Section from Richard Morphet's Diary, 19 November 1962.

Art and advertising in the 1960s

Simon Martin writes about the connections between art and advertising in art made in the 1960s.

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’.

Advertising as signifier of modernity

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.

The knowing consumer

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)

Low cost

Mass produced

Young (aimed at youth)

Witty

Sexy

Gimmicky

Glamorous

Big Business

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

New artistic processes inspired by advertising

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.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Smith, Peter SmithsonColin St John WilsonBernard Cohen, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Patrick Caulfield

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.

  • Simon Martin
  • Simon Martin is Director of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. He has curated numerous exhibitions on Modern British art including surveys of Edward Burra, John Minton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Colin Self, and Keith Vaughan. His publications include Conflict and Conscience: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War and The Mythic Method: Classicism and British Art 1920-1950.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.