long’s “A Line Made by Walking”, an early example of what nowadays we’d call Land art, or John Hillard’s rather disturbing sequential photographs of clocks, “Sixty Seconds of Light.” Nearby there’s Bruce McClean, with his Mod haircut, clambering around on a pile of boxes in “Pose Work for Plinths”, a series that always reminds me of the work of Keith Haring.
You probably have to be in the right frame of mind to get something out of this exhibition; it’s not the sort of thing you’d go to after, say, a boozy lunch. But it does encourage you to think about what art is, how it’s made, and what it’s for. In fact, it’s the best thing I’ve seen here for a long time, an encouraging sign for an institution that’s taken its share of brickbats over the past few years. Let’s hope that under its new director, Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain has begun to turn a corner.