Start off the day at Oxford Circus tube station and, after the oppressive unremitting heat and drought of the past few weeks, the usually lush green pastures and cool damp water meadows of central London have been turned into a parched desert wasteland where the wind whistles over the bleached white bones of a dozen desiccated tourists abandoned among the shimmering sands and desolate dunes. Or maybe that was all just a mirage. Anyway, now the skies are overcast, there’s a bit of a breeze and even a few drops of intermittent rain, and while it’s still a bit sticky travelling around on the tube, current climactic conditions are perfectly poised for the pedestrian pursuit of artistic enlightenment.
And, as it serendipitously turns out, today’s route takes the form of a kind of rough chronological excursion following some of the evolutionary stylistic strands of post-war Modernistic innovation. So, first stop on the itinerary is a call into the Osborne Samuel gallery which doesn’t seem to have any particular curated exhibition on display but a generalised sort of summer show holiday mix of interesting items gathered together from the shelves and racks of their bulging back office stock room. And it’s all good, solid British stuff from that period around the beginning of the second half of the last century when art and artists were starting to recover from the chaotic societal disruptions of the war that had just ended. The requirement then was to try to find a new kind of visual language which would be capable of both examining the horrors of the immediate past and offering some optimistic hope for a better, saner future – while all the time having to work within the constraints of an economy that had been badly battered into a gloomy depressive austerity. I think it’s fair to say that most of the Modern artists then were still under the spell of Picasso’s figurative dislocations and the Surrealist experimentalism of the rest of the European avant garde but, slowly and cautiously, they were also edging towards their own personal and particular ways of breaking free. In the end, of course, it was across the Atlantic where the fresh, flash dynamism of American Abstract Expressionism showed the way to the future but this wildly expansive option was never really available in poor tired old Britain. Nevertheless, I still think it’s worth revisting the homegrown work of the time since the best of it stands up really quite well against some of the empty Mannerist forms of Abstractionism that inevitably followed the initial excitement of the thrilling first wave.
That’s my opinion, anyway, although I’ll concede that some of the British art of the time does perhaps veer a little too close towards the unnecessarily unadventurously parochial and prissy. Of course, what would be incredibly useful, would be a proper full-scale retrospective review of the period curated by a panel of enthusiasts who could try to make the case for a wholesale re-evaluation of post-war British art and so allow the public and professional critics alike to come to a judgement on the matter. Sadly, however, the idea that the Tate might engage in such a sensible undertaking is remote but maybe one day it will occur to Tim Marlow who runs these kinds of things for the Royal Academy and who seems quite a reasonable and intelligent sort of a chap. Maybe I’ll drop him a line suggesting the idea. And as for some of the artists who might be featured, well, the photographs above and immediately below show work by Ivon Hitchens, Peter Vaughan and Graham Sutherland, all of which look pretty good to me
If the initial fizz of post-war Abstractionism had been genuinely exciting and innovatory, it really wasn’t very long before it started to lapse into an increasingly bloated, bland and boring form of formulaic self-indulgence before finally petering out in a sort of dreary dead end (albeit with occasional stuttering revivals that continue to this very day). And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, what came next was, by way of reaction, a new revitalised form of figuration re-geared away from the dusty drawing rooms and salons of pre-war Paris and rebooted to suit the groovy apartments and renovated loft spaces of a happy happening New York and a sexy swinging London. Yes, Pop Art hit the scene and no-one was more zippy and zeitgeisty that the blond bombshell from Bradford, David Hockney, whose sharp pencils and flat acrylics produced the bright light-filled designer graphic style that was so perfectly suited to capture life in the new, never-had-it-so-good, TV age. Well, that was all half a century ago and though Britain’s favourite Pop idol has gone a bit gray and grumpy, it turns out that he’s still very active and still faithfully pursuing his twin obsessional interests of testing out new methods of producing artistic imagery and playing around with different formulations of perspectival projectioning.
And, as luck would have it, it’s just a short four floor elevator ride up from Osborne Samuel to get to Annely Juda Fine Art where Hockney is offering up his latest experimental envisionings. Frankly, the series of prints that he’s created on his iPhone and iPad all look a bit woozy and unfocussed to me, which could be the result of a bi-focal failure on my part but I suspect it’s more likely to be a consequence of the enlargement process required to translate doodles made on small screen electronic devices up to pictures presented in a gallery. Aside from their obvious novelty factor, the inability of the technology to allow for any form of proper precision mark-making or tonal shading means that the end results are inevitably rather simplistically slapdash and disappointing. I suppose one advantage of making art in this mobile manner is that it allows the artist to create an immediate impression of a scene or still life but then years ago Hockney would have had his pencil to hand and been happy to dash off a sketch on a napkin or the back of an envelope and the result would have been so very much sweeter.
As for the other sequence of manipulated photographs on display here, these are rather more intriguing and produce sequences of hyper-realistic tableaux versions of the artist in his studio, complete with suites of various paintings and drawings set up on walls and easels. I’m not sure why the scenes look quite so real yet also so quirky and uncannily off-centre but I suspect Hockney’s been using some sort of Matrix-style computerised technology to subtly subvert the traditional single-point perspective to which post-Renaissance gallery-goers have become accustomed. Being all freshly pixilated the images are also all crystal clean and sharp but I suspect that I won’t be the only person of a certain generation who looks at them and, while impressed at the use of such clever digital special effects, would still swap the lot for one of those early rakish prints or simple line-drawing portraits.
And, by happy coincidence, for those who wish to see some early Pop Art sketches, doodles, designs and draftsmanship, it’s but a shortish walk to get to Waddingtons where Hockney’s old confrere Peter Blake has been given an exhibition to mark his 80th birthday. Evidently Blake has had a good rummage around the back of his archival drawers for the walls here are covered with a collection of shreds and patches dating back to his artschool days. And there are some very pretty lines to be followed as Blake reveals portraits, still lifes and other assorted scraps and scribbles that chart the life of another obsessive note taker. There’s a particularly sweet pair of drawing of a bowl of fruit and some matlepiece chattels that are dated respectively Christmas and New Year’s Eve and I daresay in a drawer somewhere are all the other pictures noted down on the intervening days.
Even more impressive, however, is the recent suite of portrait paintings completed this year that shows the artist still extraordinarily active and also still very much at the top of his game. Unlike Hockney, Blake has steered a much more consistent path, forgoing the search for novelty and digressions into gimmickry and deciding instead to concentrate on pursuing a single-minded path, practising and polishing his technical skills till they reach their current high peak of virtuosity.
Which leaves an all too brief paragraph to introduce some works from the Minimalist and Conceptualist movements that began to emerge when the fizz of Pop Art was starting to subside and flatten out, echoing the economic downturn and pervasive malaise that permeated most of the 1970s. The Simon Lee gallery has gathered together an attractive mini-survey of works from the period including sculptures and wall pieces that range from the comic absurdist – Marcel Broodthaers mussel shell collage – to the seriously stone-faced – Art & Language’s dreary literary-based works that try to bully the viewer into ploughing through screeds of boring textual guff. But best of all by far is the opening work by Michelangelo Pistoletto which poses a large ceramic dog in front of a mirror, leaving the mute mutt to stare at his reflection in eternal canine contemplation – a perfect metaphor for the beautiful futility of the human condition in general and the gallery-going gazer in particular.