Keith Arnatt liked to photograph things “everyone else thinks aren’t worth photographing”. These included discarded toys, dog poo, detritus from rubbish tips and the various notes his wife, Jo, left around the house for him.
Seven years after his death in 2008, Arnatt remains a singular – and bafflingly undervalued – presence in British art. A small but illuminating show at Sprüth Magers in London, called Absence of the Artist, provides a glimpse of Arnatt’s early use of a medium he would later embrace with the obsessive devotion of the convert. It is a survey of Keith Arnatt, the pioneering conceptual artist, before he became Keith Arnatt, the pioneering photographer.
Arnatt had already made a name for himself as a mischievous artist when he went to a lecture in 1973 entitled Photography or Art? by David Hurn, who had just set up the photography department at Newport College of Art, in south Wales. “When the lecture was over,” Hurn later wrote, “a man came over and introduced himself, saying ‘I’m Keith Arnatt. Would you help me become a photographer?’”
Intriguingly, Arnatt had already been using photography in his art practice, making extended pieces like Self-Burial, on display here, which comprises nine images of him slowly disappearing into the earth. Inspired by Hurn’s lecture on the work of Diane Arbus, August Sander and Walker Evans, Arnatt suddenly embraced photography by “mucking in with the students”. As he immersed himself in the history of photography, he started making work that was all his own: odd, slyly humorous and provocative takes on the everyday that were both acutely observational and absurd.
Keith Arnatt, from the sequence Self-Burial, 1969. Photograph: Courtesy Sprüth Magers/© Keith Arnatt Estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2015
The exhibition is at
SEPTEMBER 01 – SEPTEMBER 26 2015 Opening hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm
The SM website says The Absence of the Artist betrays the artist’s deadpan wit, wholly characteristic of Arnatt’s response to the various conflicts stimulating the art world throughout the late 1960s. The viewer is presented with a paradox: a sign, posted on a brick wall and photographed in black and white, declares the absence of the artist. Yet by denying his absence, he thrusts himself forward, seemingly emphasising the artist’s role. The Absence of the Artist highlights a fierce ambivalence about the artist’s role that was prevalent at the time. As more sceptical, pluralist ideas about art were starting to replace modernism – and its pantheon of great artists – the role of the artist was subjected to constant investigation. What divides the artist from his work or the ideas that it might produce? Do we even need the actions of an artist to declare something an artwork?
Read more from The Guardian and Sean O’Hagen here