Art from ‘Swinging London’

Richard Hamilton’s «Just What is it that Makes Today’s Home so Different, so Appealing?» is a small picture that measures just 10×10 inches. Yet the famous British pop artist has managed to fit in it such a density of visual puns and surreal juxtapositions that the work soon became a virtual manifesto of the ensuing British pop art movement. A year after he created this erratic collage, Hamilton cited what he considered to be the characteristics of pop art: Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business are the words he chose. His little picture has it all: It depicts the prototypical modern couple (the man poses as a bodybuilder and the woman as a pinup girl) amid a living room decorated with low-cost furniture, a television beneath a portrait of John Ruskin and a large tin of ham positioned as a piece of sculpture. Is this a witty mockery or a celebration of consumer culture and of advertisement imagery, or perhaps both? The work poses something of an enigma. Its complexity reflects the complexity of pop art, a movement that is often simplistically associated with the light and easy. Both the complexity and varied character of British pop art are ideas that the exhibition «Metamorphosis, British Art of the Sixties,» currently at the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation – Museum of Contemporary Art in Andros, puts across with force and clarity. Although British pop art is featured heavily, this is not an exhibition on a particular movement but about the variety of artistic currents that swept through London at the time. The exhibition draws connections between them – for example, it helps lift the standard notion that pop art and abstraction are divided – and shows that they were all the product of the spirit of innovation and sense of freedom for which the 1960s are so legendary. The majority of the works on display (61 works by 31 artists) are drawn from the collections of the British Council and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, both of them co-organizers of the exhibition. Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation Kyriakos Koutsomallis, exhibition curator of the British Council in London Richard Riley and Ana Vasconcelos e Melo, who is the curator of the Modern Art Center of the Gulbenkian Foundation are all the exhibition’s co-curators. The creative momentum of the ’60s emerged gradually from the postwar euphoria of the mid-’50s. The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), which was established in London in 1947, prepared the ground for future innovations and helped British art exit a period of postwar insularity and conservatism. A bastion of European modernism, the ICA was the meeting place of the so-called Independent Group, a small and informal discussion group that in the early ’50s explored issues related to advertisement and mass culture. Artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, both represented in the Andros exhibition, were early members. Both are seen as progenitors of pop art, although Paolozzi felt closer to surrealism than pop. Peter Blake, Richard Smith and Joe Tilson followed as the second generation of pop artists. In the ’60s, Blake drew much inspiration from pop music. One of his best-known works of the period is the cover he designed for the Beatles’ «Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band» album in 1967. His large collage, made of numerous postcards and magazine clippings and which is shown in the Andros exhibition, is a typical example of his pop style. As the pop art current was gathering momentum, a parallel movement – which actually included some pop artists – followed the example of large, abstract paintings provided by American abstract expressionism. A large survey exhibition on new American art held at the Tate in 1959 provided the impetus and the paintings of artists, such as William Turnbull, Richard Smith, Robyn Denny, Bernard Cohen and John Hoyland, at the «Situation» exhibition that followed a year later showed the influence. Female artist Gillian Ayres joined in and a work by Anthony Caro was included in the next «Situation» exhibition. Caro, who become known for taking sculpture off the pedestal, used industrial parts for his abstract metal sculptures – his painted steel sculpture in the exhibition is typical of his work – in a manner reminiscent of American David Smith’s sculpture. Philip King, David Annesley, Isaac Witkin – all of them included in the Andros exhibition – were among the sculptors of the so-called New Generation Group, a group that followed in Caro’s footsteps. At the same time, a new generation of artists that emerged from the Royal College of Art turned to urban culture and breathed new air into the British art scene. David Hockney drew words in his images and made references to the art and literature of the past. His «Renaissance Head» from 1963 evokes, for example, Pierro della Francesca’s famous Renaissance portrait of the Duke of Urbino. Allen Jones painted semi-abstract shapes in bright colors and later became known for the sexual innuendo of his sculptures. Patrick Caulfield, who painted flat colors outlined in black contours, Antony Donaldson, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips were some of the other artists in the group. Most of these were associated with pop art. Not all of them agreed with the moniker. Popular culture did not, after all, interest all the artists labeled as pop artists. But pop in the broader sense, pop in the sense of innovative, young and dynamic, does describe their work. It captures the spirit of an age in which new changes in art were happening. «Metamorphosis,» which is a word taken by a work by British op artist Bridget Riley (also included in the exhibition), is probably the right word. The optical variety included in the exhibition does the title justice. «Metamorphosis, British Art of the Sixties,» is on at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Andros, (2282.022.444) to September 25. It includes daily screenings of Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary «Pop Goes the Easel.»

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