Memoirs 1936–2011

Chapter 17 1964 Young, British and Pop

"First Jump Course" Invitation
Article from the New York Times, November 1964

First exhibition in New York

There was confusion and altercation about the design of the invitation to my exhibition.  I had made a poster showing a skydiver but others thought that we should have something more striking and less straightforward.  She was right - and she prevailed.  She had found an advertisement for a parachuting course and wrote off for a sample of their ticketing system.  It consisted of a strip of perforated red cardboard rectangles, each one intended to be exchanged for an item or service necessary for the course - coveralls, boots, helmet, the parachute, the jump itself and so on.  It was called the First Jump Ticket Book and a modified version of it was used as the mailer for the exhibition.  Boots, coverall, parachute and jump still appeared on it but, at the top, the name and address of the gallery, the dates and times of the exhibition and my name appeared instead of that of the parachute training establishment.  It was a good idea for a first exhibition and prompted Ray Johnson9 to appear at the opening in full parachute gear.  However, I felt it put too literal a stress on the parachute content of some of the paintings and by so doing minimised their symbolic meaning.  I did not intend them to be seen merely as depictions of a healthy if risky sporting activity, and I did not understand that the only point of the mailer was to attract people’s attention and excite their curiosity.  It does not do to be too serious or in any way profound if you want to attract attention.   

Jenny and Yseult and a great deal of baggage arrived in September, having made the crossing on the Queen Mary.  This was Jenny’s idea and was particularly useful because it enabled her to bring as much with her as she wished.  Yseult, who was two years old, had hysterics as soon as we put her to bed in the little room I had prepared for her and, because she had not yet a sufficient vocabulary to explain, it took us some time to discover the reason for this untypical behaviour.  A previous tenant had painted the ceiling black; in the middle of it was an unused and very ornate moulded tin light fitting.  To Yseult, lying in bed, it at once assumed the aspect of a terrible monster gazing down at her.  It was not until, by painting everything white,I made apparent the true nature of the object that she was able to sleep in her new bed at all.

Jenny soon found employment and I looked after Yseult during the day while I was painting. On the whole, this worked reasonably well: she would play quietly much of the time and I kept an eye on her while I painted monochrome volume or laid in my areas of flat colour. Once when I was bathing her and she was behaving badly I cuffed her and she hit her mouth on the side of the little bath tub in the kitchen.  Her lip was cut and it bled slightly - and I was of course mortified.

Years later I reminded her of this and once more begged her forgiveness but she had no recollection at all of the event and it certainly was not a source of grievance to her. “But” she said, “I’ll tell you something that really did annoy me at that time!”, “What was that?” I asked.  “Well, when you were painting and I got hungry I would come up behind you and say ‘I’m hungry’, and you would turn round, extend your hand and say “How d’you do, I’m Gerald!’ And I really was hungry and didn’t think it was funny at all.”  So that which I felt guilty about had been completely forgotten and that which I never thought of had given offence. It’s likely to be tricky at the Pearly Gates.

Every gallery was closed all day on Mondays.  At the end of an exhibition, Monday was therefore the daon which paintings were taken down and the new ones hung. Important and enthusiastic clients would visit the gallery privately on Monday afternoons or during the day on Tuesday in order to have a preview and a first chance to buy the work.  The opening proper, to which invitations were sent out but at which everyone who came was welcome, took place on Tuesday evening.  There would always be several openings each Tuesday night and people would travel from one to another.

A measure of your status was where you fitted into this programme, because the most highly esteemed artists and galleries tended to be visited last and be packed by the end of the evening, while newer or less well known artists would find themselves almost alone by eight o’clock. The Ricard company had offered those galleries which served only their drink at an opening (and prominently displayed their distinctive green ashtrays as well) unlimited amounts of their liqueur.  Most galleries were involved and the Feigen gallery was no exception.  For two or three years, Ricard was the only drink you could expect to find there and the green ashtrays were ubiquitous.

The atmosphere at openings was enthusiastic and mutually supportive.  Virtually all artists, whatever their status, made it their business to attend every one.  Bob Indiana said to me right at the beginning “You must be seen everywhere”.  Even the dealers would slip away from their own galleries in order to appear, however briefly, at those of their competitors.  Both Leo Castelli and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as all the other artists one might expect - for instance Andy Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and, of course, Robert Indiana - came to my first opening.  It is difficult to imagine a similar state of affairs occurring today - that all the best known artists in New York would turn up to the opening of an exhibition by a young and unknown foreigner.

Roy Lichtenstein was one of the first to arrive.  He had not seen my paintings before, though I had shown him photographs of them when I first met him.  We agreed absolutely that any similarity of technique in our work was entirely superficial and depended only on our use of dots to depict cheap painting processes in our paintings. Our methods of doing this were entirely dissimilar. Any coincidence was an example of a synchronicity which was to be expected, given the schema of the period in which we were working.  It seemed surprising that more artists were not also referring to this concern.  In spite of the New York Times critic’s reference to ‘outbreaks of measles’ we were, as far as either of us could ascertain, the only two artists using dots regularly.  Either way, the manner in which we utilised them was so fundamentally different that there was no conceivable cause for conflict between us and we remained good friends.

I had eight major paintings in the exhibition, of which four were Skydivers and four were Dragsters.  They were all heroic and celebratory; there was not a hint of satire about them. Four of them were painted on shaped canvases which give a hint of more formal and abstract preoccupations.  There were also a few smaller shaped canvases and a number of my monoprints on both aluminium foil and on Japanese paper.

After the opening, a great number of us including Richard Feigen, Michael Findlay and the rest of the gallery staff went down to Chinatown for a celebratory meal; the table was so long and crowded that it was hard, through the fuzziness of Ricard, to see exactly who was and was not present. 
All of my paintings were sold in the first few days.

Reviews of the exhibition varied.  The critic, Barbara Rose, who was then married to Frank Stella, was particularly scathing, claiming incorrectly that all my ideas were ‘received’ (in other words that I had stolen them from someone else), that my paintings ‘lacked content to an astonishing degree’ and that they were ‘only as good as run-of-the-mill Art Nouveau’ which they resembled, she thought10.

However, this was the only really nasty review and I was too happy about everything to care much about it.  What I was unaware of, because I did not understand it and would not have believed it, was that in the art world, as in any commercial activity, many people work to an agenda just as though they were a part of a huge, heartless and ruthless corporation.  I certainly did not understand how such persistent application leads eventually to enormous power and prestige, while the tender shoots which might grow into significant competition are lopped and cauterised as soon as they appear.  It was to me the first faint sign of that vigorous application of modern business techniques which have since so distorted the contemporary art world.

Other reviews were kinder, and the cheerful bright brave spirit of my paintings was welcomed as a herald of the renaissance that was bursting out around us, promising a new and happier life. The “glorification of the exhilaration of super speed .... the romanticisation of machine-propelled movement were metaphors for this long awaited dawn11.”

Saturday morning was the accepted time for visiting the galleries.  Everyone tramped cheerfully from one to another, usually working their way gradually southwards towards 57th Street.  Sotheby Parke Bernet were at that time on Madison Avenue at 76th Street and auctions were held on Saturdays.  People would drop in on their way past and sometimes join in the bidding. One famous collector of Impressionist painting claimed that he began collecting by accident at just such an auction.  He used to bet on the prices each item would fetch, and one day he bid one up in order to win his bet.  His bid secured the painting - an Impressionist - and he was obliged to take it home with him where, according to him, it worked its magic and became the nucleus of his collection.  He was Sam Lefrak, a developer of mass low-cost housing in the post war period.  One of his monster developments bears his name - LEFRAK CITY.

The romanticisation of art in legends such as his was typical of the period.  A Reader’s Digest short story of the time describes an elderly American couple on holiday in the south of France.  One morning they see an old man drawing in the flat sand on the beach below the high water mark.  He is wearing a blue and white matelot shirt; he is brown and wiry and of a Simian appearance.  It is Picasso! - and those lines in the sand are a drawing by the Master.  What can the Americans do? They have to watch helplessly as the tide rolls in and obliterates forever a masterpiece which only they have seen.

This is a development of the 19th century romantic view of the artist.  It is attractive partly because it puts art outside the usual boundaries of experience, where it is marginalised and not included in the real business of daily life; it becomes instead an exotic and perhaps incomprehensible manifestation which may be studied by a privileged few as a sort of special interest.  It would of course be more useful if it was de-mystified and became an integral or even an essential part of society. By that I do not mean the extraordinary popularity of art now compared to those early days.
Soon several British artists were newly arrived and living in the United States: Allen Jones, Richard Smith, Peter Phillips (who was on a two-year Harkness Fellowship), Derek Boshier and David Hockney.  Grace Glueck, the art columnist of the New York Times, wrote an article about this mini invasion, and Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and I were photographed for it in the Feigen Gallery12.  I wore a new lightweight Italian suit which I had bought just before leaving London - one that, worn with the requisite aviator sun glasses and white leather shoes, projected the sort of image I deemed appropriate: cool, efficient and full of a sang-froid which was brutally upset when my trouser seam split clear around the seat from stem to stern (the suit was very inexpensive).  I kept my back to the wall and sat down for the photograph.  I do not think that you could know by looking at it what had just occurred.

The pace of events now began to speed up.  My exhibition was followed by Chuck Hinman’s, one of the few American artists Feigen represented.  Chuck was handsome and Slavic looking with features very like those of Rudolph Nureyev.  He had a slow, measured way of speaking, always accompanied by a broad lop-side smile which wrinkled up his face in the area of his eyes.  He had almost become a professional baseball player rather than an artist; he seemed to me to be an archetypal American from the hinterland of the country, unlike the more cosmopolitan and polyglot denizens of New York.  He made immaculate abstract paintings on elaborate three-dimensional stretchers - they were objects of great beauty, perfectly formed and organic in their appearance, rather as if a butterfly chrysalis had been made by an aeronautical engineer.  His wife also made art; hers was household rubbish which she put into clear plastic bags and hung on the wall in an obviously angry parody of her husband.  Needless to say, their marriage did not last.

After Chuck’s exhibition ended it was Allen Jones’ turn; he showed his delightful and loosely painted early work, pop paintings of buses, parachutes, aeroplanes and girls which, in their execution, referred consciously to the work of Leger and Matisse.  His awareness of the techniques of other painters was impressive, giving his work an intellectual authority which the raw sexuality of his subsequent works urgently required and in any discussion about his paintings, it was this quality to which he inevitably referred, ignoring the aggressive and obvious content completely.  Allen always had at his disposal a quiver of anecdotes.  Only if you happened to meet him two nights in a row would you realise how remarkably sharp the points on his arrows remained in spite of repeated re-use.  He assiduously courted anyone who might be of service to him, which was a sensible thing to do and far less reprehensible than my own deliberately bolshie and puritanically bloody minded lack of cooperation, the product of an inverted snobbery bred by deep personal insecurity.

He had recently married his wife, Janet, a beautiful girl who had been one of his students. The daughter of a Nonconformist minister, Janet took surprisingly well the demands Allen made on her, that she should dress much of the time in the accoutrements of his fantasies -very high heeled boots, tight black leather or rubber and other items from that specialised field.  She became both the model for most of his paintings and sculpture during the next twenty years, and the mother of his twin daughters.  Fragments of a recognisable Janet can be seen in his paintings amongst whips, bondage shoes and straining thighs - and the whole of her appears in the furniture he made and which so deeply offends feminists: the woman on all fours supporting the glass top of a coffee table, and the woman as a hat rack. Eventually, as is often the case, Janet decided to try a different life; Allen was devastated.

In November, we contributed to an exhibition of British art at the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo in the northernmost part of New York State, close to the Canadian border.  The Museum was originally a grand neo-classical building of some grandeur; recently, the dynamic and efficient corporate architecture firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill had added an uncompromisingly modernist extension.  At that time, it seemed an incredibly daring and unusual thing to do and I was very impressed by it.

Mario Amaya, the expatriate American art critic for the Financial Times who had commissioned me to make a cover for the Covent Garden Opera House magazine, produced a meditation on the romance between us and the United States, which he believed was reciprocal:

‘The young British artists,’ he wrote, ‘have been admired for their bright, gay, extrovert style, their contemporary attitudes and their lightness of wit and touch, as opposed to some other Popists who have been making heavy weather of similar themes. Also, they have shown a love of craftsmanship and hand painting, even when imitating commercial techniques, whereas the Americans have made a virtue out of mechanical art process… The English Popists are essentially painters in the mainstream of European art, while the Americans are basically bent on rejecting al art of the recent past…
With Jones, Laing, Richard Smith, Peter Phillips and recently Boshier and Hockney all living in the United States, the young British painters are clearly having a love affair with America. It is a fascinating turn of events that has made artists feel that a sabbatical in New York nowadays is essential, just as an earlier generation of English artists believed a sojourn in Paris was crucial to the development of their art.13

  1. Ray Edward Johnson (1927-1995) was a seminal figure of the Pop movement, mainly working in collage. He was also an early Conceptual artist and Performance artist. (back)
  2. ROSE, BARBARA. New York letter, "Art International", November 1964. (back)
  3. E.S. 'ART NEWS', September 1964. (back)
  4. GLUECK, GRACE. New York Times. Art Notes, 1 November 1964. (back)
  5. AMAYA, MARIO. "US Love Affair", Financial Times, 20 November 1964 (back)