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Post-object and conceptual art

by Christina Barton

Instead of creating objects out of clay, wood or stone, post-object artists assembled materials and staged events in carefully selected locations. Their aim was to make audiences think about ideas and experiences.


What is post-object art?

Post-object art was the term used in New Zealand, Australia and England from the late 1960s to describe art practices that extended sculpture into temporary, multi-part, mixed-media, largely ephemeral situations. Though the expression is still in use, it is best used to describe art works produced between 1969 and approximately 1985.

In New Zealand, key artists were Jim Allen, Billy Apple, Phil Dadson, Bruce Barber, Andrew Drummond and Darcy Lange.

Installations

Rather than make discrete objects out of traditional materials (stone, wood, clay, and so forth), installation artists assembled all manner of natural and manufactured objects, still and moving images, texts, sounds, movement, light and actual bodies. They staged these according to the specific character of the location. The resulting installations were designed to engage audiences both intellectually and through direct experience.

What post-object art is not

Post-object art is not a ‘style’ with specific formal or material attributes. By favouring ideas over objects, it is opposed to craft-based practices that are judged by aesthetic standards.

Making art meaningful

Influenced by the legacy of 20th-century French artist Marcel Duchamp, artists drew on philosophy, linguistics, cybernetics, the social sciences and political theory. The aim was to make art meaningful by using it to expand consciousness, critique society and better understand the nature of being. Shaped by the era’s counter-culture rebellion, post-object art can be linked more broadly to a crisis of confidence in art’s relevance and concern for its fate in a consumer society.

The post-object art network

In post-object art, local, visiting and expatriate artists were treated as equals in a dispersed network. This network was connected by technologies that enabled art to be shared easily, such as short-wave radio, print media, photography, film and video. At its most dematerialised, all that was needed to make an exhibition was the artist’s presence and a space to work with. After an exhibition all that survived were photographs that could easily be copied and disseminated.

National versus global

Post-object art did not fit the models of nationalist critics of the time, who favoured landscape and hard-edged realist painting as the definitive artistic achievement. In contrast, post-object art was international in its interests and reach. It was aligned with movements such as conceptual art, process art, land art, arte povera (an Italian modern art movement) and performance art, as they unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and Europe.


The rise of post-object art

The influence of art schools

Post-object art emerged from sculpture departments at the art schools in Auckland and Christchurch. Here, a new generation of artists were fostered by influential teachers such as Jim Allen, who taught sculpture at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts from 1960 to 1976, and Tom Taylor, lecturer in sculpture at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam School of Fine Arts between 1960 and 1991.

Jim Allen

Allen in particular has been recognised as an important catalyst, especially after an influential sabbatical to England, France, the United States and Mexico in 1968, a crucial year of student riots and social upheaval. He exposed students to new ideas and practices through his own example, by introducing new teaching methods and by bringing in visiting lecturers, including British artists Adrian Hall and Kieran Lyons.

Billy Apple

Billy Apple’s trips to New Zealand in 1975 and 1979–80 are good examples of the productive relationship between post-object artists and art gallery professionals. The New Zealand-born, New York-based artist worked in public and dealer galleries throughout the country. His series of ‘alterations’ and ‘subtractions’ that drew attention to and subtly altered aspects of the architecture and interior design of the spaces, relied heavily on the goodwill of directors, gallery owners and staff. The purpose of these works was to expose how the artist was embedded in social, political, cultural and economic systems.

Venues

Works by Allen, his students (including Bruce Barber, Phil Dadson, Kimberley Gray, Maree Horner, John Lethbridge, David Mealing, Leon Narbey and Roger Peters) and other post-object artists were presented at a wide array of venues. These included Auckland City Art Gallery, Barry Lett Galleries (one of the few dealer galleries willing to support such non-commercial activities), New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Manawatu Art Gallery in Palmerston North, the CSA Gallery in Christchurch and non-art spaces as various as the Epsom Showgrounds, Auckland’s west coast beaches and remote locations in the South Island.

National and international links

Regional alliances were perceived as especially meaningful, and post-object art was notable for fostering strong links between Australia and New Zealand. In the 1970s Jim Allen secured New Zealand artists’ involvement in the Mildura Sculpture Triennial and at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, both of which were important platforms for post-object art.

Later, Ian Hunter, an Irish-born artist and art gallery professional who spent 14 years in New Zealand, mostly in Wellington, between 1970 and 1984, played an important role in fostering post-object art in the capital (along with Nicholas Spill, Andrew Drummond, Barbara Strathdee and others) and deepening connections across the Tasman. He established alternative exhibiting structures suited to post-object art, such as the short-lived Artists’ Co-op (1977–79); the F1 Sculpture Project (1982), and most significantly, ANZART, a New Zealand-Australian artist event that was held in Christchurch (1981), Hobart (1983) and Auckland (1985).

Institutional support

While post-object artists were largely critical of public institutions and the commercial system, they were still dependent on and maintained relationships with a professional art world committed to the latest developments in high culture. For example, inaugural director John Maynard invited Leon Narbey to create a major sound/light/kinetic environment, ‘Real time’, for the opening exhibition of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth in 1970. The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand provided grants for New Zealand artists to establish an unofficial presence at the Biennale of Sydney in 1979, in response to the poor representation of New Zealand artists in the Biennale exhibition. Side F/X, as the New Zealand gathering was called, focused on performance and temporary installations, two key forms of post-object art.

Post post-object art

Post-object art has not yet been fully integrated into the story of New Zealand art. This is partly because of its physical impermanence and because of the dispersal of many of its key adherents after 1975 – Allen and Lethbridge to Australia, Barber to Canada, Narbey into film, Hunter back to the United Kingdom.

Documenting post-object art

In the absence of physical artefacts, much post-object art survived in written accounts. From 1970 Wystan Curnow became ‘house critic’ for the movement, providing first-hand chronicles of key artists, actions and events. With Jim Allen, Curnow edited New art: some recent New Zealand sculpture and post-object art (1976), the only book on New Zealand’s post-object art yet to be published. Curnow also played an important role in Billy Apple’s practice after 1979, providing the words for his text-based works and producing several critical accounts.


Revival of interest, 1990s to 2000s

Exhibitions

In the late 1990s interest in post-object art re-ignited. In 1998 Action Replay, Post-object Art (1998), a series of exhibitions curated by Robert Leonard (with Christina Barton, Wystan Curnow and John Hurrell), was staged at Artspace Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. It was the first major attempt to re-present post-object art. This was followed by an exhibition and conference organised by Jennifer Hay and Andrew Drummond, Intervention: Post Object and Performance Art in New Zealand in 1970 and Beyond, in Christchurch in 2000.

Australian art historian Terry Smith included Jim Allen, Billy Apple, and Phil Dadson in his account of conceptual art in Australia and New Zealand for the international exhibition Global Conceptualisms: Points of Origin 1950s–1980s (Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999). This was the first effort to understand post-object art as part of a global phenomenon.

A number of exhibitions with accompanying catalogues on important artists – Billy Apple, Jim Allen, Pauline Rhodes, Bruce Barber, Andrew Drummond, Di ffrench and Darcy Lange – were mounted.

Art artefacts

Although few examples of post-object art have survived, there is a rich archive of photographs, films, slides, videotapes, documents, drawings and other ephemeral by-products. Key repositories of these are Open Drawer, the post-object archive at the University of Auckland, the E. H. McCormick Research Library at Auckland Art Gallery, Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. These resources, together with the personal archives of artists, are important means by which to assess post-object art’s legacy.

Gallery acquisitions

With the notable exception of Jim Allen’s ‘New Zealand environment no. 5’, purchased by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1970, few examples of post-object art were acquired by museums in the 1970s. However, this changed from the 1990s. Peter Roche and Linda Buis’s 1980 performance ‘Museum piece’ and Jim Allen’s ‘Small worlds’ (1969) were acquired in 1994 and 2011 respectively by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. A reconstruction of Maree Horner’s ‘Diving board’ (1974/98) entered the collection of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1998, and works from Adrian Hall’s 1971 exhibition Plasma Cast Iron Foam Company Presents Adrian Reginald Hall were acquired by Auckland Art Gallery in 2013.

Younger artists and curators

Post-object art also lived on in the revisionist activities of younger artists. Daniel Malone and Emma Bugden, for example, respectively remade works by Billy Apple and Andrew Drummond. Other emerging artists recalled the strategies and concerns of the 1960s and 1970s as they grappled with new social, political, and economic conditions.

A new generation of curators integrated first-generation post-object artists into their exhibitions. For example, Laura Preston included Bruce Barber in After the Situation: Moment Making (Artspace, 2007), Charlotte Huddleston invited Jim Allen to contribute to her performance series Mostly Harmless (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2006), and Melanie Oliver involved David Mealing in her Wellington exhibition Every Now, & Then (Enjoy Public Art Gallery, 2006).

New venues and audiences

In the 2000s institutions such as Artspace in Auckland, Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington, The Physics Room and its predecessor, South Island Art Projects (SIAP) in Christchurch and Blue Oyster Gallery in Dunedin fostered temporary projects that could be linked to post-object precedents. So did often short-lived artist-run spaces (from Teststrip in Auckland to The Honeymoon Suite in Dunedin) and large-scale temporary events like Christchurch’s Scape Biennial of Art in Public Space and the Auckland Triennial. Slowly a market emerged for historical examples of post-object art, and institutions began attending to their previous omissions.

Retrospective analysis

Post-object art has been included in two alternative histories of New Zealand art. The Aotearoa digital arts reader (2008), a compendium of commissioned essays, identified post-object art as both a precedent for and an instance of artists’ utilisation of new media. And the exhibition Peripheral Relations: Marcel Duchamp and New Zealand Art 1960–2012 (Adam Art Gallery, 2012) described a critical tradition of which post-object art was a key early moment.

Conceptual art

Since 2000 post-object art has been re-designated ‘conceptual art’ or ‘conceptualism’. These terms are now favoured as they have global currency, and allow post-object art to be located within a trajectory that connects art of the 1960s and the 1970s to present-day practices.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources


How to cite this page: Christina Barton, 'Post-object and conceptual art', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/post-object-and-conceptual-art/print (accessed 13 November 2019)

Story by Christina Barton, published 22 Oct 2014