Art & Language is a group of conceptual artists formed in the 1960s aimed to challenge artistic purpose and intent. The group uses language as a tool to alter the way the viewer perceives a work of art. The mere visual aspect of the art serves only partial to the complete experience; only with language can the viewer understand the piece. Art & Language is "determined by a sense of the need, critically and contingently, to address the culture of Modernism, and the agency which that culture is, and reflects, and misrepresents ... "
In other words, Art & Language served originally to prove (or disprove) the legitimacy of conceptual artists and their work. They encourage dissent and criticism of popular work, promoting that "Modern" art must first prove itself noteworthy and should not just be blindly accepted. Often labeled as "radical," this group really pushes concept to its furthest reaches.
I was not able to find a great database of information on this group, so much of the biographical content is sourced from the Tate. But to summarize, the group started off in 1968 as four British artists: Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Harold Hurrell, and Michael Baldwin. Their focus was to shift art into theory and concept, so that art pieces (namely paintings and drawings) could no longer just stand alone as an image. The group quickly integrated new members, so that by the early 80s more than fifty artists were associated with Art & Language. As the Tate notes:
[Art & Language] identified three main phases of the group – the early years, up to 1972, which chiefly found public expression in the publication Art Language; a middle period divided between New York and England and linked to the publication of the journal The Fox (discontinued in 1976); [and] the period since 1977, during which paintings have been produced.
The group is now primarily known by two artists (Michael Baldwin, Mel Ramsden) and one critic (Charles Harrison). They are still producing work, and remain a controversial element of the contemporary art world.
"Portrait of V. I. Lenin with Cap in the Style of Jackson Pollock"
"Picasso's Guernica in the Style of Jackson Pollock"
The Artbook brings to light one of a series of pieces by Art & Language "in the style of Jackson Pollock." After reading reviews and criticsm of and by the group, it is my understanding that the intent of this piece is to call forth the coming trend of "expressiveness." In their words: "by replicating the style of Pollock, the artists were calling attention to the issue of ‘expression and expressiveness.' Harrison has suggested that Pollock's work of 1947-50 had ‘exhausted the potential for an expressive, unselfconscious art, ... Expression somehow became culture, became cultured and emasculated. That emasculation was a part of what Art & Language was trying to represent as a determining condition. The fixing of an expressive content needed to be taken away from the ‘authoritative aesthetic spokesman, ... what a painting expresses or means must be a function of what it is made of and from, culturally, socially, technically, historically, psychologically and morally, independently of the mind of the spectator ...' "
I do not believe they are necessarily debasing Pollock's work, but instead challenge the progression of ideas immediately following in which uninhibited expression was filtered into an accepted practice of modern art. That is to say that this type of expression in painting was normalized to the extent that it lost it's original intention, and that the mutation of expression into a style, "expressiveness," caused the importance of Pollock's work to dwindle rapidly. In this piece, Art & Language brings back the idea of purpose and meaning behind abstraction. Also, they are in a way dethroning Pollock from his authoritative role as creator, and returning the piece to the hands of a greater, superior force. Not the viewer, as Harrison notes, but instead, time. To be simultaneously of its time and ahead of its time, that is the true mission of a great piece of art.
Below exhibits the diversity of work of the artists involved in Art & Language.
"Homes from Homes II"
The following piece was a part of a collaboration done with the band Red Crayola.
"A Rose Has No Teeth," a play on a Wittgenstein passage
Conceptually, Art & Language can be quite difficult to grasp. Also working on limited resources (internet searches as well as library searches did not provide for much), I feel that I've fallen short somewhat of the true conquest of Art & Language. In the future as I uncover more resources, I hope to flesh out this entry a bit more and provide a clear view of what the group is trying to do, as well as more images. If you're interested in a more detailed biography, check out the Tate full text review on Art & Language. You might run into the same issues in that entry as in this- lack of clarification. I think it is safe to say that with the extent of conceptualization drafted by these artists, few reviews are black and white. The Frieze Magazine also had a pretty good article on Art & Language, though after reading it I still retained a certain level of incoherence of the altogether message and point.
It is my hope that as I continue as an artist and art historian that I will too discover and understand the pioneering of Art & Language, for art is an ongoing dialogue between self and surrounding, surrounding and self, and in order to truly produce relevant, groundbreaking art, one must constantly be concerned with this process of reflection and re-reflection.
"The original commitment of Art & Language to the view that visual art is conceptually dependent on language had entailed the pursuit of a long critical and analytical project." To be continued...