Conceptual Art’s Long Shadow

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Roelof Louw's pyramid of oranges. Credit Roelof Louw/Aspen Art Museum, 2015

LONDON — In April 1967, a 20-year-old art student, Hamish Fulton, hitchhiked from London to Andorra in the Pyrenees and back, and typed up his itinerary on a few sheets of paper. "Petrol Station on Route N20 to Orleans, 10 p.m.," one entry read. "France/Andorra frontier, 10:00 a.m.," read another. He then submitted the two pages as a work of art to his college, the St. Martin's School of Art.

Mr. Fulton's cheeky piece — "Hitchhiking Times From London to Andorra and From Andorra to London, 9-15 April 1967" — is now hanging on a wall of Tate Britain as part of the exhibition "Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-1979." Running through Aug. 29, the exhibition brings together 70 works by 21 artists whose aim was to produce art about ideas and the creative proces s.

Some displays are quirky and amusing, such as the tall pyramid of fresh oranges by Roelof Louw (originally conceived in 1967), which visitors are invited to help themselves to. Others are charts, maps, archival photographs and writings, such as the 18 sheets of conversation — with words inscribed on musical staves — between members of the text-driven Art & Language group.

"None of these artworks are really for passive contemplation," said Andrew Wilson, curator of British contemporary art and archives at Tate, who put together the show. "They're not pleasant arrangements of shapes and colors on a canvas. They are provocations, some of them: provocations to actually thinking what art might be."

Suc h incitements were the bridge that led from modern art to contemporary art, Mr. Wilson said. They were "very much a hinge between two ways of thinking about art." It was no longer important to produce work that was visually stimulating; it was enough for art to stimulate the mind.

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Part of Keith Arnatt's ''Eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words.'' Credit Keith Arnatt/DACS, London

The British contemporary artist Ryan Gander said: "There's this funny stereotype of conceptual art — or a shadow that follows it around — that it's dry and boring and black-and-white and photocopied. It's just art about thinking."

"It's about learning,'' he added, "discovery, investigation, turning over rocks and seeing what's under them."

Mr. Gander — a conceptual artist whose works include a conveyer belt of random objects, blank cartoon strips and palettes he has used for individual paintings — recalled that as a student he sought out works by that generation of artists.

Conceptual art, he said, gave him a sense that "anything was possible," that "life was totally limitless" and "that I don't have to be able to make anything: I just have to be mentally agile."

The Tate exhibition has divided critics. Writing in the Financial Times, Rachel Spence described it as "ascetic, elegant and paced as unpredictably as a Bach cello suite rearranged by John Cage." She said that Mr. Wilson had "rendered palatable a momen t that can feel distinctly arid."

The Sunday Times's Waldemar Januszczak countered: "Sorry, but I came into art to see things, not to read them. When did enjoying art become confused with doing homework? Between 1964 and 1979 appears to be the answer."

Conceptual art emerged in the United States, Europe and Latin America in the 1960s. "The idea itself, even if it is not made visual, is as much of a work of art as any finished product," the early conceptualist Sol Le Witt wrote in a 1967 essay.

In Britain, conceptual art took the form of a revolt against the dominance of modernist painting and sculpture in the school curriculum — and against its champion, the American critic Clement Greenberg. At one poin t in the mid-1960s, a group of London artists and critics, led by a St. Martin's tutor, pointedly destroyed a library copy of Greenberg's book "Art & Culture." They tore the pages out, chewed them up and returned the (distilled) pulp to the library in a glass phial.

Rejecting the notion that art had to have a tangible and aesthetic form, conceptual artists argued that process was equally valid as an artistic statement. Richard Long's "A Line Made by Walking" (1967) is a photograph of a trace left in the grass by his footsteps. David Tremlett's "The Spring Recordings" (1972) is a neat row of 81 cassette recordings of rural sounds from each of Britain's 81 counties. Michael Craig-Martin's "An Oak Tree" (1973) is a glass of water on a wall-mounted shelf with an accompanying text, in which he tells a viewer of the work, "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."

This being Britain, puns and humor play a part. A 1971 work by the provocateur Keith Arnatt consists of 11 photographs of him trying to swallow 11 pieces of paper each marked with one of the words, "Eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words."

Susan Hiller, an American artist who moved to London in the early 1960s and never left, said: "Conceptual art opened up possibilities of making work that you could call art in completely nontraditional ways: You could walk, you could write, you could take a photograph. A million things you could do could all be art, and that was very, very new, and very radical."

Ms. Hiller is represented in the final room of the exhibition as part of a second wave of British conceptual artists. Her work, "Dedicated to the Unknown Artists" (1972-6), consists of 305 postcards of rough seas that she bought all over Britain, set in neat frames with a map of where they were bought.

As a woman artist and a foreig ner, Ms. Hiller said she was not exactly embraced at the time by the early conceptualists. "They were tough," she recalled. "They really believed in what they were doing, and thought anybody who wasn't doing it was beyond the pale."

Yet if not for them, she said, she might never have become an artist — other art movements of the time, such as Abstract Expressionism, were unappealing — and she would probably never have experimented with sound works early on.

"You didn't need to define yourself by medium anymore," Ms. Hiller recalled, because conceptual art was " democratizing the kinds of practices that could be considered art."

Correction: May 18, 2016

An earlier version of this article transposed the times in the first paragraph. The first entry of the itinerary was "Petrol Station on Route N20 to Orleans, 10 p.m.," not 10 a.m., and the other entry was "France/Andorra frontier, 10:00 a.m.," not 10 p.m.

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