PRINT Summer 1993


A WAVE OF INFATUATION for the 1960s has lately passed through the art institutions of London. Since the Royal Academy staged its sugar-coated extravaganza “The Pop Art Show,” in 1991, three more major exhibitions have centered on the decade. With one exception, these shows have strained to advance the obvious proposition that the legacy of the period lives on in the art of the present, and have succumbed to a romance of happier times implicit in that impulse. Paradoxically, throughout Dr. David Mellor’s “The Sixties Art Scene in London,” currently at the City of London’s Barbican Art Gallery1 the only one of these shows that seems to live entirely in and for its chronological span of 1956 to 1969—the visitor finds unannounced but far more arresting foreshadowings of recent practice.

One such moment, in the domain of Pop, arrives with the paintings of Pauline Boty, whose entirely youthful output was ended by her death from leukemia in 1966, at age 28. The Royal Academy ignored her entirely; in Mellor’s hanging, works like Peter Blake’s Girlie Door, 1959, and Allen Jones’ La Sheer, 1968, face quiet demolition at the hands of Boty’s adjacent It’s a Man’s World II, 1963–65, in which an appropriated montage of tanned soft-porn pin-ups surrounds a frontal depiction of a young woman’s pale, forthrightly naked torso. That shift between levels of representation is framed by another, a cutaway on either side to a calm landscape of 18th-century parkland under a deep-cerulean sky. The layering of illicit vernacular with high-art references, the simultaneity of different visual codes within one canvas, and Boty’s plainspoken technique predict the tactics adopted by David Salle more than ten years later (minus the obtuse sexual politics and the dependence on late Francis Picabia).

With due allowance made for the rudimentary support system and theoretical refinement available to Boty and her contemporaries, this kind of coincidence is evident all through the exhibition, lending an unexpected unity to the diverse work on view. Robyn Denny’s symmetrical, circuitlike abstractions, for example, occupy the territory later claimed by Peter Halley, whose signature look might have come from the simple addition of Day-Glo color to Denny ca. 1960. When Ross Bleckner and Phillip Taaffe revived Op art in the ’80s, the standard line was that they were recovering a debased and forgettable ’60s fad; a reencounter with Bridget Riley’s faultlessly modulated panels, full of knowingness about the history and limits of abstraction, explodes this complacent assumption and exposes her latterday imitators to countercharges of inflated redundancy. The crossover between the conventions of abstract painting and the encoding of phenomena inaccessible to unaided vision, later common to artists like Jack Goldstein and James Welling, was already the conscious program of English painters like Harold and Bernard Cohen. The captions in Derek Boshier’s mock comic-strip panel of. 1967, Sex War Sex Cars Sex, subject Roy Lichtenstein’s iconography to the corrosive irony of transplanted verbal clichés, prefiguring the tactics on which Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger have since built whole careers. And Boty’s play with her own identity in the photographs for which she posed cannot help calling to mind the simultaneous self-exposure and disguise of Cindy Sherman.

Though few of these recurrences are likely to have been conscious, they are too regular to be entirely accidental, prompting the thought that there may indeed be a limited number of credible moves in the system of advanced art over the last 30-odd years. But while the options may be restricted, there is no necessary order in which to try them out. The direction of British artmaking after Abstract Expressionism appears to have reversed the sequence of events in New York. In England, the flight from the immaculate confines of the gallery, and the opening of traditional media to imagery and modes of presentation scavenged from a heterogeneous urban environment, came first; then came the belated submission to Modernist protocols, canceling the adventurousness that had distinguished the London scene. The reward, for the abstract painters particularly, was the obscurity that this exhibition is only beginning to lift.

It has been customary to date British absorption of Abstract Expressionism to three exhibitions in the later 1950s: the Tate Gallery’s “Modern Art in the USA,” of 1956, the Whitechapel Gallery’s Jackson Pollock retrospective two years later, and, in 1959, the Tate’s extensive survey of the new painting from New York. But knowledge of large-scale American abstraction had been assembled piecemeal by younger London artists and critics around the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) since the beginning of the decade, and that knowledge had been interpreted in ways that ran contrary to the critical orthodoxies developing on the other side of the Atlantic.

The most important encounters with the new painting came not in any museum but in the Hanover Square flat of the electronics manufacturer E. J. Power, an independently minded Yorkshireman who was then the only significant British collector of New York art. In that setting, the most striking impression made on young artists was the fact that a single painting could occupy the entire wall from floor to ceiling. For them, the sheer physical impact of the canvases invited comparisons with the cinema screen, or with the architectural environment, encouraging modes of attention that slipped sideways into place and context. The gestural expansiveness of American techniques also seemed potentially to radiate beyond the canvas. Further, the framework for the emerging London view of the New York School was the sort of polemic against the gallery-bound object not voiced in New York until Allan Kaprow published “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” in 1958.

Yet since, for the British, the new American painting was not yet entirely captured by museum-bound esthetics, this polemic did not entail any partisan rejection of abstract painting. Instead, it fostered the making of canvases attuned to particular settings and temporary conditions of use. Unwittingly, the British artists were returning to the actual point of origin of the big American canvas: the 18-foot-long Mural, commissioned from Pollock by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 to provide a backdrop for the entrance to her apartment. Disinterested contemplation of Mural (made difficult in any event by the narrow space between the painting and the opposite wall) was secondary to the main business of posing in front of it. In a few years, Clement Greenberg would find his way to identifying the big canvas as the necessary means for a purified opticality in painting, but the format would never entirely shed its function as stage flat for social performance. In 1951, Cecil Beaton temporarily restored Pollock’s work to something like that original significance when he used the artist’s magnificent one-man show at the Betty Parsons gallery that year as the location for a fashion spread in American Vogue.2

In London, adventurous artists and critics did not spurn such impure, participatory uses of painting. Indeed they seized upon them and expanded them. In 1959, Ralph Rumney, painter and early Situationist, and three students at the Royal College of Art—Denny, Richard Smith, and Roger Coleman in his capacity as critic and organizer—hatched the idea of an exhibition called “PLACE.” The Barbican exhibition rightly devotes a great deal of attention to this prescient experiment, installed at the ICA, in which both artists and viewers were induced to surrender their customary prerogatives. The three painters agreed on just two formats (seven by six and seven by four feet) and two combinations of colors: black and white and the complementary pair of red and green. Coleman described the principle of the installation in a visitors’ guide: “24 canvases were fixed back to back to make 12 double-sided pictures which were on the gallery floor at 45° to the walls and at 90° to each other. . . . This gave four directions in which the pictures faced, three of which [were] taken, one by each painter, with the fourth side shared.”3 Faced with this environment made of paintings, the viewer gradually sorted out its logic by moving through it and absorbing its visual cues. The rules of the arrangement militated against prolonged fixation on any one canvas, encouraging instead views past, through, and to the sides. As a rationale for what they called the viewer’s “ludic” passage through “PLACE,” the artists exploited contemporary science fiction’s vivid simplifications of cybernetics, as well as popular sociology’s hypotheses about new mental states induced by technological change and information bombardment in the modern city.4 (Jean Baudrillard would arrive at a similar combination for the 1980s, the term “hyperreality” itself belonging to the lexicon of ’50s science fiction).

Lawrence Alloway, the principal promoter of these enthusiasms within the ICA’s Independent Group, had a hand in the mounting of “PLACE,” and this connection underscores the absence of a partisan divide in Britain between large-scale abstraction and art that manipulated found vernacular images. Abstract painters, at least in the beginning, were encouraged to think of painting as a way-station for currents from any quarter of the urban environment. Nor did this exclude artists conventionally classified as Pop: to facilitate its temporary installation in the streets of central London, Gerald Laing’s enormous portrait of Jean-Luc Godard’s film heroine (and wife) Anna Karina broke down into nine sections, each a virtual abstraction.

Peter Hobbs, an exact contemporary of the “PLACE” artists, took the situational esthetic farther into a process of isolated nomadism. In 1960, seeking to make manifest the socially marginal condition of painting, he conceived a series of canvases that had no fixed home, installing them as freestanding panels on bomb sites and waste ground around the industrial East End of London. The project was a collaboration between Hobbs and the war photographer and social documentarian Don McCullin, who created a remarkable series of photographs recording Hobbs’ interventions in these interstitial city spaces. It hardly needs underscoring how this work prefigures the issues of site-specificity, duration of viewing, and documentation of temporary work that would emerge in America toward the end of the decade; in the context created by McCullin’s documents, to see one of Hobbs’ paintings in a gallery would activate the same dialectic Robert Smithson would come to label “site-nonsite,” with a concreteness bestowed upon the painted mark commensurate with Smithson’s sculptural deposits in the landscape.

On the heels of “PLACE” came the far-better-known “Situation” show of 1960, in which Denny and Smith were joined by, among others, the Cohen brothers, Gillian Ayres, Marc Vaux, Gordon House, and William Turnbull. The motivation behind this independent show came from the unwilling-ness of any London gallery to show large paintings, and the criterion for inclusion was simply that a work be nonfigurative and more than 30 square feet in area. The exhibition is now chiefly remembered as a public swing of allegiance to American criteria of value in painting, but the exhibitors actually retained many of the preoccupations of “PLACE”—preoccupations that at this point had only begun to be addressed in America by the likes of Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg. Once again, size was the means to an active intervention in the exhibiting space, to a “perceptual instability” intended to force visitors into an awareness of movement, time, even cramped discomfort as conditions of seeing.5 In New York, by contrast, artists with these concerns specifically excluded painting, and were anathematized in their turn by those who equated seriousness with fidelity to the traditional media of fine art.

Nor was there any visual convergence between the “Situation” artists and the picturesque disorder of the American dissidents: in designing the catalogue and publicity materials, House created a style that projected, in Mellor’s words, “a cool, clean, monochrome, and distinctly European image:”6 A further difference was the British fondness for photographic documentation, a defining feature of London abstract painting. To make a work of art, even one destined for the gallery, with the idea of its being photographed is a markedly different thing from conceiving of painting as directed to eyesight alone. Photography’s mode of seeing brings out time, accident, contingency, reversing the values invested in the disinterested beholder central to Modernist criticism. (Compare Michael Fried’s well-known claim for the miragelike opticality of Anthony Caro’s Prairie, 1967, with the situational concreteness embedded in Bob Whittaker’s photograph of the work.7) Yet the photographer Robert Freeman acted as virtual collaborator in articulating the “Situation” esthetic, portraying the participants in improvised environments constructed out of their own works—a mode of monochrome photography he would then transfer to fashioning popular music’s most famous visual style in the cover shot for With the Beatles, and in the Richard Lester films."8

It is said that seeing Freeman’s photographs of Caro’s constructed steel works of 1960–61 first spurred Clement Greenberg toward his fierce enthusiasm for that artist; “Clem just flipped when he saw these,” Alloway said later.9 But in the Modernist scheme of things there was absolutely no permanent place for the photographer as active collaborator in the unfolding of meaning in a work of art. Self-sufficiency was all. Shortly after “Situation” and a follow-up exhibition had taken place, the abstract sculptors centered around Caro and the St. Martin’s school would be the conduit by which American Modernist values closed down the open, antihierarchical directions exemplified in these collective endeavors. Even so, their “New Generation” sculpture as a whole was less attuned to Greenberg’s value system than was Caro’s individual enterprise. Mellor makes the point that Philip King’s Rosebud of 1962—in its synthetic material, color, and organic reference—replicates the marriage of sex and technology common in science-fiction illustration. But these associations, which the Independent Group and the “Situation” artists shared, were buried in an account of the new sculpture in which Caro’s “radical unlikeness to nature” carried all before it.10

I have heard it said by London artists that the British are brilliant at starting things but hopeless at seeing them through. Denny would write glumly in 1964 that the experience of the “Situation” artists had been a recurrent English one of “self-deception, complacency, compromise, and defeat.”11 And a fair amount of abstract art in the Barbican show, despite the interest of its origins, indeed looks orphaned and undeveloped. Mellor’s catalogue account offers a basis for understanding the phenomenon, in this instance at least, in more credible terms than those of dismaying national character. The London abstractionists became caught in a trap brought about by their need to distinguish themselves from the bohemian and neoromantic trappings of the older generation of British artists. They sought to present instead an attitude of tough-minded “professionalism” (to which end they favored, Mellor observes, sharp, “rat pack”–style suits). As part of this drive, a group of St. Martin’s sculptors actually contributed from their own pockets to pay Greenberg’s fare from New York in order that each receive a “crit” from him. But those imported standards were all too congenial to another class of professionals—those of the museum world, suspicious of and resistant to unmanageable, improvisatory approaches to displaying works of art.

Work generated out of such approaches could easily be made to seem deficient when measured against American painting designed from the start to meet Modernist requirements of impeccable self-sufficiency (though Turnbull’s remarkable white monochrome painting of 1958, and John Hoyland’s 12.6.67, demonstrate that the ability was there). First the “Situation” painters were made to give way to the sculptors showcased in the Whitechapel Gallery’s “New Generation” show of 1964. (When the BBC crew showed up at the opening, Mellor relates, the painters were asked to leave.) Then support diminished for all these artists save Caro. Toward the end of the decade, Greenberg would declare that British abstract art had developed to his immense satisfaction by devolving into the achievement of one individual: “Caro is the Moses of English sculpture . . . he has walked into the land of Canaan and spread himself out in it.”12

Mellor’s installation undercuts the idea of such splendid isolation by forcing one to see how greatly Caro’s Hopscotch, 1962, is enhanced by its proximity to Riley’s contemporaneous paintings. But Greenberg’s view has prevailed without serious question until now, at the expense of the richer history of London art from the late ’50s forward. Furthermore, the professionalism encouraged by Modernist standards of success helped a later generation of “post-Modernist” Americans to achieve recognition by rediscovering ideas born in the few years marked by “PLACE” and “Situation.” And this has compounded the distortion of the historical record, encouraging a misleadingly linear history predicated on the centrality of New York. An astonishing number of the important works in this show are listed as “Artist’s Collection”: the physical evidence has yet to be put into the public domain, so that a proper account of the period can be constructed.13 To that end “The Sixties Art Scene in London” makes a strong beginning.


1. “The Sixties Art Scene in London” at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, 11 March–13 June 1993. The accompanying catalogue, by Dr. David Mellor, is published by Phaidon, of London.

2. “American Fashion: The New Soft Look,” American Vogue, 1 March 1951, pp. 156–59.

3. Roger Coleman, “The Content of Environment,” Architectural Design XXIX, December 1959, p. 517.

4. The word “ludic” comes from Coleman’s explanation of the “Game Environment” sought by the artists, in PLACE, exhibition catalogue, London: ICA, 1959, reprinted in Mellor, p. 72. On popular sociology see Robyn Denny, “Togetherness?,” Gazette no. 1, 1961, n.p.; reprinted in Robyn Denny, exhibition catalogue, London: Tate Gallery, 1973, p. 23.

5. See Coleman, Situation, exhibition catalogue, London: RBA Galleries, 1960, n.p. Reprinted in Mellor, p. 90.

6. Mellor, p. 86.

7. See Michael Fried, “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro,” 1968, reprinted in Richard Whelan, ed., Anthony Caro, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974, pp. 97–101. The Whittaker photograph appears in Mellor, p. 98.

8. According to “Situation” participant John Plumb, Freeman “transmitted the new style.” See Mellor, p. 86.

9. Ibid., p. 87.

10. The phrase is Clement Greenberg’s, from “Anthony Caro,” 1965, reprinted in Whelan, p. 88.

11. Robyn Denny, “London Letter,” Art International VIII, May 1964, p. 52.

12. Greenberg, quoted in Edward Lucie-Smith, “An Interview with Clement Greenberg,” Studio International, January 1968, p. 4. Quoted (and misdated) in Mellor, p. 102.

13. A large proportion of Tim Scott’s sculpture from the period has simply been destroyed through careless storage.