Run a mile from conceptual art

Run a mile from conceptual art.

That’s what I decided a long time ago, when it first appeared in galleries either side of 1970. At the ICA in 1969, and then the Tate in 1972. Shortly afterwards (1973-5) I was commissioning editor for art and architecture at Penguin Books, and maybe I do remember the ICA exhibition, but more out of frustration. Too damned intangible. I was used to artefacts – I loved Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and especially Anthony Caro – out there, forcing a response – the form demanding a  response, and the ideas behind the form likewise. Richard Hamilton and David Hockney were flexing their muscles, tangible, colourful. Bridget Riley dazzled me.

And then there was conceptual art.

Curiously, those post 1968 years seem in retrospect little drab. (I’d self-defined myself as a hippy, and maybe it was always going to be downhill when that world fell apart.) I’ve some memories in vivid colour, and we walked on the moon in 1969 (via TV screens), and experimental art was everywhere, but the first flush had passed, it was getting more self-referential, and fashion and contrivance and posturing were beginning to characterise art and music. Rebelling against the last lot of rebels, even before they’d stopped being rebels. And I think I got a little bored.

But all that said, conceptual art intrigues me. I run a mile, but then I stop, retrace my steps and ask myself – what was that I didn’t see? ….

Art which puts ideas before actuality. Ideas are full of possibilities, they may be realised or they may not be realised. In the Tate exhibition there’s a half-full glass of water half way up the wall: it’s an oak tree argues Michael Craig-Martin, and in the interview that’s produced nearby he explains why. The idea before the form, and the idea has the potential to be – anything.

Keith Arnatt is actually eating his words, written on slips of paper, as revealed in a series of photos. But does he actually eat them? The idea, the process is there, in front of us, but the paper is still there. He disappears into the ground feet first in another series of photos, so the subject, if the subject is himself, is no longer there. I like Keith Arnatt.

Likewise Richard Long, walking up and down to make his own path through the grass. Marking out on a map his own walks on Dartmoor, then removing the underlying map but not his marked paths. Walking every path is a defined area of maybe ten miles within one county – I forget which, but it makes for an intriguing pattern. He’s also out in the fresh air. That helps.

But they were into philosophy and linguistics, or some of them (not least Victor Burgin), and they had a wonderfully obsessive journal which ran for four years, Art-Language, and the language is self-referentially repetitively obscure, and it continues for pages. Parody, and self-parody, but – walls of closely printed words that challenge the eyesight, and cabinets of the same – well, God help us all.

And nearby, a mirror, encouraging us to look beyond ourselves, and a black painting, painted over ten times in black, so it’s ten paintings in one – but we have to be told it’s ten paintings. There’s a pile of oranges (take one) and a dimpled do-not-touch heap of sand – full of significance.

There were video and performances and sound games at the time, not here though, and I remember the few I encountered with a bit of a shudder. They didn’t carry their justifications lightly. The Guardian reviewer uses the word hilarious and crazy referring to a conceptual art retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2000: maybe a few are in retrospect, gathered together, but appearing in a drib here and a drab there they didn’t seem that way at the time.

Gilbert and George appear, in a glass case: they weren’t officially part of the conceptual art movement.

So too pages from Studio International magazine, where Charles Harrison, curator of the ICA exhibition and much else, was deputy editor. Charles edited a book on 20th century English art for me at Penguin – I think it’s still in print. He was a good guy to talk to. The other art historians I met at the time were in the great and good category, and Charles was unkempt, straightforward and down-to-earth. And I think (!) he loved it all.

On the positive side, near the end of the exhibition, and near the end of its lifespan as a ‘movement’, it gets more political. I think they’d thought of conceptual art as a rebellion against of art as object, art out there, art as something unto itself – I think they’d thought art by getting away from often-expensive artefacts and connecting with ideas would somehow become art for the ordinary man and woman. Instead it became a clever game, and out of it came some clever and memorable images, as with Keith Arnatt, but it didn’t connect.

A series of photographs either side of 1972 depict the troubles in Northern Ireland, with equal treatment for Catholics, Protestants – and the army. There’s Homeworkers, a collage which gives visual form to the low wages and exploitation of people all but obliged by companies to  work from home. And above all Twin Towers and the focus in a related work on how an elderly lady, an elderly widow, infirm and hardly able to walk, survives in a tower block, and the accommodations she must make. This for me is art for any time – and art for our own time. Drab and serious and low on aesthetic value, but art that graphically brings home what deprivation and disability can be like.

It’s true of most art, most art movements: endless experiments, wrong directions and wrong turnings, but just a few artworks break though, define the way we look at things. Harder when by definition they don’t want to be visual, they want to do away with all points of reference – take it off the wall, or the floor, and dump it – I was going to say firmly, but tenuously would be better – in your head.

Some artworks do deserve to survive.  But – in the end – this exhibition hovers on the edge of boredom. And maybe that’s not the curator’s fault.

The New Tate Modern opens

Why a post on the New Tate Modern? (It opens this weekend – I went to a preview.) In a Zenpolitics blog?

In one sentence. The New Tate Modern is international, diverse, a little bit crazy, inclusive, outward-looking, subverting, fun – and free.

The Tate is a big big institution, and has its downsides. Not least that it’s tied in with the international art market, and its absurdities and over-valuations. But at a time when we’re busy looking inward and being nostalgic for an old order it’s great to see London flying the flag for a different more positive, more optimistic take on the world.

**

The entrance is round the back. Not where I expect. Up a broad flight of stairs, to the second floor…

Tony Cragg’s Stack – a stack of material from everyday life-  instantly catches the eye. Its crushed content intrigues. Louise Bourgeois’s vitrines enclose a private tactile world, with connections to her own and other lives, and her paintings lining the walls are bright ribbons of colour.

Helio Oiticica’s reconstruction of a Rio de Janeiro favela (without the macaws on the day I was there) is colourful and curiously quaint. Ana Lupas’s wreaths began as straw, inspired by the Romanian countryside, they’re now encased in metal, and there’s a photographic record around the walls: it’s a 50-year project, and age gives it resonance.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the new Switch House is impressive. They need space, space so we can walk around exhibits, as in the case of Tony Cragg’s stack, or Louise Bourgeois’ spider, or simply because of their size, or because they need room to breathe. Few galleries on earth have this amount of space, and none in big cities, unless MOMA in New York has something planned. Normally in galleries you hug the walls. But the Switch House is not about painting or specifically wall-hung art. Walls are just one mode of presentation. Roni Horn’s block of pink glass sits in the middle of the floor, a line drawn discreetly around it. It may be visual but it seems it’s not intended to be tactile. Carl Andre’s bricks re-appear, and Rachel Whiteread has the underside of a wooden floor – the underside.

Where it gets more claustrophobic is one floor up, the space is called “Performer and Participant’. Tropicalia greets you immediately, and Ana Lupas. Women and Work is a collective exhibit examining just that – women and work. They intrigue. They ask questions. They subvert our ordinary ways of looking at things. They’re out of context – they create new contexts. Tropicalia includes simple evocative poems, wall-hung, and Women and Work displays the daily working life schedules of a number of very ordinary men and women.

The question is – where does this take us? To Brazil, to Romania… But does it really take us somewhere different, somewhere unusual, does it help us question our lives or environment? Is it just easy gratification, fun spaces, history lessons? Conceptual art does of course have a conceptual base, and often that’s one simple idea painstakingly worked out, sometimes over decades. It is art as project, rather than art as aesthetics.

There haven’t as yet been many reviews of the New Tate Modern. One, in the FT, is lyrical. It’s a game-changer – ‘the most cohesive narrative in any public institution so far of the paradigm shift since the 1960s, when minimalists, conceptualists and performance artists ditched expressiveness and set out to move audiences physically rather than emotionally.’ That is quite a statement.  ‘Move audiences physically rather than emotionally.’ And she, the reviewer (Jackie Wullschlager), is right – there is little emotion here in the New Tate Modern. A tinge of fear in a room full of Louise Bourgeois items, though the little boy sitting under the spider and having his photograph taken rather softened any apprehension we might feel! Bourgeois’ colourful ribbon paintings also elicit an emotional response. And that’s one reason maybe why she stands out. She’d been around too long: she subverted this divide between the emotional and the physical.

But otherwise – we walk through, we enquire, we even stand inside an exhibit, we have our notions of space and colour and presence challenged.

And it’s mostly a pleasant experience. Oak floors as yet unstained by use, and natural lighting often complementing the gallery lights.  From the bridge (between the Boiler House, the old Tate Modern, and the Switch House, the new) you can look down on Al Weiwei’s skeleton tree, and it has an eerie presence.

But emotion is limited to frissons of disturbance. Pleasure as a response to be encouraged is disavowed. And so too is art as an aesthetic experience. It depends on how we define aesthetics of course. But if the definition is ‘relating to pure beauty rather than to other considerations’, then it’s certainly not about aesthetics.

But then is art – should art be – about aesthetics? Once upon a time it was, but that definition has been smashed and subverted. Art is now best defined as an original and challenging interpretation of our environment – making the ordinary extraordinary – undermining conventional approaches – playing a little but not too much with the psyche – getting into our minds. And by and large we’re OK with that. We enjoy this different take on the world. And if we want aesthetics we can go to the Tate Britain. Or to displays from earlier 20th century periods in the other Boiler House section of the Tate Modern. There’s beauty, even spiritual content, in Mark Rothko. Max Ernst and Salvador Dali are pleasing on the eye as well as searching out a deeper response. Picasso transforms the vision of Cezanne: it’s a radical but still an aesthetic response.

The FT review quotes Richard Morphet as saying in 1976 that  ‘Carl Andre’s [bricks[ will in time be generally accepted as among the most important art of its period’. In a sense he’s right. That sensibility, or intentional lack of sensibility, has established itself. Nicholas Serota has championed it, and his vision has won through. Whether I’m on side with it – I keep an open mind. But am I intrigued? Do I want to visit the Tate Modern? Am I moved to write about it all? Yes, I clearly am. And that speaks volumes.

One final point, back to the FT article. The New Tate Modern as a ‘game-changer’. ‘For an economically divided London it is a huge, important statement about inclusiveness and connectivity. In a cultural climate threatened by the nostalgic insularity of Brexit, it displays art radically, putting geography [artists are drawn from across the world – this is no best of British display – no kowtowing to Britart] before history, space before time.’

And, as she says, in a world of wildly inflated values  – it’s free.

It’s also fun. You’re free to enthuse or disdain. We walk through quietly but we’re not constrained by hush. And you can take photos. There is nothing precious here.

So almost three cheers. And oh yes – there’s the view London 360 degree from the top…