British Pop Art Prints, Bernard Jacobson Gallery- 15 August – 7 September 2012
One of the psychological tricks the English have in order to maintain their haughty defensive superiority in the face of Americans’ obvious superiority is to condemn “brashness”. This is a clever move, though not the most honest, because brashness can be made to encompass everything America seems to stand for: big cars, advertisements, tallest things, heaviest other things; but it also means that America has a universally distinct advantage when the rules require tall, big, heaviest things, advertisements, and commercial production. The triumph of Macdonald’s and Coke, even in England, is a symbol that America now runs the world, and does so on its own terms. So while the roots of Pop Art are arguably English, with Eduardo Paolozzi’s Independent Group (IG) in 1952, or perhaps even earlier and Frencher with Braque’s and Gris’ using of wine bottle labels or newspapers in Cubist works, these European efforts often seem a little quaint or naïve compared to what Americans were being bombarded with day after day, and thus what made it onto Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s canvases. It is useless not to admit this, but it is also important to acknowledge that the terms of our judgement cannot help but create this outcome, and indeed are exactly the terms that create it.
The perceived/actual dominance of American Pop artists over English ones goes rather Britishly unchallenged in this out-of-the-way Bernard Jacobson show. Indeed, it is perhaps just gallery filler for a slow August, like the mixed show in the front area of the gallery, but in a way this is a wonderful and fitting way to show what are, in theory, the British equivalents to Warhol’s bombastic series. In a tacit acknowledging of the “brashness” of American-centric Pop (Warhol has seemingly been all over London this summer), this polite exhibition rings with the faintly superior (yet in theory servile) “ahem, and these too sir, if you would be so kind” of Jeeves.
I admit: I didn’t know it was there until I was there. It is a quiet show, starting suddenly and unannounced as you go towards the back room of the gallery space with Patrick Caulfield’s Night Sky (1973), and moves down the corridor into a pool of David Hockney prints (of which For John Constable, 1976, strikes me as standout). But the real good stuff happens when you go downstairs, and are met with a not insignificant number of works by Peter Blake, Caulfield, and Richard Smith.
The great advantage of the Bernard Jacobson downstairs space is that circular, rose-garden-style seat, which is perfect for taking in the series that have been wrapped around whole room as if they were flower beds. Caulfield is woefully underrated, represented here by a few from a series of his illustrations accompanying one line from the free verse of French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue- himself a favourite of T.S. Eliot for developing a kind of disarming irony. This disarming irony also characterises Caulfield’s responses to the lines of poetry: Ah! This life is so everyday (1973) is accompanied by a view of a clear blue sky, with silhouetted flying birds out of a curtained window; Thus she would come, escaped, half-dead to my door (1973) is a bold-colour, black outlined view of a distinctly 60s set of coat pegs- one used. It is everyday, but is the sky sublime? She escaped, half dead, but managed to grab from the jaws of death, then subsequently hang up, her grey overcoat in what I would take to be her savior’s suburban bungalow. It’s wonderful undercutting suggestivity is a great, understated, strength.
Caulfield has been described by the American critic Christopher Finch as ‘a Romantic disarmed by his own irony’, and the resulting subtlety is reminiscent of a character like J. Alfred Prufrock or Laforgue’s own nearly-clownish (if he wasn’t so knowing) “Pierrot” figure. Caulfield is bold, witty, and nicely ironic without crossing into an annoying kind of urbanity (which is maybe just one characteristic of Post-Modernism). His is a kind of literary irony, novelistic, rather than the constant questioning of intent/meaning as people have seen in Warhol, which always scurries off to hide beneath another perceived layer- and this seems to be the characterising difference between British and American Pop.
Why Richard Smith is not better known and higher priced is beyond me, although why he is in a show with Pop Artists is nearly by me as well. A tuned colour sense, coupled with a kind of mental joyousness, sees Smith creating basic designs mapped onto wonderfully imaginative layouts and schemes with the paper. Everglum & Everglad (black) (1969) is one such charm, where a brown/black wash has had a slot cut out of it, through which pokes just the correct shade of pink on a separate sheet, like a neatly sent birthday card. Four Knots (red tied square) (1976), where sheets of etched paper have been tied together with string, seems as though it were made in the midst of a fable, as does Proscenium III (hard line grid with border) (1971), (the Bernard Jacobson entry says it is number III, but the Tate catalogues it as IV) where a black outline is too exuberant and jumps out into the raisef border, only to have the raised border turn liquid and change shape to accommodate it. His work has the hint of an honest fairy-tale to it- the same type of magic we get in something like Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, where a young annoyed prince climbs a tree, tells his family he isn’t coming down, and then doesn’t, forever. It is the product of a simple (but not stupid or insipid), imaginative intelligence- Caulfield too, actually- and I hope he and Caulfield eventually get the recognition they deserve. This show is not loud, but it is clever, it is tranquil, and it is brilliant. It is an inviting look at a type of sophistication that has been lost, or subsumed, by a louder, other, type, like Red Squirrels.
***- 3 Stars Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012