Conceptual Art in Britain: Room 1

In the mid-1960s fixed definitions for art and the relative roles of the artist and audience, were all being challenged. Was art something rarefied, afforded a privileged position and so set apart from the world, or was it something that acted within the world?

At this time modernism held sway, but its forms and definitions were increasingly contested. Young artists, frustrated by current teaching in art schools, employed a range of strategies to challenge the dominance of modernist sculpture and painting as defined by Clement Greenberg in his influential book Art and Culture 1961. Unlike modernist art’s fixed compositions and separation from external reference, works by these artists were propositional, and used unstable materials. Artworks were ordered, not by space or volume, but by time. Placing and context for the artwork were seen as key issues for some artists. The art object was to be seen not as separated from a given environment or a wider society, but as a model or even a trigger for social and political engagement.

The critical responses to modernist art that can be recognised in conceptual art broadly followed two paths, in terms of a dissolution of sculptural form, or an introduction of textual language into painting. Reading rather than looking suggested a new form of self-criticism for art.