Friday 3 August 2018


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”Pop Art is: Popular (designed for the mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business”
- Richard Hamilton

”Stretched Beyond the Fine Art Limits”

By separating out the Eduardo Paolozzi sections of this exhibition into a separate post I’ve raised an inevitable question - was there much of a British Pop art scene without the star player? Initial signs, in fact, are good. The Independent Group only really existed form three years (1952/5), but among it’s members were not just Paolozzi but Nigel Henderson and Richard Hamilton – both on show here.

Henderson’s ‘Screen’ (1949-52, above) manipulates some of its images (for example the face at the top left of the third panel), but mostly it works by juxtaposing quite intact images – it’s only when they are placed alongside one another that it becomes a collage. In this way it recalls a thumbed magazine or an evening’s TV viewing, their accumulation of images rearranged into space.

The flat screen also provides a space where, as the show puts it “fine art and popular culture, kitsch and technology, intermingle on equal terms” - the colloquial level playing field. For example, half-way up the second panel is a classical nude, while occupying a similar position in the third is a topless pin-up girl. This levelling may be something with which the internet generation have become overly familiar, but would have been quite striking at the time.

Though documentaries on the era always focus on hemlines, haircuts and recreational drug consumption, the most significant change of the Sixties was the blurring of once-rigid class divisions. How much of that was a real shift and how much a media storm is open to argument. The inevitable answer would be a bit of both, followed by a pedantic debate about the degrees. But that needn’t concern us here. Look for example at the incorporation of ‘regional’ accents on the BBC, which at the time seemed something of a barometer. Henderson’s Screen does a similar thing with images.

While Hamilton’s screenprint ’Adonis in Y-Fronts’ (1963, above) employs bold, simple, striking graphics, a look more associated with Pop than the information overload of Paolozzi and Hamilton. Further, it not only mixes high and low in its witty title but combines different sign systems, the photo-printing of the figure combined with the solid blocks of colour of the dumb-bell.

It’s not that we now see Coca-Cola cans more often than Classical sculpture, even though we do. It’s that even when we do see Classical sculpture, it’s normally via a media image. At the time the Reithean ethos of the BBC insisted on a dose of nourishing high culture amid the popular entertainment, so it would intersperse the two. Which ironically only exacerbated the levelling effect in the long run.

And this, we should remember, is something Modernism had often willed on. It saw the mass media’s dissemination of images as a way of democratising art, of toppling it from its elevated pedestal. This had been spelt out by Walter Benjamin back in 1935. 

And by this point it seemed that his John the Baptist prophecies had come true, heralded a saviour who had finally shown up. Lawrence Alloway, himself a member of the Independent Group and deviser of the not-quite-there term “mass popular art” wrote the 1958 essay ’The Arts and the Mass Media’, which often feels like a sequel...

“...the elite, accustomed to set aesthetic standards, has found that it no longer possesses the power to dominate all aspects of art. It is in this situation that we need to consider the arts of the Mass Media. It is impossible to see them clearly within a code of aesthetics associated with minorities, with pastoral and upper-class ideas because mass art is urban and democratic… The popular arts of our industrial civilization are geared to technical changes which occur, not gradually, but violently and experimentally...”

“...our definition of culture is being stretched beyond the fine art limits imposed on it by Renaissance theory, and refers now, increasingly, to the whole complex of human activities. Within this definition, rejection of the mass produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culturebut an attack on it. The new role for the academic is keeper of the flame; the new role for the fine arts is to be one of the possible forms of communication in an expanding framework that also includes the mass arts.”

Alas, we see little of Henderson from that point on. (From what little I know of him, he combined Dadaist photomontages with documentary photos of London’s East End, which suggests I’d prefer him of the two.) While Hamilton, from the evidence here, mostly took to mixed media work combining screenprints, collage and relief. His ’Hers is a Lush Situation’ (1958, above), is based on car ads - taking its title from a line of copy.

It’s often commented that if art is going to be merely imitative of Coca Cola cans you might as well just look at Coca Cola cans, which aren’t that hard to come by. But here, much like the Futurists never merely transcribed the city, Hamilton doesn’t show a car but captures it’s contour lines (it’s not clear from the illo, but they’re in relief), focusing on the same aspects of a car as an advert would. And the resultant work seems as influenced by the more abstract end of Surrealism as by advertising art. He then dots the works with collage elements (free-floating lips, a building), adding to the subjective sense of objects which whizz past your sight as you drive.

Post-war planning involved… well, planning, New Towns designed from scratch. So a collage approach to the urban environment, throwing various elements in against one another, vied with this. Eric M Stryker comments:

“In Alloway’s writing, two technologies embodied this new media ideology: the CinemaScope screen, with its dramatic expansion of the field of vision, and the windshield of an American car, which provided a panoramic view of the city. Both the windscreen and the movie screen were, according to Alloway, communication devices through which images of the city are formed and transmitted. The popular audience who receives these images is locked in an interactive loop with the realities constructed both in the movies and in the city itself…. The public environment and media environment are treated as parallel systems.”

Hamilton’s ’Swingeing London’ (1967, above) is based on a newspaper photo of Mick Jagger’s infamous arrest for drug possession, the title a pun on the extra-strong arm of the law. (The other figure, the gallery informs us, was Hamilton’s art dealer, Robert Frazer. Furtherproof that Swinging London actually comprised about twelve people.) There seem to be multiple versions of this, as was common practice in Pop. But this is probably the best, with Hamilton working the chassis of the car and window into relief.

Much like ’Adonis in Y-Fronts’ two sign systems thereby collide. The image, typically for Pop, is ‘fast’, immediate, picked up in a second’s scanning. But Hamilton then semi-obscures it from us, building on the blocking hands by creating a second block in relief between us and the print. While of course the work is all about a collision of systems, the swinging and swingeing Londons at war with one another.

Is RB Kitaj an unlikely artist to crop up in a Pop art show? The notion’s confirmed before you’ve even entered the gallery. The corridor outside is devoted to some of Snowdon’s photo-portraits. While Paolozzi is shown working, not facing the camera, the others pose quasi-casually, looking into the lens with practised ease, media stars in their habitat. Whereas a black and white shot of Kitaj (above) shows him in existentialist black amid a wintry garden, at a slight distance, not acknowledging the camera. It could be a portrait of an Expressionist, certainly not someone making readily accessible work.

While in the Pallant House magazine (no. 44) MJ Lang recalls attending a lecture of his which was “dense; composed word by word… impenetrable – too full of ideas to absorb one before the next arrived.” Which sounds some way from Paolozzi’s whizzy slideshow. In fact he even named the movement he did belong in, the School of London, and can be seen in their company at the Tate Britain’s current 'All Too Human’ 
exhibition. (Not a show I’ve seen yet, but I intend to.)

The show effectively acknowledges he wasn’t a Pop artist so much as an influence on later generations through his use of found imagery. His collages are frankly inferior to his paintings, from the examples here. But his screenprints, such as the series ‘Mahler Becomes Politics, Beisbol’ (1964/7) are more interesting.

They’re produced by Kelpra Studios, the same as Paolozzi, but are unlike both his sprawling curves and more like Rauschenberg’s overlaps and recursions. In fact they’re unusually neat, setting elements inside their own frames. See for example ‘The Cultural Value of Fear, Distrust and Hypochondria’ above. ’The Gay Science’ even includes a visual gag where one such frame becomes an open window. While Pop art uses sensory assault, these look planned and purposeful.

Art Amid Happenings (The Sixties Swing)

Most artists here left paint behind for collage, where existing images are kidnapped, turned and released back into the gene pool, and screenprints – a medium at a point where ‘art’ and mass production meet. Peter Blake, notably, sticks with paint. And it shows.

’Boy With Paintings’ (1957/9) has a Poppy Hamiltonesque title, with the ‘paintings’ referring to the tin badges the boy sports. This was a common trope of Blake’s, where he’d depict images within images and frames within frames. (Such as the actual Beatles standing with wax models and cut-out figures on his well-known ’Sgt. Pepper’ cover.) But painting the badges, not pinning them onto the frame, turns them into paint and takes away their vibrancy. The title’s doubly ironic, for paintings is what they become.

Blake sometimes looks, in a technical sense, a straightforwardly bad painter. But at times he’s able to work that, to magnify the ‘wrongness’ of paint as a medium until it worked for him. Certainly, he always painted on board, as if to emphasise all that. His paintings have a flattened effect which makes them look naive, like the votive offerings of folk cultures reapplied to media stars. His ’Irish Lord X’ (1962, above), of a star wrestler, even has one eye scratched out, as if it had been fly-posted and subject to wear and tear. While the fairground-style calligraphy is in an interchange between hand-drawn and mass-produced.

Pop music of this era made an apparent fracture into an interplay, nostalgically venerating the past eras it was supposedly overwriting, reaching greater sophistication while evoking childhood innocence and simplicity. Yet there’s very little here to match, say, the Kinks’ ’Village Green Preservation Society’ or the Beatles’ ’Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’. It may well only appear with Blake, the Beatles’ best-known cover artist.

And yet there are pleasant surprises. David Hockney now seems to have made the leap from bright young thing to national treasure while bypassing the being-any-good bit. However a couple of early etchings on show here, such as ’Edward Lear’ (1964, above) do have their appeal. They evoke the side of the Surrealists most commonly overlooked, their automatism, their sense of images tumbling out and being caught on paper just as they appear, overlapping and overlaid.

But mostly a pattern emerges. Joe Tilson’s ’1-5 The Senses’ (mixed media, 1963, above) may be typical. Five paintings, each reproducing one of the senses with rather gormless literalism, are grouped and then covered by numbered shutters. The show tells us this “implies a sense of participatory play, and a celebration of the possibilities of freedom in a non-hierarchical society.”

All of which may work better the other way up. With the only game you can play with those shutters being peep-oh, there’s merely the appearance of any meaningful choice. Which seems a pretty good metaphor for a packaged world where a series of prepared channels are pushed at you.

Overall, the later Sixties generation of British Pop artists seem as vacuous and disposable as their American brethren. While seeing so few Henderson’s was a combination of frustrating and appetite-whetting, seeing repeat instances of Patrick Caulfield’s bold outline paintings just confirms how one-trick they are. And Mark Lancaster’s blocks of colour in ’Cambridge Red and Green’ (1968) just looks like something to take a selfie in front of, even if the technology didn’t then exist. Which may be the most telling thing of all…

Seeing these from the vantage point of hindsight, it’s clear enough that Benjamin and Alloways’ bold pronouncements was at best over-optimistic. The mass media did not provide the cultural cure-all that was hoped for. In fact, this all now seems exactly where art went wrong. Sixties Pop is always forward-looking, and in all the wrong ways. I commented another time that Nineties Brit Art “marked the inevitable degradation from artist as individual genius to artist as celebrity”. All of that seems to start here. Pop may be the point where art decided to slide down that slope.

Hindsight is perhaps kryptonite to this show. In ’Baby Baby Wild Things’ (1968) Gerald Laing uses Brigitte Bardot as a poster girl of sexual liberation, someone who later espoused the most vile anti-immigrant rhetoric. While part of Claes Oldenburg's ’London Knees’ (1966-8), a mixed media work on the (no pun intended) rise of the mini-skirt, collages in a woman’s now-visible knees as if they were a tall building by the Thames. Just where we now see clusters of branded buildings in gimmicky shapes, as if to persuade us what fun corporations really are.

But why should this be? For the past century, visual art had been at the forefront of Modernism. To the point where people take it for Modernism, and are surprised to hear it existed in other media. While the Sixties were such a cultural firmament and hotbed of creativity in just about every other aspect. Why should art be the odd one out? Why should it produce so much great pop music and so much trite Pop art?

Partly, visual art was inherently too contemplative, and therefore too slow, not immediate or portable enough for the times. The era’s best summed up by 
the scene in Godard’s ‘Bande a Part’ (1964, still below) where the young characters race through the Louvre in record time, dodging stodgy security guards.

Art’s only solution seemed to be to try and come up with works which could still be caught by those youngsters in mid-dash. It became like an old timer trying to change his ways to keep up with the kids, desperate to convince them that he was (to return to Hamilton’s quote) young, witty, sexy and glamorous. And of course when you try that all you manage to do is lose what you had. From Hamilton’s list, all it really maintained was ‘gimmicky’ and ‘easily forgotten’. When there was no longer any reason to linger in the galleries, there was no longer any reason to visit them in the first place. As the Sixties swung visual art dangled.

None of the Blake works on show here come anywhere close to challenging his ’Sgt. Pepper’ cover, despite him being one of the better artists. While, though there are those of us who like Hamilton’s ’White Album’, he’s not defined by it in the same way. And yet the same is true for Warhol, ’The Velvet Underground and Nico’, being far better than any of his screenprints. Blake and Warhol worked best, not when they tried to combine the art world with commercial design, but when they left one behind for the other.

Art After Vietnam?

While, at the other end of the equation… It’s become commonplace to compare the Sixties to the Twenties. And the art movements in both decades which had the most bite were anti-art movements. This was covered (more or less) in my write-up of the Tate’s ‘Conceptual Art In Britain’ show, with it’s Joseph Josuth quote: “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art.”

Take the way both rebelled against the previous big thing in art, Abstract Expressionism. Which to Pop art was like mighty but lumbering symphonies, to be countered with catchy singles in colourful sleeves. While to Conceptualism and to Fluxus, it was something not to be opposed but destroyed, with the most flamboyant and incendiary gestures. One was just so much more thorough, more thrilling than the other.

But did Pop develop its own politics? The show tells us “Pop materialised as a resistance movement, youthful in energy and spirit.” Youthful yes, but resistance? Yet as the Sixties went on they slowly started to resemble the way people remember them. As Vietnam became a bigger and bigger issue, anti-war attitudes precipitated, or at least became emblematic of, a general critique of society. The time for celebrating America, however distanced or ironic, seemed over. 

(Though arguably when we stopped taking of cues from American mass culture we just swapped for its counter-culture; we stopped dreaming of Twinkie bars and started listening to the Jefferson Airplane.)

The alert reader of these two posts will already have noticed the prevalence of pin-up girls and the shortage of female artists. And the reader trying to skim through them in the fastest time possible, they’ll have noticed the same thing. As part of the afore-mentioned ’London Knees’, Oldenberg includes the text “revolutionary this paradoxical combination of masculine voyeurism and female liberation seemed in it’s time”. A statement we may be… ahem!.. a little more skeptical of today. Was any of this challenged then? Alas, from the evidence here, no. The show raises the question to big up Jann Haworth. But her art’s as forgettably gimmicky as all around her.

And it’s true some of the more politicised art does merely mirror image Sixties Pop art, setting up the cliches for successive generations. Colin Self’s photomontage ’Woman, Rocket, Lolly’, a comparison of an avidly consumed lolly to a rocket tries to bend Pop art in another direction, but the reading’s so obvious it just breaks instead. The bad anarcho-punk albums of my youth always had hackneyed pictures like that on their covers, which at least forewarned how self-righteously unlistenable the music was.

More interesting is ’Bela Lugosi Journal’, (1969, above) a screenprint where Joe Tilson ups his game considerably from ’1-5 The Senses’. With it’s dark reverse-image look and night-for-day name, against all the bright screenprint colours of earlier it works like a negative to the daily newspaper. It actually sticks to the rules of those laid-out gridlines, even though the overlay of images makes it look chaotic. Down the left column is a sequence where a monkey bares it’s teeth. The accompanying text informs us “the gesture is meant to demonstrate a lack of hostility”, not entirely reassuringly.

His ’Letter From Che’ (above), another screenprint from the same year, is quite reminiscent of Rauschenberg, even to the point of hanging physical objects from the work. Two crumpled photos of the dying revolutionary are contrasted with two much larger and successively more abstracted Ben-Day images, taken from a close-up of the first photo.

It’s perhaps indicative of the Sixties phrase revolt into style. To Christians, Jesus’ immortality was confirmed by the whole Son-of-God thing. In the Thirties ballad ’I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’, the inference is that Hill could never truly die while the class struggle goes on. (Guevara himself, asked shortly before being shot if he was thinking of his immortality, replied "I'm thinking about the immortality of the revolution.") While here Pop art seems to reassert itself, with mass reproduction being your elixir – what’s immortal now is the image.

And if this screenprint seems part of the transition of Che from revolutionary icon to advertising brand, the screenprint next to it, from the following year, is a similarly iconic tribute to Ho Chi Minh. The widespread uncritical cheerleading of the Viet Cong now seems to us symptomatic of the degree to which Sixties protest was hopelessly uncritical, chasing thrilling-seeming images while chanting daring slogans, the moment of truth in the conservative critique it was well-off kids playing at revolution. 

In his retrospective of the decade, ‘A Grin Without a Cat’, radical film-maker Chris Marker concluded it had been “a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat”. These two images illustrate both clauses quite effectively.

Best of these images is Derek Boshier’s screenprint ’Sex War Sex Cars Sex’ (1968, above). Rather than abstracting an image like Lichtenstein, Boshier creates a whole comic strip, and so his juxtaposition ofimages is initially disguised.We expect a comics page to tell a coherent story, even if it uses cinematic devices such as cross-cutting.Whilehere even the genres are deliberatelymixed –war, crime, romance and superhero thrown together.

This also allows him to develop an argument in a fragmentary fashion. (“If we want to win the war in Asia, we should bomb them with Cadillacs”.) Of course he’s copying the French Situationist device of ‘detournement’, appropriating mass cultureimages and turning them towards his own purpose. But then the idea was to steal in the first place…

The impact, the oomph of the four-colour comic strip is acknowledged. But it’s not the subject of the artwork, as it was in earlier works. It’s more a force that needs appropriating, a magic power objectwhich we need to graspand twist. For over a century radical politics had focused on what Marx called ‘the means of production’. The Sixties came to focus on the means of dissemination as an equally powerful, shaping force.

Writing in the Telegraph, Alistair Sooke comments: 

“The curious thing about the Pallant House exhibition… is that, by the end, you may feel confused about what British Pop Art really was. Indeed, on the evidence presented here, the ‘movement’ was an infinitely various phenomenon, characterised by artists with different, even conflicting agendas, interests and predilections, all producing work in a startling range of materials and styles.”

Is that a criticism? Sounds like a strength to me. Certainly, if that’s your problem with Pop you’re going to have trouble with pretty much every art movement in history. Much of the appeal of art is that it’s a space where we don’t need things to be neat, where we can embrace the messiness of life. And the Sixties were themselves convulsive and downright riotous, even if subsequent attempts have been made to confine them inside theme park nostalgia.

It’s perhaps too easy to dismiss Pop art, to deride its practitioners as opportunists who made photo-op paintings of bubble gum wrappers while others marched against Vietnam. But that was only ever one aspect of it. These last two posts have hopefully been a little more nuanced, but are doubtless still too schematic. There’ll be more to this than generational succession. Sometimes Pop genuinely fizzed, at others it merely frothed and at others still it fell flat. There’s really not much more to say than that.


  1. "Pallant House Gallery, Lewes"? Shurely shome mishtake etc

  2. I was... um... just testing you. (Sheepishly fixed now.)