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Perhaps the most radical shift in British art in the post-war period was the breakdown between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in the 1960s. Whilst the fine arts were traditionally viewed as the pinnacle of culture, advertising was seen as being tainted with ‘vulgarity’ and commercialism. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, artists and designers started to view culture as a continuum – even looking to advertising as one of the sources of inspiration for their art. Instead of aspiring to convey classical values of ‘universal truth’ and ‘eternal beauty’ in their art, the generation of ‘Pop artists’ sought to embrace the contemporary culture of their times. This included advertising, fashion, new consumer goods, the politics and pop music of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Rationing had been in place in Britain from the Second World War until the early 1950s, but this austerity was followed by a period of optimism and economic boom. The glossy advertisements in American magazines for foodstuffs and home appliances that were still unavailable in Britain in the 1950s held a particular fascination for artists such as Richard Hamilton (1922-2011), Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) and Richard Smith (1931-2016). For them, these advertisements were signifiers of modernity. In his Artists’ Lives recording Smith spoke of how magazines he saw from America were ‘solid with advertising, of cigarettes, detergents, cars, and that even news magazines like Time would have full pages ads… and Look Magazine was the magazine I was most keen on, absorbing and seeing. Those images became more overt in my work.’
Hamilton’s exploration of visual signs of American advertising and man’s interaction with his environment was encapsulated in his iconic collage Just what is it that make’s today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956, Tate). In this work, the bodybuilder Charles Atlas appears holding a lollipop emblazoned with the word ‘POP’, alongside a semi-naked woman, within a domestic interior constructed from contemporary advertising. The interior is furnished with the latest appliances, a view of the moon, a cinema façade and a tinned ham. The image was created to be reproduced as a screen-printed poster to promote the exhibition, This is Tomorrow, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956.
This Is Tomorrow was organised by members of the Independent Group, an unofficial discussion group that met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London during the early 1950s. Along with Hamilton and Paolozzi, the Group included the artists Magda and Frank Cordell, Nigel Henderson, John McHale, William Turnbull; the architects Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson, Colin St John Wilson and James Stirling; and the writers Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham and Toni del Renzio. Through talks, artworks, exhibitions and publications the Independent Group took modern life as the starting point for their analysis of culture, exploring the signs and symbolism of contemporary culture and technology in a positive way. The Group developed a positive analysis of mass-media imagery and celebrated ‘the knowing consumer’. Topics under discussion ranged from science fiction, fashion, American advertising, car design, popular music, western films, and architecture to Abstract Expressionism.
Richard Hamilton was fascinated by what the theorist Reyner Banham described as the ‘rhetoric of consumer persuasion’ written into car design, advertising and marketing. In particular, he was interested in the way that attractive female models were employed in automobile advertising to promote sales. His relief painting, Hers is a Lush Situation (1958, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester), sought to express this through the erotic combination of the collaged lips of the Italian actress Sophia Loren and mechanical forms suggestive of a 1957 Buick automobile. In a letter to Alison and Peter Smithson in 1957 he drew up a list of the characteristics that have come to define ‘Pop Art’:
Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Expendable (aimed at youth)
Young (aimed at youth)
Each of these attributes could equally be related to commercially successful advertising, which would appeal to ‘the knowing consumer.’ Richard Smith, in his recording, defined his relationship to the imagery of advertising and was happy to concede he was an eager consumer himself.
Richard Smith at Howard Hodgkin’s home, Long Dean, Wiltshire, photographed by Rowland Scherman. © Rowland Scherman. Image not licensed for reuse.
Artist Richard Smith (1931-2016) pins down his attitude to advertising and its use as subject matter in his work. Born in England, he was particularly attracted to advertising as he encountered it in American magazines. Smith was to spend the greater part of his adult life living in America.
Richard Smith was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2005. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
Can we just pin down, what was your feeling about advertising?
Well, I thought it was in a very… You know, I knew it was an important part of life. I had been, in a way, magazines, especially the ones I found from America, were solid with advertising, of cigarettes, detergents, cars. And, and that even news magazines like Time would have, like, full-pages ads within Time. And Look magazine was the magazine I was most keen on, you know, absorbing and seeing. And so, those, those images became more overt in my work later.
What did you feel about the advertising and the products and the images?
Well, I was, I was a… I was, I was a consumer. I really, I liked to smoke, I drank, you know. I liked good clothes and, shoes and whatever, and that kind of thing. So I was, I was part of the audience. Though I was, I was aware of manipulation and, that kind of thing, so, I didn’t, you know, I wasn’t a sucker, although, you know, you are a sucker when you rely on advertisements. No, I… I remember images still, you know, of that time.
What do you remember?
Well there was a, I think it was a, it was an ad for a vodka, and, it was a shimmery pyramid, Egyptian pyramid. And the desert. And then, in close-up was a cocktail glass with the V shape top and the spindly leg. And it was a perfect, perfect photograph.
Why would you not be thinking about going into advertising, rather than being a painter?
It never occurred to me. Never occurred to me. I didn’t, I didn’t have… I, I didn’t have ambitions outside painting, but I, you know, I had ambitions for painting, and…
Are the references to advertising a kind of celebration of advertising?
Yes. I think positively. You know, images started overtly, more overtly about being about advertising, were after I came to New York.
Smith lived in New York from 1959-1961, and like the American Pop artist James Rosenquist, whose enormous paintings were inspired by his job putting up billboards in Times Square in New York, he was influenced by experiencing first-hand the bright colours and huge size of billboard advertising. This is reflected in the scale and imagery of Smith’s semi-abstract paintings such as Gift Wrap (1963), which was in his acclaimed exhibition at London’s Kasmin Gallery in 1963. In the following extract Kasmin remembers the success of the exhibition, describing Smith’s personality and status at this time.
Richard Smith, Piano (1963) Tate. Purchased 1975. © Richard Smith Estate. Image not licensed for reuse.Even before he opened premises of his own in 1963, art dealer John Kasmin (b. 1934) was anxious to represent British artist Richard Smith. Smith was back in England, having spent two years in America on a Harkness Fellowship, and although only in his early 30s, he had already made a reputation for himself following a successful exhibition at New York’s Green Gallery.
The first of Smith’s exhibitions in which Kasmin was involved took place in Smith’s Bath Street studio in London. In this audio extract from his recording, Kasmin is in conversation with interviewer Monica Petzal. The energy of Kasmin’s voice communicates his excitement at showing Smith’s work at the Kasmin Gallery in 1963. He explains how Smith was perceived at the time and why the new work was so significant. Two of the shaped paintings Kasmin references, Gift Wrap (1963) and Piano (1963), are now in Tate’s collection, and his delight in sales from the exhibition is evident. Amongst the buyers were the corporate Stuyvesant collection, the Arts Council, the British Council and a private collector, Alan Power.
Richard Smith’s own Artists’ Lives recording gives his perspective on the work of this period and on showing with Kasmin. It can be found on the British Library Sounds website.
John Kasmin was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2004-2016. The interviewers were Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney.
‘Richard Smith: New Paintings’. Now, we’d a show, we talked about it in Dick’s studio.
Sold a lot. Dick’s work was, startlingly exciting at that date. It was both voluptuous, and, in colour and manner, it was tender in brush strokes, and it was full of new concepts as well. And, had this connection with, with popular culture in the sense that so many of the works were spatial adventures based on shapes used by, used in advertisements. Dick’s show in ’63 was absolutely amazing. It might have been the first show in the, in our world, of shaped paintings, because, a great many of them were three-dimensional, the shapes were no longer merely implied, they actually projected on wooden structures. But were still painted canvas stretched over wooden shapes, and you have a, you know, an example of one of the greatest in the Tate Gallery, the one called Gift Wrap, but there was an extraordinary picture that rests on the floor called Piano, which looked, well it didn’t look like a piano at all, but it had a piano-ish… It was the way it came down on the ground I suppose made him call it Piano. I mean I, it actually was packets of cigarettes as well as Gift Wrap. But, this was a very thrilling show indeed.
And Dick Smith was a very considerable personality.
Well he had a magic about him from having lived in America. As a personality he was diffident, quiet. It’s just that, Dick had lived in New York. He knew more about it all, I mean, about, the galleries, the artists, what was happening in New York, what was going on in all the studios of people that, that still hadn’t shown. It was all Dick’s connections. And he had a sort of glow about him, he knew he was painting good work, and what he, his thinking was all razor sharp. And… But he was a quiet fellow. A lot of people were excited about his work, and one of them was Robert Freeman, who at that stage – photographer. This was the moment when James Bond films were a big noise. And Robert Freeman was in that world, and he in fact, I remember letting Freeman and Dick and a whole team work in the gallery at night as we were installing a show, and made, made film shots and angled shots from scaffolding of the pictures, you know, using it in dramatic ways that the average viewer wouldn’t have been able to have. High up in the gallery. But the show was a knock-out, people had not seen, you can’t say that they were the only works of art which were three-dimensional paintings, but people hadn’t seen things on this scale. So, it was a knock-out. And, Stuyvesant bought one, and the Arts Council bought one, and the British Council bought one, and, by now I had a proper English collector too who bought one, that is to say, Alan Power, I think I’ve mentioned before, who was the son of Ted Power, and he was sweeping up stuff at a big rate, and not necessarily just to take home and hang. I mean he was somebody who already bought more than he could hang. He bought a flat in, where he didn’t live, in Ennismore Gardens, to put, to put work in.
Kasmin mentions leaving Smith and the photographer, Robert Freeman, in the gallery one evening to document the exhibition. In the audio clip below, Smith adds his own memories of that night.
Richard Smith in his exhibition at Kasmin Gallery, photographed by Robert Freeman, 1963. © Robert Freeman, Courtesy Collection Smith family. Image not licensed for reuse.
Painter Richard Smith (1931-2016), speaking nearly 50 years after his 1963 exhibition at the Kasmin Gallery, confirms his feelings about the significance of the three-dimensional work in the show. Alongside a brief but wry observation about his personality at the height of his career, this audio extract preserves information about a series of photographs of Smith in the Kasmin Gallery at night, taken by the photographer Robert Freeman. Freeman, himself famous for his images of the Beatles, was a friend of Smith and they collaborated in various ways. Capturing the spirit of the period, Richard Smith’s Artists’ Lives recording makes it possible to date the evening on which the photographs were taken because of the mention of an event of worldwide importance that also took place on 22 November 1963.
Richard Smith was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2005. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
It looked terrific, that show, it was really, a major show for me, breakthrough out to that 3-D work, and, whatever, full of myself and the work I was. Bob Freeman took photographs of the show, dramatic photographs. It was, I was sitting on one of the chairs in the middle of the gallery. And, he’d lit the paintings by spots, you know, so that, things going around, and it was all, photographed and photographed and photographed. And this, so it was a terrific image. And, we were alone in the gallery, and it was dark, and, night fell, and, we kind of, packed everything up and, went out of the gallery. Must have got a cab, because there was all that equipment and things like that. And we went over to Bob Freeman’s apartment, and he had a German wife. Anyhow, she told us that Kennedy had been killed. So we were there throughout that whole sequence of events. And that was kind of, quite, quite extraordinary, you know, to come upon that information that way.
Gift Wrap is now in the collection of Tate. Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate from 1988-2017, defines his view of the relationship between painting and advertising in Smith’s work.
Richard Smith, Gift Wrap (1963) Tate. Purchased 1975. © Richard Smith Estate. Image not licensed for reuse.
When artist Richard Smith referenced imagery from adverts in the paintings he made in the 1960s the question of whether or not advertising was a legitimate subject for art was hotly debated amongst artists themselves as well as others. Here, Nicholas Serota (b. 1946) considers his own thoughts about Smith’s work when he first encountered it. Serota was Director of Tate 1988-2017.
Nicholas Serota’s recording for National Life Stories Artists’ Lives was started in 2011 and is ongoing. The interviewer is Cathy Courtney.
When you might first have encountered works like Gift Wrap, how much would you have thought of them as being a critique of advertising and how much of a celebration of what they advertised?
I think I really did think of them as being a celebration, rather than a critique. I mean I’m not… I thought of them as being a critique of painting, rather than of advertising. I thought of them as being, how can we make painting as vital and, vivid and arresting as advertising? What can you make of painting that does for you what a billboard does?
Smith had given a talk at the ICA in London on 19 November 1962, part of their ‘Around the Event Series’, and also screened a film he had made with Robert Freeman. The film related colour advertising for mentholated cigarettes and Betty Crocker cakes to Smith’s paintings, with a pop music soundtrack that included tracks by the Shirelles. In his diaries the curator Richard Morphet recalled how the event provoked ‘fierce discussion’ amongst those present, who included Hamilton as chair, and the artists Bernard Cohen and David Hockney. Morphet’s account below is richly evocative of the period and the different characters and sympathies among those who were present.
Section from Richard Morphet's Diary, 19 November 1962. Courtesy Collection Richard Morphet. Image not licensed for reuse.
This is my account of an evening at the ICA in Dover Street on the 19th of November 1962.
‘Evening at the ICA in their Around the Event series devoted to Richard Smith. Among those there were Roland Penrose, Dorothy Morland, David Hockney, Bernard Cohen, Harold Cohen, Joe Tilson, Roy Ascott, and Andrew Hislop. The chairman was Richard Hamilton, smoking long cigars. His pleasantly appearing, so soon after Terry’s tragic death on the 6th, was heroic.’ That’s a reference to the tragic death in a car accident of Richard’s wife Terry. ‘Richard came with Rita, who stayed all the time at the back and in the shadows, and with whom I and later Chris,’- that’s my brother- ‘spent part of the interval talking about Smith, about Terry, and eating Mint Imperials. Richard Hamilton gave a merry, self-effacing introduction. He also said that they’d asked Eduardo Paolozzi to give a demonstration of his vision in this series, but he had replied with an attack on the ICA. And he’d asked Kitaj, who had said he might have a talk ready if they’d give him two years to prepare it. First of all, Dick Smith’s film was shown; then he talked about his work, and a fierce discussion, to put it mildly, developed. In the interval I phoned Chris to get him to come and see the film, which was being projected a second time as it was so utterly sensational. And he came at once, in a taxi. This film, which Dick Smith and Robert Freeman had made together, to illustrate Smith’s vision of the world around, and relate the mass media environment to his paintings, was in brilliant colour. The soundtrack was not synchronised to the vision, and thus the relationship between these two elements was different each time the film was shown, itself an entertaining factor which interested Smith greatly. One saw several of his large recent paintings upright in an outdoor urban environment on some stone steps separated from the camera by a road. So traffic kept flashing past, too near to be in focus, pedestrians on the pavement passing the paintings and giving them strange glances. The paintings changed from one to another without alteration of the rest of the picture, and without breaks. Next came segments of colour ads for mentholated cigarettes, predominantly Salem, and also for Nelson and Philip Morris in great close-up. The segments, in circles et cetera, kept switching, sometimes clicking in so that the whole of one occasional ad would be seen. Then details of Betty Crocker Cake Mix ads showing slices of rich cake in intense close-up, with icing like lava, and bleeding or oozing filling, and strawberries in syrup. Throughout these shots there were swift cuts to actual paintings by Dick Smith, and the close affinities between these lush, garish colour ads and the textures and the flicking techniques of mass-communication, with the images in the pictures, were crystal clear. There was then a semi-abstract sequence involving disc and circle shapes, which developed into an eclipse, and then into Smith’s own head in silhouette by Freeman. The last shot of all was a crushed Philip Morris pack. Much of the soundtrack was almost screamingly amplified pop music of the 1950s with no less than four numbers by the Shirelles. Really great.
‘Dick Smith said he accepted and celebrated the world that advertising had made around us. He had been greatly influenced by the American paintings exhibition here in 1956, and by the experience of the two pianos in the Diaghilev exhibition,’ that too I think was in 1956, ‘each of which was mechanised so that it played by itself. And they were set playing simultaneously. The interest came in the different permutations and combinations of sound that were achieved when they were started at different points in their cycles, and then again, at different points. When he first saw paintings by Rothko, also in 1956, these brought him up with a jolt as nothing had before or since. Then came his visit to the States. He felt he must get away from the group of painters to which he belonged in England, who were close-knit socially if not stylistically, in order to express himself. He cannot now remember without difficulty any of his own pre-1958 paintings. He spent his first four months in the USA looking for a studio et cetera, and didn’t paint at all. Then he was confronted with white canvases. He hated their bareness, as he hates silence. He paints with pop music and with jazz playing. And he felt he must first establish their existence as a wall. So he covered them with check patterns. It was then on to the background that he had painted that he placed his own “unique masterly brushstroke”’ - that was Dick’s own phrase used, slightly tongue-in-cheek I suppose, at the occasion at the ICA. ‘And fascination comes from the way the background modifies the unique brushstroke and vice versa. His painting surfaces are deliberately rough and unfinished. “You see a couple of thousand paintings a year. You can’t remember most of them. I felt mine must have an initial impact.” But it’s important in his paintings that one should not be able to identify visual references specifically. “You’re looking at a painting, and someone says to you, ‘It’s two people bathing in a pond,’ and, well, you’ve had it!” At this point David Hockney collapsed sobbing with raucous laughter onto the floor. Earlier Hockney, in a glinting brown mackintosh and scarlet waistcoat, and gilt tab collar, asked whether the soundtrack in the film was taped or on the film. Then for the rest of the evening he kept standing up during the talk and walking over to the bar for another drink, his squirting of the soda syphon resounding through the room. There was gigantic attack from Roy Ascott and Bernard Cohen on Dick Smith’s joyous acceptance and bolstering up of advertising values. Dick Smith said he had read Vance Packard et cetera, but he just did not think in moral terms. What he loved was the visual aspects, the double-page spreads, and the hoardings, the juxtaposition of giant glass of beer with minute bottle, elephantine refrigerator, with insect-like passing humans. The whole manipulation of images by the ad man. He utterly refused, a) to imbue his pictures with moral content or comment, or b) to agree that there was anything unacceptable in his subject matter. “It’s not as if I’m inspired by Mallorcan pottery or something. This is something that’s all around us.” He claimed it was as unreasonable to attack him for using advertising ingredients as to blame a landscape painter because a farmer ploughed a certain sort of furrow, which later became part of a landscape painting. His critics claimed, however, that no good painting of any sort can be divorced from taking a relationship towards its subject, Rembrandt, Augustus John et cetera, to their sitters. The advertising argument became positively violent, with a long-winded and emotional attack from a guy with a foreign accent so extreme that Richard Hamilton says he must exercise his chairman’s function and shut him up, as it was becoming offensive. But Richard Hamilton was cried down by many, who resented, they said, that by now being world famous Richard Smith was strengthening advertising success by taking it as his subject. It is my only, but large, criticism of Dick Smith that he refuses to attack advertising’s motives and methods, though I join him enthusiastically, as did the majority there, in digging its visual elements. It was, Dick Smith said, not the surrealistic power of massive absurd contrast in scale, pictures of girls in luxury beds in the middle of fields et cetera, which he dug, but just the manipulations of images and scales and proportions. Nor had he any affinity with Dada. But he felt a big Surrealist exhibition now would be opportune, and he would also like there to be one of Picabia’s works.’
And that’s the end of the diary entry.
The majority of the British artists associated with the Pop Art movement emerged from the Royal College of Art (RCA), where there was a close relationship between the Graphic Design and Fine Art departments. These included Peter Blake, the American R B Kitaj (who studied in Britain under the GI Bill for former US servicemen), and Joe Tilson who graduated in the late 1950s, followed by Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney and Peter Phillips in the early 1960s. They were given a public platform by a series of juried exhibitions entitled Young Contemporaries held at the Royal Society of British Artists Galleries between 1961 and 1963. Lawrence Alloway, one of the jurors, observed that the RCA students’ work hung together in the 1961 show was ‘connect[ed] with the city... by using typical products and objects, including the techniques of graffiti and the imagery of mass communications.’
Non-traditional and industrial materials characterised the work of several of the Pop artists, including the use of commercial silkscreen printing processes for fine art purposes by Caulfield, Hamilton, Kitaj and Paolozzi, who collaborated with the printer Chris Prater and his Kelpra Studio. Together, they overturned established ideas about originality and collaboration in printmaking. In his paintings Caulfield purposefully used decorators’ gloss paint to achieve the flatness and impersonality of a commercial sign-painter, often with bold black outlines, as in his Portrait of Juan Gris (1963, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester). In his paintings of pop musicians such as The Beatles 1962 (1962-68, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester) and The Lettermen (1963, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull), Peter Blake mimicked the design of pop record sleeves and fan magazines and the idiosyncrasies of the printing process, for example by deliberately painting overlapping edges to suggest the mis-registration of colour printing on cheap pop fanzines.
Blake was later to collaborate with his first wife, the American sculptor Jann Haworth, on the iconic album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967), with its line-up of celebrities from history. Its quirky Victoriana was in stark contrast with Hamilton’s later minimal design for The Beatles’ White Album (1968). This consisted of a plain white sleeve discretely embossed with the band’s name and a unique stamped serial number creating, ‘the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.’ By designing these and other album covers, Pop artists such as Blake and Hamilton came to create the very products that had originally inspired them, creating and shaping the aesthetics of album sleeves that would enter millions of homes.
Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:
Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.
Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.