Wolverhampton, UK

Pauline Boty, A Big Hand, ca. 1961, gilt paint and collage on paper, 20 1/4 x 16 3/8".

Pauline Boty, A Big Hand, ca. 1961, gilt paint and collage on paper, 20 1/4 x 16 3/8".

Pauline Boty

Wave Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Pauline Boty, A Big Hand, ca. 1961, gilt paint and collage on paper, 20 1/4 x 16 3/8".

When British Pop artist Pauline Boty died in 1966 at the age of twenty-eight, she left behind a considerable oeuvre. Yet this remarkable production was nearly lost to art history; much of it was rediscovered only in the 1990s, languishing at her family’s farm. Already as a student at the Royal College of Art in early-’60s London, Boty was a well-known face. A kind of poster girl for the swinging art scene, she was memorably captured twisting away at a party alongside Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, and David Hockney in Ken Russell’s famous 1962 BBC film Pop Goes the Easel. Like her peers, Boty was seduced by the potent promise of such celebrity, but the playing field was uneven. Her witty pseudosexual posturing for the popular press ultimately did her career more harm than good, ensuring that she was not taken seriously as an artist. The long-overdue exhibition “Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman,” which included not only a large number of the artist’s signature large-scale Pop paintings but fantastic examples of her early collage and stained-glass work, succeeded in finally shifting the focus from Boty’s body to her impressive body of work, drawing out the political as well as playful aspects of her paintings.

Among the paintings on view were The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, and BUM, 1966, which take as their subject matter, respectively, the then-recently deceased Marilyn Monroe, and a large, pert, pink bottom. While Boty may play too easily at times into the hands of those who claim her work perpetuates rather than challenges stereotypical representations of the female body, her emphasis on the sexy, insouciant swing of Monroe’s hair and hips demonstrates that the desiring gaze is not always male, while a portrait of film star Monica Vitti framed by a giant red heart signals her admiration of the star in the guise of a schoolgirl crush. A magazine cover showing Boty pouting provocatively beneath her painting With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, 1962, reverses the usual roles, with the male subject now objectified by Boty’s lusty, witty pose. She captures female desire even more overtly in another work called 5,4,3,2,1, 1963, with its painted exclamation OH FOR A FU . . . While the painting’s title innocently references a popular television program, the sexual subtext of the work is unconcealed; the show’s tagline was “The weekend starts here . . .”

It’s a Man’s World II, 1965–66, is perhaps the closest thing we have to a feminist painting by Boty. A tessellated stack of female nudes, culled from the pages of soft-porn magazines, it was painted as a counterpart to her earlier painting It’s a Man’s World I, 1964, which features grisaille and full-color portraits of contemporary male celebrities, politicians, and intellectuals—among them the Beatles, JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Albert Einstein—all fully clothed and set against a blocky abstract field of colors. This collage-like painting, which recalls Hannah Höch’s popular political photomontages, offers a stark counterpoint to the nameless female nudes of It’s a Man’s World II. The political aspects of Boty’s work have until now gone largely unaddressed. Paintings such as the impressive Cuba Si, 1963, named after Chris Marker’s 1961 film of the same name, and Countdown to Violence, 1964, offer a radically critical take on life in the postwar US, particularly when compared with the joyous celebration of all things American, shiny, and Pop by Boty’s male peers. The opportunity to see the ’60s art world through Boty’s gaze—at turns angry, sexy, funny, and incisive—offered a welcome glimpse of how different the world might have looked had it not belonged to men.

Jo Applin