High concept: Keith Arnatt's 'Absence of the Artist' at Sprüth Magers

Wit and whimsy in spades
The late British artist and photographer Keith Arnatt had wit and whimsy in spades, but his embrace of photography means that he has been, to a large degree, written out of the history of conceptual art. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers
(Image credit: Stephen White)

Early conceptual art is surprisingly rich in wit and whimsy, and the late British artist and photographer Keith Arnatt (opens in new tab) had both in spades, quite literally. One of his key works – and part of a new show at Sprüth Magers’ Mayfair branch – is Self-Burial from 1969, a series of nine photographs of Arnatt slowly sinking into the ground. (A German television station showed the piece in sequence twice a day in October that year and it generated a cult following.)

Arnatt, who died in 2008, is probably best known these days for his pictures of the 18 Post-it notes left on the fridge of their Welsh home by his wife Jo – ‘WHERE ARE MY WELLINGTONS, YOU STUPID FART?’, for example. (Jo was suffering from a brain a tumour at the time and Arnatt cared for her until her death in 1996, adding an unbearable emotional charge to the shots, collected in Notes from My Wife.) As a photographer, of dog walkers and their dogs and rotting waste lit like a Renaissance master, he was a key influence on Martin Parr and others. But this new show, ‘Absence of the Artist', concentrates on Arnatt’s work between 1967–72, before he had fully committed to photography and was producing pioneering land art with a conceptual twist as well as more urban interventions.

Mirror-lined pit, 1968, is pretty much as described; an invisible (present but absent) hole or a buried box of strange presences, depending on the time of the day. Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self , 1969–72, is a temporary-but-more-permanent-than-usual silhouette on the pavement. Arnatt’s work seems at once peculiarly British but also aligned with the conceptualists’ wider questioning of art’s purpose and methods – in that he was deadly serious – and the American deadpan of John Baldessari and other masters of words and pictures. Arnatt’s embrace of photography means that he has been, to a large degree, written out of the history of conceptual art. This show should help to write him back in.

The Artist

'Keith Arnatt: Absence of the Artist', a new retrospective on show at Sprüth Magers, should help write him back in. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Stephen White)

The ground

Self-Burial – one of his key works, from 1969 – is a series of nine photographs of Arnatt slowly sinking into the ground (left).Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Stephen White)

The show concentrates on Arnatt’s work

The show concentrates on Arnatt’s work between 1967–72, before he had fully committed to photography and was producing pioneering land art with a conceptual twist, as well as more urban interventions.Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Stephen White.)

The Mirror-plug

Arnatt’s work seems at once peculiarly British but also aligned with the conceptualists’ wider questioning of art’s purpose and methods – in that he was deadly serious. Pictured: an iteration of the Mirror-plug. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Stephen White)

The Mirror

Self-Burial with Mirror, 1969. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt Estate)

My own shadow

Mirror-lined pit. An invisible hole revealed by my own shadow, 1968. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt Estate)

The Artist as a Shadow

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, 1969–72.. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt Estate)

earth bottom

Mirror-lined pit (earth bottom), 1968 (first executed June 1969).  All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt Estate)

The Artist

The Absence of the Artist, 1968. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt Estate)

Instruction for Grass

Instruction for Grass under Grass under Grass, June 1969, published in Interfunktionen 4, Cologne 1970. Courtesy Keith Arnatt Estate and Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt )

Instruction for Mirror Plug

Instruction for Mirror Plug, 1968, published in Interfunktionen 4, Cologne 1970. Courtesy Keith Arnatt Estate and Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt )

Instruction for Earth Plug

Instruction for Earth Plug, 1967, published in Interfunktionen 4, Cologne 1970. Courtesy Keith Arnatt Estate and Sprüth Magers

(Image credit: Keith Arnatt )