Art & the 60s: This Was Tomorrow could just as easily be today. Waldemar Januszczak swings along to Tate Britain’s cool take on the Brit Art of yesterday
Of all the British decades in all the British centuries, none has had quite as much interest taken in it as the Profumo-perfumed, Mini-motored, Twiggy-tinted, Kennedy-coloured, World Cup-winning, Sgt Peppered 1960s. What grates more than anything — what Cliff embodies so perfectly — is that massively dispiriting mock optimism of the era, the grinning, giggling upness of the decade’s beat. The thing about the 1960s, of course, is that they marked the end of the second world war, and even, in a way, the end of the first world war. Historians will tell you that the second world war finished in 1945, and the one before that in 1918, but that is just historians being pedantic. The British may have stopped fighting the Germans in 1945, but the underlying national conflict, the country’s war with itself, its lack of confidence in the future, its postcolonial depression, continued until Cliff promised us no more worries for a week or two.
It was only in the 1960s that Britain learnt how to party’n’shop. And since partying’n’shopping is our speciality as well, our times can trace their origins back to those times. By worshipping the 1960s, we are worshipping ourselves.
Quite how true this is I had not fully realised until I found myself in the middle of Art & the 60s: This Was Tomorrow. On this evidence, then and now are essentially identical. Both are obsessed with consumer goodies, famous faces, sex, fashion, youngness, hipness and transgression. Both feature an unusually fierce cultural interplay between Britain and America. Both have a war going on to round them off and stimulate them, in the way that a raid by the police rounds off a good party. And as for the art — the similarities are out-rageous. The Brit Art thing and the pop-art thing are comparable to the point of interchangeability.
Here’s a little test to prove this point. Let me describe a sculpture to you and see if you can date it. A life-sized figure, assembled out of inflatables and prosthetics, has been strapped to a dentist’s chair. The figure’s see-through head is filled with cuttings from porn mags. Instead of hands, it sports half a dozen rubber gloves, and whenever a battered old engine begins pumping air into these rubber gloves, they inflate and start to fondle a row of breasts arranged along the figure’s chest. It sounds like something we might have encountered at In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the madcap dystopian installation, plotted by Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, that occupied these same Tate spaces earlier in the year, doesn’t it? But it is Bruce Lacey’s 1966 sculpture The Womaniser, located in the middle of Art & the 60s: This Was Tomorrow. Lacey was Hirst and Lucas 40 years before they were.
I could hardly believe that Martians, by Nicholas Monro, was a work from 1965 rather than something out of the current degree show at Central St Martins. Four little green men with red eyes prance about in unison on a pedestal, as if they were performing a boyband routine. It’s a fabulously cheeky piece that seems to be refusing to take anything seriously, least of all the onerous responsibility of making art. In the 1960s, having a laugh became a cultural position. At least, that’s what happened at the Cliff end of the cultural spectrum. Elsewhere on the rainbow, then as now, artists could see where the commodification of culture was leading. It was leading to us.
Art & the 60s is a more interesting and better show than most of us would have dared hope for, precisely because it is as interested in the negativity of the 1960s as it is in the mock optimism. The 1960s didn’t only swing. They also shivered and cut themselves. They worried. They bellowed. They feared for us. It’s a point this survey makes immediately.
I won’t be alone in striding in here expecting to encounter Day-Glo colours and targets and miniskirts, and finding instead, in the first room, a glum arrangement of dark works, most of which have been created by some process of destruction or other. John Latham performed that most sacrilegious of cultural acts to make his pictures — he burnt books, wiring their charred remains to the canvas to form an arsonist’s anti-library. William Green can be seen pouring bitumen onto his canvases and then setting them alight.
Gustav Metzger did his defacing with broken glass and acid. Even Anthony Caro’s famous painted girders are said here to have had a rhyming relationship with the metal bars poking out of the bombed housing that still littered London.
Some of these deeply miserable pieces were made when we were still technically in the 1950s, and I suppose the point of starting here is to allow the contrasting brightness of the 1960s art that follows to be fully felt. But it never happens. A full load of 1960s art was also neurotic and pessimistic. Peter Blake, who is one of the preternaturally successful students, chiefly from the Royal College, who star in the pop-art room, emerges as a deeply melancholy spirit with a pathetic appetite for hero worship and a poignant awareness of his own lack of glamour. Self- Portrait with Badges shows Blake standing in front of a fence, dressed in ankle-to-neck denim that sags about him as forlornly as a Mao suit. He holds an Elvis mag in his hand and his chest is covered with Elvis badges. But instead of making him hip, the denim and badge get-up serves only to highlight his orotund suburban glumness. The fence behind Blake has a hole in it, and an apple at his feet suggests that he has been over on the other side, scrumping. This other side, you feel, was America.
Blake’s dampness of spirit makes it extraordinary that he could ever have passed himself off convincingly as a pop artist. His college pals — Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, Pauline Boty — employ brighter colours and make copious references to packaging and jukeboxes in their work, but only to question the consumer culture being imported from America, never to celebrate it. Deeper into the exhibition, there is a whole room devoted to the Ban the Bomb campaign and the fierce antiwar art that it inspired. The Destruction in Art Symposium, held in London in 1966, also has a section to itself, featuring extraordinary scenes of blood-letting and smearing. No more worries for a week or two? Half the art in this show is beside itself with anger.
You will have gathered by now that Art & the 60s is packed with stuff. Not only do we have the original art on display, but also a full complement of photos, films, books, magazines, posters. It’s one of those shows that tries to show it all and ends up sprinting through its topics as a result. There is even a pathetic one-room survey of the decade’s architecture. But two impressions are well conveyed. The first is the zest of the first wave of 1960s sculptors, the ones who never usually make it out of the Tate’s commodious cellars. Caro, Philip King, William Turnbull and William Tucker were such free and lively spirits when they started out. The ponderousness that afflicts their work later on — now — is a most unfortunate affliction. Thinking too deeply, emoting too forcefully, is, in the case of this gener-ation, a weakness, not a strength.
The second revelation concerns the insightfulness of Richard Hamilton, who towers over these proceedings as an artist of scary prescience. All the pop artists were suspicious of the consumer revolution, but none expressed their doubts more intelligently or stylishly than Hamilton. His early paintings about the commodification of women — the eerie conflation of car and pin-up in Hommage à Chrysler Corp or the fridge-side feminine tragedy that is $he — are this exhibition’s undoubted masterpieces. That they should be attacks on the 1960s dream, rather than celebrations of it, is typical of this intriguing revisionist show.