Review of Keith Arnatt, Absence of the Artist at Sprüth Magers Gallery, London

In 1971 Keith Arnatt proposed “Art as an Act of Omission”. Comprising a single panel text document, in which Arnatt quotes philosopher Eric D’Arcy’s book Human Acts – An Essay in their Moral Evaluation (1963), “Art as an Act of Omission” states that, “A person is said to have omitted X if, and only if (1) he did not do X, and (2) X was in some way expected of him.”

Absence of the Artist, at Spruth Magers, London, is an exploration of that idea, featuring work by Keith Arnatt made between 1967 and 1972. Although “Art as an Act of Omission” itself is not included in this exhibition, its sentiment is reflected in each of the works on display here. The period covered by Absence of the Artist demonstrates Arnatt’s initial alignment with the Conceptual Art movement of the mid to late 1960s and his subsequent distancing of himself from it, as his idiosyncratic sense of humour found its way, increasingly, into his art. Looking at many of these works now, it is no great leap to consider them as the product of a satirist with insider knowledge.

In the first gallery an LED display unit counts down from 2188800 to zero. Its title, An Exhibition of the Duration of the Exhibition (1969) informs us that this number represents the duration of the show measured out in seconds; when the display shows 0000000 the exhibition is over. Earth Plug (1967), Mirror-lined pit (earth bottom/grass bottom), and Mirror-plug (both 1968) all show the land, be it earth or turf, disrupted in some way. For Earth Plug Arnatt excavated and then returned materials to their original positions, albeit inside a length of plastic tubing. Mirror-plug, together with both of his mirror-lined pits, feature genuine removal and absence, as well as illusion. A section of earth has been excavated and replaced with a mirror-lined case, offering great confusion to anyone encountering it or its image. From certain angles it appears that nothing at all has occurred – and it is this nothing having occurred that takes precedence in the later works presented here: in the mirror-lined pits this absence of work was an effect created with mirrors, while in later works Arnatt’s focus shifted to the very idea of doing nothing.

For the artist to do nothing he must first absent himself, and Arnatt did just that with Self-Burial (1969), his series of nine photographs of himself being progressively lowered, in a standing position, into the earth. Arnatt’s work during this period, although implying his absence, remains unmistakeably the work of Keith Arnatt, marked as it is with his wit and brevity. Self-Burial with Mirror (1969) is a single image of the artist buried up to his neck, so that the camera captures only the back of his head, and his face (in a mirror mounted on the floor in front of him) which bears a look somewhere between absolute expressionlessness and mournful sadness. With Artist’s Piss (1970), in which he has urinated against a wall and photographed the resulting trace as it streams onto the pavement, Arnatt uses the derisory connotations of urination to mock the Conceptual Art movement and his own part in it. While doing so, however, he is gradually removing his hand from the work – seemingly reversing the work begun in the previous century by pioneering modernists like Rodin, whose sculpture bore his thumbprint, and early Modernist painters whose portraiture often included the artist themselves. Arnatt, edging closer to the concept of the artist neither being present in his work, nor having done any “work” at all, is approaching a kind of purity of idea as art.

In 1970 Arnatt vacated the work altogether when he made Is it Possible to do Nothing as my Contribution to This Exhibition? Constituting two large panels of text, in which Arnatt discusses with himself the concept proposed in its title, Is it Possible… perhaps best represents the rigour with which he approached his work. This piece could only have been less about the artist had he rendered the text in the third, rather than first person.

Conceptual artists regularly present photography as evidence or documentation of an act having occurred. It is an important distinction with Keith Arnatt that the photograph is the work. Indeed, soon after the period covered by this exhibition, Arnatt began referring to himself as a photographer, rather than an artist. Perhaps with his singular approach and borderline self-parody he had painted himself into a corner. During the period covered by this exhibition Arnatt executed an exemplary exit from the sub-genre he had created for himself, but his conceptual bent never left him, and while The Absence of the Artist is a fine introduction to the work of a serious, and seriously funny, conceptual artist, some of his later photo series – Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-7) and Notes from Jo (1991-4) in particular – should also be explored by anyone interested in his work.

Trevor H Smith.

Keith Arnatt, Absence of the Artist showed at Sprüth Magers, London, 1 -26 September 2015. For more information, visit

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1. Keith Arnatt, Mirror-plug, 1968. Mirror-glass, wood, wire, aggregate. Dimensions variable. © Keith Arnatt Estate. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers.