EXHIBITIONS: ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 – 1979


Tate Britain – August 2016


I have to admit that I had to force myself to go to this exhibition and I only just made it in the last weeks of its showing at Tate Britain. I needed to leave all of my prejudices at the entrance and see what the exhibition would reveal…hopefully something positive. It was hard work on an unusually warm day. Walking into galleries where there was virtually nothing to look at apart from pieces of paper and the odd blank canvas or object was challenging, the emphasis being on reading rather than looking. However I persevered and I’m pleased I did because I feel to have a better sense of what this art movement was about, why it came about and its influence.

  • Conceptual art is about ideas or concepts. It is not about objects and materials.
  • Conceptual art was a critical art rather than a contemplative art. Theorizing was a driving principle. Philosophy, linguistics and the use of language and text became the art.
  • It questions what art is, how it is made, what its position in the world might be and what it is for.
  • It challenges the view that art is something to be looked at and admired.
  • The art can be less an object and more an event so that the work may be the documentation (photographs, notes, maps or charts)
  • It can then occupy new spaces – text in a book…ephemeral and fully mobile.
  • Attacks the status of art as unique or valuable.
  • A rejection of the dominance of abstract modern art which was seen as something apart from the everyday world. Abstract art was judged according to visual aesthetics and valued for its uniqueness. (…exhibition catalogue)

Since seeing the exhibition, I feel to have been challenged about my ideas in regard to ‘concept’ as opposed to a visual image. In fact some of the questions raised in the catalogue are really pushing at my thought…”What counts as a work of art? What is an exhibition? What is it that the artist does? What is the role of the viewer? As I see it, the concept and the expression of the concept are two very different things. The concept or idea begins in the mind of the artist – it can be triggered by inside forces or outside images or mental responses. It needs to find expression and this exhibition showed me that the expression of an idea in words, or as a process or documentation, or stashed away behind a black canvas, or as a glass or water is not much different to the painted picture. The difference I suppose in painting is the technique of putting the idea in a visual form as a picture. (perhaps the craft?)

It is the question, What is the role of the viewer, which I find more interesting. As the viewer in this exhibition, I found myself isolated. There was nothing left for me to bring to the experience because it wasn’t about looking and contemplating. I was looking in on someone else’s consciousness/ experience and was outside. There was nothing to draw me in. Often the complexity of the reading emphasized this feeling. I couldn’t help thinking about Roland Barthe’s essay on ‘The Death of the Author’ in which he suggests that the first viewer of an artwork is the artist himself as he looks for the first time at a work which has drawn upon ‘an immense dictionary’ of experiences, feelings etc. I’ve had that experience myself as I’ve looked at an image which I’ve created and it has revealed layers of meaning which I didn’t know were there. I wonder how this idea fits with conceptual art…?

Another point that I would make regarding ‘the viewer’…this was the negative attitude some of the conceptual artists took to the viewer. One is used to artists communicating or sharing their concepts or visions with the viewer by the art work they have made or caused to be made. Some conceptual artists also wished to communicate to the viewer but only to let them know that they had a concept but that they could not or would not reveal what it was – the big black square with the notice that the concept lay beneath the paint and was a secret, known only to the artist while he lived.

The feeling of being kept outside the work was further emphasized for me in the exhibit by Michael Craig-Martin, entitled ‘An Oak Tree’. This consisted of a glass of water placed on a glass shelf which was placed well above head height. Below this was a text recording a conversation between Michael Craig-Smith and a viewer of the work. It records questions, doubts and explanations regarding the transformation that has taken place whereby the glass of water had become an oak tree.


Below the glass of water is the following text:

  1. To begin with, could you describe this work?
  2. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
  3. The accidents?
  4. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …
  5. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
  6. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
  7. It looks like a glass of water.
  8. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.
  9. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?
  10. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.
  11. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
  12. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.
  13. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
  14. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.
  15. Was it difficult to effect the change?
  16. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.
  17. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?
  18. When I put the water in the glass.
  19. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?
  20. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.
  21. Then intention causes the change?
  22. I would say it precipitates the change.
  23. You don’t know how you do it?
  24. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.
  25. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn’t that the case?
  26. I’m flattered that you think so.
  27. But aren’t you the only person who can do something like this?
  28. How could I know?
  29. Could you teach others to do it?
  30. No, it’s not something one can teach.
  31. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?
  32. Yes.
  33. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?
  34. There is no glass of water anymore.
  35. The process of change?
  36. There is no process involved in the change.
  37. The oak tree?
  38. Yes. The oak tree.
  39. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.
  40. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category ‘oak tree’ or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it is also inconceivable.
  41. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?
  42. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.
  43. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?
  44. Until I change it

Martin’s piece of art, An Oak Tree, explores the possibility that the essence of something lies beyond its physical appearance. But to me he is deluded if he imagines that he can take an object, in this case partially man-made, and tell us that he has transformed it into another, totally dissimilar object, which exists in nature. Surely, this denies the inherent individuality in everything natural. Reading through the questions and answers on display with the object, it seems to me that the artist is saying that the glass of water is an oak tree because he says it is. I don’t believe that this concept of an art form has anything to do with exploring the essence of something beyond its physical appearance.

Final thoughts…Surely, conceptual art to remain what it claims to be should remain as conceptual. What I felt we saw at the exhibition were artists who were transforming their conceptions into conventional art works by committing them mostly to paper, framing them and hanging them on the walls, so adopting the form of the art world they say they wish to reject.

This exhibition has been very thought-provoking. I have not altered my view of the work but I feel to have been stimulated as an artist in visiting it and considering the above points.




About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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