London Calling

Article excerpt

A wave of infatuation for the 1960s has lately passed through the art institutions of London. Since the Royal Academy staged its sugar-coated extravanganza "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 Gallery(1)--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 cliches, 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. …