Review of Lisa Tickner's London's New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2020
The sixties, as an iconic period, has been mythologised by both those who lived through it and those who have subsequently attempted to make sense of its supposed successes and failures. Leaving aside the fatuous statement that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there, various events still resonate today: the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and its legacy, and the emergence of a pop culture which reflected the attitudes of the young and also influenced them.
Throughout history, specific places at different times have witnessed explosions of human achievement in science, medicine, and the arts. Florence, Paris, Madrid, and New York, to name a few, can lay claim to developments that have contributed significantly to the progression of artistic expression. One such time and place was London in the 1960s. American Pop Art was a huge influence on a generation of young artists, while fashion, music, film, and photography were all mediums in which new practitioners pushed the boundaries set by their elders. It was a time of seismic change —socially, politically, but above all culturally.
This book does not attempt an all-encompassing review of the art scene in 1960s London. Instead it adopts a case-study approach, taking individual events from the years 1962 to 1968 and using them as examples with which to illustrate more generalised assumptions: that the period was one in which dynamic change was happening, and that particular artists and events were at the forefront of those changes. This might be a problematic approach, since each individual case study has particular details which are, by necessity, unique to their particular context and to the people involved. However, within these studies we find young, innovative artists making work in response to the fluid world around them, using shared cultural imagery to connect with that world. The subjects chosen, and reflected upon, are without exception of significant interest, each worthy of study in its own right.
The opening chapter is amongst the most fascinating, a perfect way to begin the book. It concerns the Ken Russell film Pop Goes the Easel, made in 1962 for the TV series Monitor and first broadcast in March of that year. It is a study of four young London-based artists, cut with contemporary music, and it is ground-breaking in both its stylistic approach and its serious presentation of the artists’ work. At a time when Pop Art was often viewed with disdain, condemned for its humorous depiction of contemporary life, the film emphasised the fact that these were serious artists making relevant and significant comments about the world in which they lived. (For these who are interested, the film is still available on BBC iPlayer and is well worth watching, not least for the party scene in which Peter Blake and David Hockney do the twist.)
Pop Goes the Easel follows the paths of four London-based artists who had been students at the Royal College of Art. Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips had all met as students and in the early sixties lived and worked near one another in West London. Russell adopts a collage effect in the film, for example cutting images of a fairground with paintings of pinball machines, or introducing Boty’s collage imagery with a dream sequence in which she reveals some of her own deep-rooted fears. Such an approach is deeply sympathetic to the work of these artists, allowing them to demonstrate how the images of popular culture, as found in comics or advertising, came to be reproduced in their paintings as part of their response to modern consumer society. Tickner’s description of the film and the artists whom it portrays is both comprehensive and astute. While acknowledging some of the film’s weaknesses, her final analysis is persuasive. She notes that the artists used the borrowed images partly for their formal properties —colour, form, and texture— but also simply because they liked them. Although the Pop Art label can be ambiguous, for these young London artists in 1962 it meant embracing current popular-cultural motifs and reorganising them in unfamiliar pictorial spaces of their own creation.
From this beginning in 1962, Tickner continues year by year until 1968 and the issues surrounding the student protest at the Hornsey College of Art. Her choice of subjects for the intervening years is both intriguing and frustrating, for various prominent events, artists and exhibitions are missing, the explosion of radical papers and magazines being an obvious lacuna. However, there is plenty within the chosen content to both enjoy and ponder, and the focus for 1964 —two exhibitions, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade: ’54-64 at the Tate, and New Generation: 1964 at the Whitechapel— is particularly well-selected.
These exhibitions provided a showcase for young artists, an opportunity to display their work within the context of established artistic spaces. In the preceding years such opportunities had been very limited, and therefore these two exhibitions, potentially at least, allowed the general public access to the work of the new cohort’s best. Tickner notes in her introduction to New Generation: 1964 that of the twelve artists on show all, except Bridget Riley, were under thirty and all —apart from the Australian Brett Whiteley— had trained at the Royal College, The Royal Academy Schools, or the Slade. Almost by default, then, inclusion in the exhibition was a mark of approval for our art schools: nearly all the artists were less than three years out of college.
Tickner spends some time explaining the involvement of the Peter Stuyvesant tobacco company with the New Generation exhibition, and it is a story which is worth remembering. In the early 1960s the link between smoking and lung cancer was being established beyond any reasonable doubt, and this would lead to a ban on cigarette advertising on television in 1965. As a result tobacco companies were extremely conscious of their public image, and sponsorship of sporting events and the arts became increasingly important, to place them in the role of public benefactors. In the case of Peter Stuyvesant, their PR firm had identified three key areas with which they wanted to associate the company, namely ‘art, ‘youth,’ and ‘internationalism.’ These three concepts were combined in 1965 in an advertising campaign containing the slogan “Peter Stuyvesant: The International Passport to Smoking Pleasure.” Their corporate involvement with an exhibition like New Generation, in hindsight, seems obvious. For the artists and the Whitechapel Gallery, their financial contribution ensured that the exhibition— and therefore exposure to a wider audience— was guaranteed, while the company could emphasise their involvement in the contemporary ‘art scene’ and their public beneficence. Tickner rates the show as a success, although she does mention that there were critics who saw some of the inherent problems with a show of this kind. The title New Generation fixes the participants in a perpetual time-warp: how long can they claim the title ‘new’ before others take their place? She also notes that press coverage praised the generosity of the Stuyvesant brand, and linked the art on display with the company itself, thus fulfilling their corporate intention.
In 1956 the Tate had hosted the first post-war exhibition of American art when the MOMA touring show Modern Art in the United States arrived, and in February 1959 a second show, The New American Painting —also at the Tate— stimulated even more interest in the work of American artists new to the English public, like Pollock, Rothko, and Newman. One result of these exhibitions was the realisation that the time was ripe for a similar show highlighting the work of young European artists. Alan Bowness, a lecturer at the Courtauld, and Tate trustee Alan Gowing were instrumental in persuading the Tate to put on an exhibition with the intention of showcasing the best of European and American art from the past decade, in which the European artists could be positively compared with the best from the USA. Of significance are the comments written by Bowness for Studio International shortly after Painting and Sculpture of a Decade: ’54-64 had opened, in which he explicitly referenced the Roger Fry Post-Expressionist exhibition of 1912, which had such a dramatic impact upon contemporary artists. Clearly, for Bowness at least, the intention was the same: namely to put on a show which would represent current practice in painting and sculpture, but would also serve as a beacon for the future.
Alison and Peter Smithson were tasked with designing the installation for what would become an exhibition of 366 works by 170 different artists. They devised a series of galleries brilliantly lit with white screens, through which visitors would pass. There were many problems, not least with artists like Rothko who insisted on natural lighting. Tickner states that Barnett Newman in particular was unhappy to find his nine-foot-tall Noon-Night placed in a narrow corridor. Despite these issues, the exhibition was generally well received, and with 95,000 visitors it exceeded the pre-show estimates by a factor of four.
The final year illustrated, 1968, is concerned with the sit-in at the Hornsey College of Art, a cause-celebre at the time which has now been largely forgotten. By 1968, the optimism of the early sixties had been replaced by economic decline, political disruption, and a disillusioned sense that the socio-economic changes previously believed to be in progress were, in fact, stalling. A list of some events from that year will illustrate the background to the Hornsey protest at the end of May.
The first five months of 1968 saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and student riots in Paris which momentarily threatened the government. Anti-war protests in the US, prompted by the heavy losses caused by increased fighting, became more vocal and, finally, the assassination of Robert Kennedy in early June seemed to signify that everywhere the old order was under threat. However, as Tickner succinctly explains, the events at Hornsey were not simply another student protest at a time when such activity was fairly commonplace, but the expression of dissatisfaction long felt by both students and staff regarding the curriculum and examination process imposed upon the College by the Ministry of Education, and the very nature of art education itself. At one point she examines the political affiliations of the participants, and finds them surprisingly mixed. (Or maybe not. At my college in 1970 the student union had a fifty-seater bus booked each weekend so that we could join in any protest march within a sixty-mile radius, which meant that London was within reach. Sometimes we did not even know what we were marching against —or for— until we got there. Clearly some protestors were more committed than others.)
Tickner draws out the issues in great detail, for they were ultimately intertwined with the still-unresolved dichotomy between artistic expression and the dealer/gallery/auction house capitalist model of production. Artists, and indeed society as a whole, have unsuccessfully grappled with this dilemma for centuries, and it is still vigorously debated. At what point does the creative process become just another commodity to be consumed? Even now we can point to Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, the platinum-cast human skull encrusted with 8,601 perfect diamonds which sold to an investment bank for $100 million, or a Banksy graffiti ripped from the side of a building and then sold for a six-figure sum, as examples of art which have become high-end financial investments —a fact which ultimately affects how we view them. Do we see Hirst’s skull as a memento mori, a contemplation of our mortality, or merely as a cluster of expensive diamonds bought to guarantee thousands of pensions?
In the final chapter Tickner successfully draws together the threads of the cultural experiments which she views as of greatest significance. Any art movement or particular epoch has triumphs and failures, and 1960s London was no exception, although it was a scene of great creativity and pioneering media experiments. We should resist the temptation to over-mythologise, and Tickner is particularly adept at avoiding this. Her final conclusions are persuasive. At one point she writes, “In fact, though much was changing — much also remained the same.” If we look at the past through art-historical glasses, we see the same thing happening over and over again: young artists challenge their older peers, and then they themselves become the establishment, the target for the next generation. That being said, this is an exceptionally well-researched and extensive study of the selected events, to be recommended to any who wish to consider this period as more than an expression of youthful exuberance.--Paul Flux