Enfants Terrible : How The First Wave of British Pop Art Got To Stick Around (NVA, 2012)
“Pop did not count ‘ephemeral’ as an insult. It was for the present, and even more for the future: it was not for the past, and saw nothing to regret in the changes which had come about in England since 1945…” [John Russell in Pop Art Redefined, Thames & Hudson, 1969]
“Hockney’s range is maybe as narrow as the lapels of his jacket but within his terms he has made a highly successful, personalized statement. How he develops cannot be known…” [Richard Smith in Ark 32: Summer 1962]
Richard Hamilton’s listing of the properties of Pop Art in a 1957 letter to Alison and Peter Smithson (“Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low-Cost, Mass Produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Glamorous, Big Business”) has come to be seen as one of the key texts of its moment, marking a seismic shift between the old humanist and craft principles embodied by the teaching of the day and a new way of thinking about culture as a mass rather than elite possession: its judgements, from this point, would be the domain of media communications and the ‘culture industry’ rather than a small number of refined connoisseurs. Hamilton’s iconoclastic list, however, isn’t all it superficially appears. For a start, it wasn’t intended to prescribe a new set of criteria for the making of art, but rather act as a more objective description of the source material on which artists like himself, Eduardo Paolozzi and others were beginning to draw in their own work from the late 1940s onwards.
Even so, and despite his own objective, critical intentions, Hamilton’s listing of mass culture’s defining features became, for better or worse, a kind of manifesto for the coming generation of young artists beginning to emerge from schools like the Royal College, St Martin’s and Hamilton’s own stamping ground of Newcastle. For all Hamilton’s own intentions to use art as a tool for the analysis and critique of consumer culture, it’s hardly surprising that others saw an opportunity to embrace it, and separate themselves from the values of the taste-makers of British high culture in the later 1950s. “History books are being rewritten all the time”, Andy Warhol had said to the interviewer Gene Swenson in What is Pop Art?, a series of interviews published in Art News during 1963: that artists’ intentions are often misinterpreted, and those misreadings taken as articles of faith for what follows, is perhaps what Warhol meant by his next line: “It doesn’t matter what you do.”
Whoever rewrote them, the history books now see Hamilton as the father of British Pop, and his death in 2011 saw him widely acclaimed with exactly that phrase. His contemporaries and successors were most clearly represented by a younger generation, some of whose members featured in Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary for the BBC’s Monitor strand, Pop Goes The Easel, a film that was itself, revealingly, titled after a largely forgotten Three Stooges comedy. Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips were the key figures, though its real subject was, as the film historian Michael Brooke has noted, a more impressionistic montage of those artists’ influences, as interpreted by Ken Russell himself:
“Pop Goes The Easel [is] an elaborate, rapidly-cut rhythmic kaleidoscope of images of film and pop stars (Brigitte Bardot, Buddy Holly), fashion magazines, fast cars, politicians, the space race, guns, girls, American culture in general, and anything else that could be made to convey a similar vitality. Jean-Luc Godard had been attempting similar film-collages in France, though Russell had arguably gone much further than Godard by 1962 […] If Pop Goes the Easel looks dated to present-day eyes, that’s both understandable and unavoidable, but in 1962 it was as cutting-edge in both content and form as anything the BBC had ever considered for broadcast.” [Michael Brooke]
The fact that these artists were being sold as important on the basis of their youth, rather than, as had been the historical tendency, despite it, marked a turning point, in cultural terms, that remains very much with us. True, the oldest of the featured group, Peter Blake, was already, at 29 years old, a figure whose personal idiosyncrasies placed him less within the orbit of an emerging youth culture than somehow out of time altogether: his student work at the Royal College in the mid-1950s was already merging the faux-naif painterliness of the British kitchen sink school (then being promoted by the art critic John Berger) with a nostalgic yet accidentally prescient veneer of Victorian decoupage, old-fashioned sign-writers’ lettering and fairground decoration.
Blake has always seemed more like the kind of one-off British art seems to nurture on a regular basis (from Stanley Spencer to Alfred Wallis) than a conscious proponent of Pop: it just seems to have happened that his personal interest in the vernacular forms of comics, films, pin-ups, badges and wrestling coincided with a wider cultural shift that placed him in the main current of his time. It’s not hard to imagine him, in a parallel universe, making much the same paintings he did in this one, except this time as a private enthusiast and fan rather than a professional with a high media profile. Blake may have travelled half a century on that initial wave of interest in pop and youth culture, with a short break to found the deliberately anachronistic neo-Victorian Brotherhood of Ruralists in the 1970s, but he seems much the same artist in 2012 as he appeared in Russell’s 1962 footage of him in his studio.
For all Blake’s anomalous presence, what had mainly defined this first post-Hamilton generation was its collective age (its members had been born on either side of, or during, the Second World War) and its inclination to rhetorically reject the traditions of fine art espoused by its elders, not redirecting the course of art history internally, as earlier generations had done, but working to carry art’s methods into a mass cultural domain that would, in turn, come increasingly to furnish their works with its own neon-lit style and content: advertising, pop music, Hollywood stars, sports cars and toothpastes, not to mention product packaging and all the retro and futuristic components that were splintering through post-war commercial culture as resurgent tastes for Art Nouveau and Victoriana coincided with high modernism, technological styling and the many progressive theories underpinning Space Age and Cold War design.
This constellation of visual cues, for all its roots in earlier eras, had, by the later 1950s come to signify ‘youth’, and these artists identified themselves and their work so closely with it that it seems worth wondering how some, at least, managed to hold public interest long after their own plausible identification with the state of grace they’d defined in their early careers passed decisively by. As the first generation to sell itself on the promise of youth, rather than mere novelty, enters its late career phase, it’s becoming clearer than ever that many artists, once seen as the iconoclastic cutting edge of the later 1950s and early 1960s, are now, indisputably, the Grandees of British art. In a context where youth and an endless quest for the new remain key concerns for curators, dealers, critics and the public, it’s worth asking how this generation managed its own transition through middle and old age.
The death last year of Richard Hamilton, by then firmly established as our own Duchampian anatomist of consumer culture, perhaps prompted some early thoughts on the subject addressed here. Hamilton’s passing was greeted with the kinds of respectful notices that might once have honoured long-admired living masters like John Everett Millais or Henry Moore, seeming to set in stone a reputation that had, in its latter years, seemed increasingly insecure. Hamilton’s late political directness, combined with anger at the neo-liberal policies of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, fed an impression that he operated more like a young artist after 1970 than he had during his early career, where a more measured, technocratic tone had prevailed in his writings, paintings and other cultural interventions. Hamilton was, in some respects, an older generation artist whose methods were shaped a decade before Pop Goes The Easel ushered the new art and its concerns into the living rooms of England.
More representative, perhaps, is Hamilton’s junior by fifteen years, David Hockney, whose vast canvases, studies and video works are currently filling the hallowed galleries of the Royal Academy with both vibrantly coloured figurative views from the East Riding of Yorkshire and enthusiastic Middle English crowds of the sort generally more interested in Monet exhibitions than contemporary art. Perhaps, as Warhol’s 1963 comment to Gene Swenson suggests, the rewriting of history allows the patina on young artists’ work to be continually deepened in the light of later developments: isn’t this why an early Rembrandt self-portrait can be routinely described as in possession of profound human insight, when this is largely the result of a shadow cast over the young artist’s brazenly virtuosic showing-off by the older man’s self-exposure during the years when poverty had claimed him? The approach of death, made vivid in the way Rembrandt’s face is rendered on a late canvas, allows a backward projection onto the youthful swagger and shallow flash of those works made in the first flush of success.
There’s certainly a case for seeing Hockney’s work in this light, with the artist’s move towards photographically exact realism in the 1970s retrospectively validating, for popular mainstream taste, the queered, brutalist energies of the earlier works. Somehow, paintings like We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) or Portrait Surrounded By Artistic Devices (1965), with their alien compositional spaces and modernist codes, seem far less threatening when viewed through the prism of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-1). Throughout his career, Hockney has cannily balanced painterly experiment and Modernist dialogue with series of conventionally legible conversation pieces. The publication of his lavishly illustrated autobiography, Hockney by Hockney: My Early Years (1976), built from interviews with Nikos Stangos, was another key turning point, cementing public perception of the work into Hockney’s life and personal associations rather than its purely art-historical contexts.
In this light, it seems that the resilience of Hockney as a leading figure in British art over more than five decades is built on a measured rebuttal of the founding statements of his career. If what launched Hockney into public consciousness was platinum blond hair, gold lamé jackets and brazenly camp paintings in tribute to Walt Whitman, Cliff Richard, the packaging design of Typhoo Tea and the sexual promise of California, what has sustained him since has been a reintegration of these elements into a more familiar tradition of English figurative painting that has allowed him to extend his audience through mass media, while retaining the support of the specialist art critics and collectors whose interest first launched him. As seemed evident in Nottingham Contemporary’s 2009 show of Hockney’s paintings and prints, A Marriage Of Styles: 1960 – 68, the young Hockney remains influential on emerging artists even as the older incarnation seems to be located elsewhere.
This split is of a similar kind to that marking the career of Anthony Caro, another figure of Hamilton’s generation who emerged in the early sixties after encountering the work of American sculptor David Smith while still working as an assistant to Henry Moore. Moving from the recognisably Moore-ish expressionist figuration of his earliest pieces to painted abstract constructions using pre-fabricated industrial components – girders, boiler plates, steel rods and grilles – he made a radical break with his mentor, and went on to teach many of those later associated with the New Generation sculpture exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965. Caro’s formal innovations were compounded in the work of Philip King, David Annesley and William Tucker with the use of new materials like fibreglass and plastic.
By the time such conceptual gestures as Keith Arnatt’s Self-Burial (1969), Gilbert & George’s declaration of themselves as ‘living sculptures’, performing Underneath The Arches in gold face paint and tweed suits, or Richard Long’s photographic documentations of his own movements through space entered the sculptural frame, Caro – still barely a decade on from that transformative encounter with Clement Greenberg and David Smith – seemed as conservative in his own aesthetics as Moore had been made to appear by such Caro works as Midday (1960) and Early One Morning (1961). In some respects, these rapid shifts allowed Caro to adapt relatively easily, freed from a position as innovator to one as a more conventional kind of sculptor pursuing the construction of abstract form in space.
Caro’s selection as the first artist to be represented with a large scale solo retrospective in the Capability Brown landscapes around Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, without having strayed too far from his early breakthroughs, shows how far changes in the background to an artist’s activity can transform a reputation. It’s highly plausible that his works will be visited this summer by many who would, back in 1960, have entirely rejected the new aesthetic he returned from the US in thrall to, with its bright colours, open forms and wholesale rejection of the ‘truth to materials’ mantra of his day. But perhaps this is the sole lesson that a young artist starting out today might draw from the disparate later experiences of the first generation to have define itself by its own youth and its use of materials, influences and ideas that had long been considered outside the proper domain of fine art.
That lesson is that all careers evolve in unexpected and often random ways, and artists need to be doing the work they believe in, because career paths erode and change direction so rapidly that simply following personal interests and obsessions offers as much chance of walking them as taking GPS readings from the immediate surroundings. As a friend recently noted, Henry Moore was still, like many others in his generation, being referred to as a ‘young artist’ well into his forties, and perhaps it was only in the period after around 1955 that youthful energy, innovation and openness came to be seen as virtues in themselves: qualities that no longer needed (or might even be corrupted and damaged by) the tempering of experience that had earlier been expected to smooth rough edges and bring new work to maturity before it might gain admittance to exhibition halls and museums.