London is shortly to play host to a major Lichtenstein show at the Tate Modern and a two shows involving Rauschenberg - at the Barbican and the Gargossian Gallery. The big L is a hardcore quintessential Pop Artist; the Big R is too messy for that. He and his colleagues stepped out from under the dark shadows of Abstract Expressionism and started playing with objects and techniques and a new sensibility. They pre-figured Pop and opened up possibilities. The Barbican show sounds cool.
Exploring one of the most important chapters in the history of contemporary art, The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns focuses on Marcel Duchamp’s American legacy, tracing his relationship to four great modern masters – composer, John Cage, choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
Encountering Duchamp and his work in the early stages of their careers, each of the younger artists embraced key elements of his ideas and practice, resulting in a seismic shift in the direction of art in the 1950s and ‘60s. Characterised by the integration of art and life, the work of Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns heralded the advent of Pop Art.
The Bride and the Bachelors features around 90 works, some by Rauschenberg and Johns are being shown in the UK for the first time. The selection reflects the artists’ multiple levels of engagement across the disciplines of art, dance, and music.
The Gargossian show ‘Jammers’ features work mainly made in fabric.
There’s a great piece about both shows by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian Review. See also review by Judith Mackrell and LA TImes piece on Cunnigham and Cage.
The Generalist is becoming more than a little interested in the Pop Art movement and related scenes of the ‘50s and ‘60s. for reasons that I will try to explain in this long digression.
Back in mid-2011 I had been working on a presentation for a book entitled ‘A Graphic History of the ‘60s’ (which never took off) but one of the spreads was an attempt to ‘map’ in graphic form the Pop Art movement. It was very complicated.
Shortly afterwards one of the most important British Pop artists died and I wrote the post Richard Hamilton & Pop Art. It explains that Pop Art as a concept came from the Independent Group (1952-1955). John Russell (see below) writes:
‘The members of the Independent Group had grown up at a time when it was about as easy to see a new copy of Life magazine as it was to see a First Folio at W.H.Smith’s. Even those who were there at the time have forgotten how limited were supplies of literally everything: food, books, magazines, pictures, air tickets, foreign currency.’
In December 2011, a brilliant and ground-breaking study of Pop Art - The First Pop Age by Hal Foster - was published and I wrote this long review.
Then in September 2012 I reviewed ‘What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art’ by Will Gompertz, a fast-paced broad-brushstroke romp through the isms of art history. These kind of ‘official narrative’ histories have always bothered me. I tried to be fair to the book and its intentions but grinding away in the background was the feeling that somehow these versions of what happened are very, very wrong and exclude some of the most important figures who were marginalised because they maybe didn’t want to play the art game.
This topic was addressed in ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism’ by James C. Scott which I reviewed last month. In a chapter called ‘Particularity and Flux’ he writes:
‘The job of most history and social science is to summarize, codify and otherwise “package” important social science movements and major historical events, to make them legible and understandable. Given this objective and the fact that the events they are seeking to illuminate have already happened, it is hardly surprising that [they] should typically give short shrift to the confusion, flux and tumultuous contingency experienced by the historical actors…’
‘Once a significant historical event is codified, it travels as a sort of condensation symbol and, unless we are very careful, takes on a false logic and order that does a grave injustice to how it was experienced at the time.’
The birth of Pop Art is a particularly interesting case in point. Its contemporaneous with the Beat movement and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and ‘pop music’.
The real trigger for this Post was finding this slightly flyblown copy of ‘Pop Art Redefined’ by John Russell & Suzi Gablik [Thames & Hudson], which I bought for £3.00. Its a real find being as it is a catalogue of the show the two authors curated at the Hayward Gallery in London from 9th July-3rd September 1969 plus a whole host of papers, essays, interviews and other material mainly by the artists concerned.
The Hayward had only opened the previous year. 1968 was also the last time that the Tate held a major Lichtenstein show. In her intro, Gablik writes that ‘the work of most American Pop artists has hardly been seen in London and is virtually unknown to the general English public.’
The only commercial gallery exhibiting Pop Art in London at that time was owned by the art dealer Robert Fraser.
So why should their show be called ‘Pop Art Redefined.’ Firstly because of its media image. Gablik writes:
‘Pop Art has been handicapped with a freakish and flamboyant history, partly as a result of mishandling in the public media, so that nearly everyone, including the artists, now responds to it with ambivalence. Certain critics still exclude it from serious consideration, and a proportion of the public think it is some sort of joke.’
Their second aim was to ‘re-define Pop Art as having a more direct relation to Minimal and Hard-edged abstract art than is frequently admitted,’
Richard Hamilton: ‘Epiphany’ (1964)
This extract from Gablik’s Introduction gives a real insight into the impact of mass communications and the new electronic culture. Remember this was written in 1969.
‘We approach a time, Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, when the total human situation must be considered as a work of art.
The explosion of the advertising and communications industry, and the speed with which images and information now travel through media channels, have resulted in a much broader awareness and a more extended involvement in our total environment.
What this means is that it is now possible to know at once everything that is happening in the world, so that experience is all-inclusive and occurs on many simultaneous levels.
For the artist, the implications are that art, too, can no longer restrict its operations. The new media necessitate a restructuring of our thoughts and feelings; they require new habits of attention with the ability to move in all directions and dimensions simultaneously.
Since art, like life, must extend its boundaries to deal with changes in the environment, the major issues no longer hinge upon the creation of enduring masterpieces as the unique and solid repositories for human energy. The new problems for art concern the constant redefinition of its boundaries, and a more process-oriented distribution of energy.
Relativity and quantum mechanics have effected the shift from a timeless, Euclidean world in which all is precise, determinate and invariable, to a non-static universe where everything is relative, changing and in process. Changes in the way that we live in the world cause changes in the way we do our work, as well as changes in what work we do.
Before the electronic age the various channels of information - painting, music, literature - were held in balance and did not infringe upon each other very much.
Mass communication, television in particular, appropriates relentlessly from all other media: films, literature, graphic design, theatre, events. It acts as a great leveller, while also providing techniques for combining many separate frames of reference. As a result, widely separated experiences are being brought under one comprehensive and simultaneous formula.’
Peter Blake: ‘Got A Girl’ (1960-61)
John Russell’s Introduction has some interesting things to say about the difference between the English and American Pop Art movements.
On the English side, and for many though not all of its participants, Pop was a resistance movement: a classless commando which was directed against the Establishment in general and the art-Establishment in particular. It was against the old-style museum-man, the old-style critic, the old-style dealer and the old-style collector. (Banham later described its success as 'the revenge of the elementary schoolboys'.) Much of the English art-world at that time was distinctly and unforgivably paternalistic.
Pop was meant as a cultural break, signifying the firing squad, without mercy or reprieve, for the kind of people who believed in the Loeb classics, holidays in Tuscany, drawings by Augustus John, signed pieces of French urniture, leading articles in The Daily Telegraph and ery good clothes that lasted for ever.
In America Pop meant not a cultural break, in any broad sense, but cultural continuity. But it did mean a very sharp break with the kind of art that had dominated the American scene for ten years or more and brought America, for the first time, to the forefront of art. It was an internal break, and one which many people construed as treachery. It was treachery to Abstract-Expressionism, as a way of painting, and it was treachery to the moral struggle that the Abstract-Expressionists had fought and won.
English painters…felt about the American scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s as Goethe felt about Italy in 1786: ‘My passionate desire to see it with my own eyes had grown to such a point,’ Goethe wrote from Venice, ‘that if I has not taken the decision to come here I should have gone completely to pieces.’
Derek Boshier and David Hockney at the Royal College c.1961. Photo by Geoffrey Reeve. (Left) ‘England’s Glory’ You can see a further selection of Boshier’s Pop paintings here. Boshier went on to design two Bowie album sleeves and a song book for The Clash. See: www.paulgorman.com
Hockney first visited America in 1961 and moved to Los Angeles in 1964. See: www.hockneypictures.com
The launch pad of Pop Art in Britain was widely considered to be the January 1961 ‘Young Contemporaries’ Exhibition at the Royal College of Art, which established the reputations of Peter Blake, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier. Russell writes:
‘…the general character of Royal College Pop…was free-wheeling and hedonistic…What came out of the College between 1959 and 1962 was a contribution to the idea of an England at last recovered from the lethargy of the immediate post-war period.
In some of its aspects, English Pop was painterly, anecdotal, diffuse, jokey, deliberately unfocused: all things which delighted a public that has enough of low-spirited English representational painting.’
This is a famous Ken Russell film on Pop Art, made for the BBC TV series Monitor in 1962. It features Blake, Boshier, Phillips and Pauline Boty – one of the few prominent women artists in the Pop movement. Boty tragically died in 1966. Her work was only rediscovered in the 1990s.
Photo: John Aston (1962). Source:www.colinrobinson.com/Boty.html
(Above) Photo from www.voicesofeastanglia.com
The other prominent woman artist during the 60s Pop Art period was Jann Haworth. This piece entitled ‘Maid’ was featured in the 1969 exhibition.
Jann was married to Peter Blake and worked with him on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. According to Wikipedia:
‘Gallery owner Robert Fraser suggested to The Beatles that they commission Blake and Haworth to design the cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The original concept was to have The Beatles dressed in their new "Northern brass band" uniforms appearing at an official ceremony in a park. For the great crowd gathered at this imaginary event, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, as well as Haworth, Blake, and Fraser all submitted a list of characters they wanted to see in attendance. Blake and Haworth then pasted life-size, black-and-white photographs of all the approved characters onto hardboard, which Haworth subsequently hand-tinted. Haworth also added several cloth dummies to the assembly, including one of her "Old Lady" figures and a Shirley Temple doll who wears a "Welcome The Rolling Stones" sweater. Inspired by the municipal flower-clock in Hammersmith, West London, Haworth came up with the idea of writing out the name of the band in civic flower-bed lettering as well.’
You can see more of her work at www.jannhaworth.com
See: Where Are The Great Women Pop Artists ? by Kim Levin in ArtNews