Terry Atkinson was born in 1939 in the mining village of Turnscoe. He left in 1960 to attend the Slade Art School in London. In 1963 he formed a group called Fine Artz and then in 1968, he was one of the co-founders of the collaborative art group and leading force in conceptual art, Art & Language, centred at Coventry School of Art, where Atkinson taught between October 1966 and July 1973. In 1974, increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the group’s activities, Atkinson left Art & Language and has since worked independently. His work since the mid 1970s has nearly always used a relatively secure range of two-dimensional art objects (the Trotsky Postcards, Happysnap/Historysnap series, Stonetouchers, Irish Works, for example). By ‘secure’ here is meant a range of objects, the ontology of which is securely associated with art as art. His practice has consistently shifted in terms of the issues addressed. The ‘World War I’ works of the late 1970s raised some notion of history painting in the traditional guise of figurative imagery, which Atkinson was also to use through the early 1980s in a series of works dealing with the politics of the Cold War, as well as histories closer to home, especially that of Anglo-Irish relations. The conflict in Northern Ireland has been a recurrent theme in Atkinson’s work since, particularly with the Goya Series, which also marked a shift from the use of figurative imagery to the resources of modernist abstraction, a move that Atkinson made partially as a response to his characterisation as a ‘political artist’ at the time of his nomination for the Turner Prize in 1985.
After 1985, Atkinson’s practice became concerned with developing a less secure set of resources of expression, attempting to focus on the construction of artistic identity and subjectivity in a more argumentative way than those allowing such comforting career settlements as, say, painter or political artist, or even, artist. After the defeat of the Miners Strike in 1985, which confirmed an already substantial disenchantment with the Labour Party, Atkinson resolved to spend absolutely no time at all on political activism which, in turn, released huge chunks of time for further concentration on his practice. One of the primary luxuries of the access to these new chunks of time was that he was able to up his reading in philosophy of mind, cognitive science and Artificial Intelligence, interests that figured in pre and early art and Language concerns. The Grease Works (1987-93) were a first move from the increase, freed from this reading, being an attempt to mimic a hardware/software interface, running the grease as a software programme upon the hardware of conventional pictorial architecture (constructions). The Signature Works (1991-) were another move to distend the representation ‘artist’. Since parting with Art and Language in 1974, long periods of Atkinson’s practice have been, subsumed under the conventional resources of ‘the visual’. Since 1986, a concern with moves other than those which lead to the hegemony of ‘the visual’ have been an increasing presence in the conception of his work. Recently Atkinson has been making robots as an attempt to make a representer rather than a representation, especially a visual representation. The question of circumnavigating the limits of ‘the visual’ seems, currently, to be a priority in Atkinson’s work, or at least in some of it. From 1977 until 2002 Atkinson was Reader in Rhetorics and the Practices of Fine Art at the University of Leeds.
Atkinson’s work has been exhibited widely throughout Britain, Europe, Canada and the USA. He has had major solo shows at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1983, Gimpel Fils (1985-1991), Royal Leamington Spa, Art Gallery (2003), Leeds City Art gallery (2004) and Stampa Gallery in Basel. He has exhibited in group shows at Documenta 5 (1972), Museum of Modern Art in New York (1970), Venice Biennale (1984) and Irish Museum of Modern Art (1991). In 1985 he was nominated for the Turner Prize.
Atkinson has continued to write extensively, his published work ranges across the theoretical foundations of his practice as well as critical writings on the work of other artists. He has published numerous essays, in Art-Language between 1967-73, Studio International (1970-72), and in major contemporary art journals from the early 1970s to the present day.