Charles I versus Charles II

1 Feb

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 20.28.35

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Charles I in Three Positions, 1635–36, oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018. Exhibition organized in partnership with Royal Collection Trust

Art, what is it good for? Typing those words automatically cues the opening bars of the Edwin Starr song in imagination, and in my bleaker moments I could indeed respond sighingly: “Absolutely nothing.” But, you know, *huh*, winter will soon enough give way to spring, so let’s pose a slightly different, hopefully more energizing question: What is a collection for?

In the case of Charles I, whose collection is the subject of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, it was to project his power and advertise his taste. Of course, this was in the olden days—Charles was king of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 to 1649—when you could buy a Veronese and still see change from a twenty-pound note. The Renaissance may not have visited these isles, but its fruits were still sufficiently plentiful and affordable in the seventeenth century to be bought in en masse by an aspiring monarch with a bit of disposable dosh, and its greatest artistic descendants could even be physically brought in to create fresh monuments to said king’s majesty.

Thus Charles I made Anthony van Dyck his “principal painter in ordinary”—his portraits of the king form the centrepiece of the RA’s dazzlingly beautiful show—and when Peter Paul Rubens rocked up in London on diplomatic business, Charles did not stop him from dashing off a minor masterpiece (Peace and War) to add to his collection. Impressed, Rubens would call the king “the greatest amateur of painting among the princes of the world”, and Charles would walk beneath the Rubens ceiling at the Banqueting House on his way to the scaffold outside its windows in January 1649.

While still Prince of Wales, Charles had travelled to Spain in hopes of marrying the Infanta. In the event he failed to bring home a bride, but he did bag himself a Velázquez as well as works by Titian and Veronese. This 1623 Spanish adventure appears to have persuaded the young royal of the need to underpin hard power with sumptuous visual display. It certainly set the tone for his subsequent reign: Charles would be the Aesthete King, a connoisseur of the first water. Alas, he did not have political skills to match: his taste smacked of Catholicism and would help to get his head lopped off by the puritans.

After his death, the new republican authorities (the monarchy was temporarily discontinued) sold off Charles’s art collection. Britain’s troubled relationship with images did not begin at this time: as mentioned before, the Renaissance had failed to materialize in any significant form here while the iconoclastic Reformation, taking advantage of Henry VIII’s marital problems, witnessed the destruction of most of the country’s visual riches. The Commonwealth Sale of 1649–51 now made use of the royal collection to settle outstanding debts: Charles’s plumber, John Emery, got a Titian instead of cash to settle his account. Correggios, Van Dycks, Titians, Raphaels suddenly hung on the walls of ordinary people. You might cheer at this outcome but the impulse behind the sell-off was less a democratizing one—Art for all!—than an expression of contempt for visual culture—Who wants this ungodly junk? May as well give it to the plebs!

i2-RS678574_59340-lprCharger, 1680

If you hot-foot it across Green Park from the RA to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, you can time-travel directly from the Caroline to the Carolean world. (“Caroline” is the adjective applied to Charles I’s reign; “Carolean” to his son Charles II’s.) Charles II: Art and Power picks up where the RA show leaves off—with the death of Charles I. Edward Bower’s 1649 portrait of the doomed king pictures him in a black hat, stripped of regalia, sitting before his accusers at his trial. A print nearby shows his execution, and there is a copy of the “Act for the Abolishing the Kingly Office” next to it, and an engraving after Van Dyck which replaces the figure of Charles I with that of Oliver Cromwell. One head had been cut off; another was now stuck on, willy-nilly, in its place.

On his Restoration in 1660, one of Charles II’s first acts was to establish a committee to reassemble the royal collection (which is precisely what the RA show attempts to do, of course). But he also commissioned new work to celebrate his particular form of majesty, and received other gifts. Unsurprisingly, the new era had a new look. Charles II was a saturnine Sid James to Charles I’s prissily uxorious Kenneth Williams, and in the Queen’s Gallery show there are pictures aplenty of the royal mistresses rather than the family portraits favoured by the younger Charles’s dad. Popular prints capture the raffish, rambunctious tone of the times.

Charles I was so deeply enamoured of Rubens as an artist that he kept his self-portrait in his bedchamber; for his part, Charles II had Carlo Dolci’s painting Salome with the Head of John the Baptist in his room—perhaps out of affection for Dolci, or maybe because the lurid scene turned the famously priapic monarch on. Or maybe for other reasons entirely: the king is refusing to comment at this time. Charles II had his own Van Dyck in the shape of Antonio Verrio, who had worked at Versailles for Louis XIV and was now commissioned to deck out the State Apartments at Windsor Castle.

Let’s end where we began—with a question: Caroline or Carolean? If we were talking in theatrical terms the answer might be different: worldly-wise Restoration romps trump the tiresomely high-minded Love and Honour dramas sponsored by Queen Henrietta Maria in the 1630s every time. But when it comes to Old Masters, Charles I had much the better eye. Go and enjoy the spectacle.

Charles I: King and Collector, Royal Academy, London, runs until 15 April. Charles II: Art and Power, Queen’s Gallery, London, runs until 13 May


Elephant in Berlin: Art Week Diary

17 Sep

To Berlin for a whistle-stop Art Week tour.

We begin with the press conference to launch the Art Berlin art fair. To access it we make our way past a flash mob of fashionable youth into a post-industrial complex that would have made a suitable subject for Bernd and Hilla Becher. The introductory addresses are all made in German. I catch the odd word—“Vielen Dank”, “Gordon Matta-Clark”—but my schoolboy German really isn’t up to the task (it’s a long time since I was last a schoolboy). Happily fair director Maike Cruse comes over to provide non-German-speaking onlookers with a bit of context. Berlin, she says, is the “city of the artist” and is traditionally less market-driven than other big art cities. But there’s a growing body of German collectors and the revamped fair—a collaboration between ABC and Koelnmesse—has set out to present a more varied selection of galleries and artists this year. And that’s precisely what the organizers have achieved, with over a hundred international exhibitors. Perhaps Berlin is becoming more “market-driven”?


Work by Katja Novitskova at the Sammlung Boros, Berlin

Next we head to the Positions art fair, which neatly illustrates the noted scientific phenomenon—which only those with a sophisticated grasp of string theory will really comprehend—that art fairs never manifest singly. On the way I become distracted by an email that pings into my phone. Thank god they’ve reduced overseas phone charges, I reflect. I no longer have to wait for the next wifi stop-off to pick up infuriating messages; now I can receive them constantly! I miss the Positions press conference as a result but it doesn’t matter because that’s in German too. I wander dutifully round the fair. It’s OK. More stuff in a big shed.

Airports are a controversial subject in Berlin, where the much-trumpeted new Brandenburg air hub remains mysteriously unopened six years after its first announced launch date. But Berlin Art Week at least has a use for a former airport, Tempelhof, where one of the enormous hangars is hosting choreographer Boris Charmatz’s eight-hour performance piece A Dancer’s Day. When we arrive Charmatz is conducting a workshop in slightly manic terpsichorean self-expression with Joe and Josephine Public, and the Publics are responding with alarming alacrity to his incitements to let it all out. Elephant is invited to join in but, as we all know, elephants are easily embarrassed and can’t really dance—too heavy-footed. Not that Charmatz, who is debuting his new 10000 Gestures piece, is a traditionalist in dance matters.

Afterwards spectator-participants are encouraged to lounge on blankets in Déjeuner à l’herbe fashion while a dancer, as naked as the day he was born, though rather more ripped than on arrival day, disports himself among them. This isn’t a random outbreak of naturist nuttiness, it’s a performance of Tino Sehgal’s Picnic and (Untitled) (2000). The nudie dancer runs the gamut, balletically speaking: en pointe, attitude derrière, fouetté en tournant en dehors. And he talks. And shields and slaps his penis. It’s surreal and liberating, oppressive and boring, discomfiting and gladdening. The children present don’t seem to take much notice.

About thirty minutes into the performance (or is it thirty hours?), a neighbour whispers that the dancer cupping his cock actually is Tino Sehgal. Elephant is watching Tino Sehgal play with his willy!

And then that neighbour is corrected by another neighbour, who says: Don’t be silly, of course the naked dancer isn’t Tino Sehgal—because Tino is standing there! And she points in a different direction to a (fully clothed) man who is also watching the performance. Does that make it all meta? And if so, does it matter?

Day two (unremarked, a night has passed) begins with a visit to Mind the Space_ spacewithoutspace and two prizewinning project initiatives of no fixed abode. We meet Zona Dynamic and the cargocult collective, who stand before us in their (largely) found attire as vivid as a pack of Tarot cards. Cargocult have just performed a piece in front of Primark in Alexanderplatz; as they say themselves, they’re more Deutsche Punk than Deutsche Bank in attitude.

More moneyed, but hardly less resonant, are the Julia Stoschek and Boros Collections of contemporary art. Both are located on what was the eastern side of the fallen Wall. The former occupies a building that served as the Czech Cultural Centre in the Cold War era. The latter, meanwhile, is housed in a converted air-raid bunker that was used as a storage depot for Cuban bananas prior to reunification, when it became a techno nightclub.

Finally it’s off to the northern suburb of Pankow for the launch of Beg, Steal and Borrow, a brand-new “Elephant Book” by Robert Shore. Bob’s a clown but the event is a modest success—largely because it’s hosted by the Galerie Andreas Schmidt, which also happens to be launching a new show, Perfect/Imperfect, with works by Mariken Wessels and Jo Longhurst, and a big wall of Penelope Umbrico sunsets. What more appropriate (and appropriated) way could there be to end the day, and the stay?

Three Observations: Frieze Art Fair 2014

3 Sep

1) It’s hard to make a standout subversive gesture at Frieze when absolutely everyone in the room – and it’s a jolly big room – is trying to subvert expectations while at the same time pocketing a vast amount of dosh. Even those guys standing facing one another with their heads covered by a single length of fabric – what could be more subversive than that, performance-art aficionados? – turn out to be right spenny. But I think the creator of booth P2 (Mélanie Matranga) has managed it all the same. The set-up resembles a small café – in fact, it IS a café, where you’re encouraged to sit and clip your toenails, recharge your smartphone and generally kick back with a coffee. You’re also encouraged to watch an online video but never mind about that. The subversive bit is that no one is serving or selling the coffee – you take your drink and leave a donation in an honesty jar. I was so moved by the quiet utopianism of this gesture in the midst of such a furiously busy temple of commerce that I began to whistle ‘Imagine’. After which I briefly wanted to kill myself because I hate that hippie crap. Still, I would be interested to see some of the other galleries adopting a similar strategy next year. How much would you drop in the honesty jar for that Carsten Höller dice, eh? (And then how long would it take you to roll it home?)

2) I really like what Goshka Macuga has done with Angela Merkel at the Kate MacGarry stand. You can sit on the German chancellor if you’re that way inclined – she’s been turned into a rather forbidding-looking chair. I don’t know whether it qualifies as subversive but it’s definitely naughty.


Angela Merkel chair by Goshka Macuga, Kate MacGarry gallery, Frieze

3) Among the millions of satellite events in #FriezeWeek is PAD, an extremely high-end art and design fair in Berkeley Square. You can tell how upscale it is by the attention the exhibitors pay to the flooring – the stands at Frieze are all very carefully dressed from the feet up, but who’s taken the trouble to lay MARBLE for their customers to stand on? At PAD I hardly dared enter some of the booths for fear of sullying the cream shagpile. The top subversive moment to be had in this most unsubversive of environments, where the last thing anyone wants to do is épater les bourgeois, is when you suddenly come upon one of the very large trees that interrupt the exhibition space. It’s nice to know that they didn’t chop them down to make more room for high-rental stands when they were constructing the building. That’s caring capitalism for you. (There’s an extremely amusing story concerning Le Corbusier and a tree at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in 1925 but I really couldn’t be bothered to tell it here. How subversive of me.)

Originally posted

Photography Is…

18 May

Generally you expect art fairs to be mixed-media affairs. A bit of painting, a bit of sculpture, a bit of photography, a bit of—sigh, all right, if you really must, but please mop the floor when you’ve finished—performance: the variety keeps things interesting. In the case of Photo London, however, you could say that the lack of variety is what makes it interesting. It’s about photography and nothing else. Exclusivity of medium is its USP.

And yet, and yet… If you look at the public programme for this year’s edition, currently running at Somerset House, you’ll realize that the definition of photography has been expanded to the point where it now incorporates pretty much every other medium. Photography is video; photography is sculpture; you name it, it is photography and photography is it.

Self help (detail)copy
Prof. Phil Shaw, Self-Help (detail). Courtesy Rebecca Hossack

Though it has the alibi of recreating a historic photographic exhibition (William Henry Fox Talbot’s public display of prints at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, in 1839), Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds turns out to be an immersive virtual-reality artwork: you strap on goggles and a backpack and then stumble around a Gothic revival hall as a rodent scuttles across the floor and a spider scrambles up a wall to a rising soundtrack of Chartist rioters, glimpsable through a virtual window.

It’s fun but it’s only photography in so far as everything is photography. Asked at the launch what his next project might be, Collishaw joked, somewhat ruefully (VR is technically demanding, one surmises), “oil painting”. If that proves to be the case, the resulting work may well find a place in the next Photo London. After all, photography is oil painting.

Which is not to say that there’s no what you might call “straight photography” to gawp at, and it’s always fun to see what’s trending as subject matter in such traditional (I’d better use the word to establish my commentariat credentials) “indexical” works. Muhammad Ali seems quite present this year, which may be related to the fact that the sporting hero and activist died recently.

There are usually shots aplenty of (as well as by) Andy Warhol, who died a while ago; and then there’s Mick Jagger – he’s still alive, of course, but hasn’t released a really good album since at least 1983 (Undercover of the Night) and some would say 1972 (Exile on Main Street); personally I still like She’s the Boss, a solo outing from 1985, but this is not the place to play you my mixtape, so perhaps we can just agree on the formulation that Sir Mick is a lot less musically alive than he once was. Someone mentioned that there were lots of pictures of cows a few years ago; this year I was struck by the number of elephants, which I find rewarding because this magazine is called Elephant. To me, every image of an elephant on display at the fair is a kind of more or less conscious tribute to us.

I enjoyed the sign at the entrance to the rooms dedicated to the work of Taryn Simon, who has been named this year’s Master of Photography. The display, it announced, “may contain graphic images”. Which made me want to say – and I did say it, though there was no one there to hear me – “Look, either it does or it doesn’t. Don’t you know?” The subjunctive mood seems at odds with photography, which is traditionally viewed as the most documentary and fact-based of mediums; something is either there in the frame or it isn’t. But Simon’s work isn’t really photography, or not old-style photography at any rate.

The centrepiece here is Image Atlas, a collaboration with programmer Aaron Swartz, which presents a real-time, internet-based investigation of global cultural differences (and similarities). Entering a sombre cathedral-like space, you step up to a console and type in a search item of your choosing, which prompts a giant screen to display the top results in different geographical territories. The person before me wanted to know about “Beauty”; from Germany to Egypt the results seemed fairly uniform.

I am proud to have a supremely uninquiring mind and no curiosity whatsoever, so when it fell my turn at the keyboard coming up with a search term proved a trial. “What would I like to know about?” I pondered, emptily. Time was passing; the people behind me were growing impatient. So I thought: “What would my football-obsessed son want me to type in?” To which the answer presented itself immediately: Arsenal. I was tempted to stop keying after the first four letters in order to deliver on that half-promise of graphic content on the entrance door. But in the event I typed in all seven letters: opposite the names of France and other First World footballing nations there duly appeared on the screen a Gunners club badge and/or pictures of Alexis Sanchez celebrating a goal; for Afghanistan and Iran, by contrast, there were pictures of mushroom clouds and munitions corresponding to a historically more enduring use of the arsenal.

The Collishaw and Simon displays have strong elements of installation about them; indeed, one might even be tempted to say that they seem to be trying to demonstrate that photography is installation. Equally installation-y in feel, if in a rather more olde-worlde fashion, is the work of Prof. Phil Shaw. Displayed in the Rebecca Hossack gallery booth (S5), Prof. Shaw’s witty “bookshelf” prints interrogate the changing place of the printed word in the digital (and, if you like, post-truth) world. Colour-coded to suggest lines on the underground network or to hint at the outline of the British Isles, they also make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a hospitably furnished, book-lined room. Which is one of the nicer tricks photography can play on you.

Photo London runs until Sunday;

Hipgnotic Appeal

13 May

Why is that cow staring at me? The album cover designs of Hipgnosis have an enduring, surreal charm.

The town I grew up in didn’t have an art gallery but it did have a record store. When I went there—as I did for many years every Saturday—I went to look as much as I did to listen.

Though you were there ostensibly to find music, you did most of your searching with your eyes—and fingers. Record stores were a non-exclusive and particularly intimate kind of art gallery: you were invited to riffle through the collection and actually touch the artworks. They weren’t fragile and, produced in unlimited editions, they weren’t expensive, so you could even take them home with you if you chose.

51 Pink Floyd Atom Heart Mother F
Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother (1970). Photography: S. Thorgerson. © Pink Floyd Music Ltd.

It was there that I first encountered Magritte and Man Ray, not to mention Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton. Or at least I encountered their shadows, refracted darkly through the surreal, idiosyncratic lens of Hipgnosis, sleeve designers to 10CC, Peter Gabriel and—most famously—Pink Floyd. (Their name was given to them indirectly by original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, whom founder members Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgersen met as youngsters in Cambridge.)

Hipgnosis were fun-loving, good-time cousins to the Pictures Generation, allusive, appropriative, offering intriguing, subversive reflections on the broader art and media landscape. Their text-only design for XTC’s Go 2 (“This is a RECORD Cover. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record…”) is meta avant la lettre.

They didn’t do band portraits, and they didn’t necessarily need to listen to the music before coming up with a sleeve to contain and help sell its vinyl incarnation: ideas rejected for one project would reappear elsewhere.

The best of the work reproduced in Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue is the product of a highly privileged kind of patron-client relationship. The most characterful sleeves often came out of explicitly not working too closely with bands’ own ideas. Paul McCartney, who has always fancied himself as a bit of a painter, liked to develop his thoughts before contacting his designers, so Hipgnosis’s work for the ex-Beatle isn’t their best. It isn’t their worst either. This is a complete catalogue so there’s no hiding place for the more cringe-inducing work such as Roy Harper’s awful, literal Lifemask: as Powell’s text makes clear, Harper was to blame for that one.

A lot of ideas began with wordplay, not all of it great: the naked light bulb adorning the cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s first album is 1% perspiration, 0% inspiration; the phallic taps poking out from the shower scene on the sleeve of UFO’s Force It (a visual pun on the US “faucet”) aren’t much better.

175 10cc How Dare You!
10cc, How Dare You! (1976). Cover design: Hipgnosis/G. Hardie. Photography: A. Powell. © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd.

But then there’s the mise en abyme of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother’s mystifying cow portrait (the eyes just follow you around the room), the arty conceptualism of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. As budgets grew, so did the ambition; this was the age of prog rock excess. For The Nice’s Elegy the team headed off into the Sahara with 120 inflatable red balls. The cover of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door emerged from weeks of research and laborious, exacting set-building.

That said, one of my favourite album covers, not by Hipgnosis, lacks both image and clever text: it’s just a simple black square. (Malevich was a big influence on AC/DC.)

Hipgnosis’s heyday extended from 1967 (when rock went Pop and Peter Blake designed the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to 1982 and the advent of the CD, with the diminished canvas it offered cover designers. The upside was the simultaneous arrival of MTV—Powell and pals moved seamlessly into video.

Vinyl has made a renaissance of late, as have record stores. But as part of that return the 12-inch has acquired an unfortunate Benjaminian “aura”. Venerated and precious, with its physical properties trumpeted (180g! first pressing!), the twenty-first-century vinyl album is at least halfway to enjoying the status of an art object. By contrast, what’s so beguiling about the work here is its indeterminate status, somewhere between marketing campaign and art; its occasional accidental surplus of value, throwaway with a glint of gold; its very occasional unplanned sublimity.

“Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue” by Aubrey Powell is published by Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

Damien Floyd / Pink Hirst

13 May

Many people have said many things about Damien Hirst’s new show in Venice. But no one has compared it to the Pink Floyd exhibition in London—until now.

I should be in Venice. Mostly because I always wanted to be a gondolier and there’s really only one place to realize that particular dream. But I should also be in La Serenissima because there’s some sort of art event going on there at the moment and, having failed to pursue the punting and taken a wrong turn into journalism instead, I ought to be working up an opinion. I need to think something about it.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So Venice is where I should be, knocking back the bellinis and pressing “Publish” on my pre-written hatchet job on Damien Hirst’s new faux-archaeological exhibit, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which is filling up palazzi and puntas with its billion cubic metres of peerless vacuity. “As I toured the exhibit,” I wrote in advance of actually visiting the show, which I won’t now be visiting, “I was struck by the recurrent motifs drawn from theme parks and Disney and found myself asking: Doesn’t the now distinctly middle-aged Mr Hirst know that great biblical line about putting away childish things? I’m not saying that a grown-up should deny all knowledge of Mickey Mouse but after a certain age you shouldn’t still be thinking of him as your best friend either. The most flattering thing I can say about the show is that Michael Jackson would have loved it.” Alas, since I haven’t visited the exhibit and won’t be doing so—though I’ve seen the TV footage and looked at all the images and read the press release, and Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable surely first took life and finds its most complete and satisfactory expression as a press release—it would be unethical of me to publish the review. Thus my immortal judgment is lost to history.

So I’m not in Venice, I’m in London, and compensating myself with a visit to The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like Hirst’s, this is essentially an overblown archaeological show, gargantuan to the point that it contains, according to the press release at least, a larger-than-life installation of Battersea Power Station. How big is that! Or how big would that be, were it true. (It’s just careless wording.)

Animals cover © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

There are similarities of scale and theme, then, between Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable and Their Mortal Remains. But there is also a crucial difference: the former is a fiction while the latter is archaeology of the real, documenting something that actually happened, full of genuine artefacts salvaged from a long-forgotten and now barely believable time—the Prog Rock Era, to give it its proper geological designation. If Floyd conceptualist-in-chief Roger Waters shares with Hirst a love of the Big (and not always terribly profound) Idea, his most overblown concepts have always been made to rub shoulders with reality. What has emerged has been not just Big Ideas but Big Ideas tested and changed by Actual Work and Lived Experience. There’s grit in the grandiose. From one perspective the album Animals can be seen as an auterish Orwellian fable but as a finished work it’s the result of intense musical and visual collaboration; a Big Idea given ultimate and altered form through the experience of its making; that’s not a sense you much get from Hirst’s new work.

As told here, the story of Animals also takes in the breathtaking climb rate of an escaped inflatable pig called Algie, a missing marksman and a helicopter despatched in hot pursuit, and a telephone call from a Kentish farmer complaining the porcine balloon was bothering his cows.

To ensure that it isn’t mistaken for a mere nostalgia show for old rockers, Their Mortal Remains kicks off with a little aesthetic context. There’s a slightly vainglorious mention of a 1966 Aubrey Beardsley show—which was held at the V&A, don’t you know—as an influence on the psychedelic visual style of time; on an adjacent wall a screen carries clips from Jonathan Miller’s unsettlingly trippy TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland from the same year. This is not so much Swinging London as Swirling London. Walking through the first rooms feels a bit like being sucked through a psychedelic rabbit hole that’s been decorated with consciousness-altering Op Art panache by Bridget Riley.

At the outset Pink Floyd were in with the in crowd, although the show charts a change in taste with the rise of punk and the band’s swift exit out of the door marked “Not cool, man”. There’s Johnny Rotten scrawling “I Hate” on his Pink Floyd T-shirt (before later admitting to quite liking them) and a slightly gratuitous—some might even say pretty vacant—display of Never Mind the Bollocks’s guerilla graphics, offered by way of contrast to the brand of surrealism practised by design agency Hipgnosis on Pink Floyd’s behalf. And anyway, Animals—the one with the pig floating over Battersea Power Station on the cover—is a great punk album. Don’t argue.

Some have suggested that, by comparison with the Bowie show a few years back, Their Mortal Remains lacks personality because Pink Floyd as a band lacked a leading personality. It’s true that their only real “frontman”, Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-related psychosis and retired from the spotlight straight after the band released their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (the title is drawn from The Wind in the Willows). But actually the personality of the show—and of the band—comes out of that very anonymity and the band’s related desire to generate rock’n’roll spectacle by other means. Aided by Bluetooth technology, the exhibition inventively re-creates the band’s early experimentation with temporary architecture, inflatable sculptures and their collaboration with illustrator Gerald Scarfe.

Thankfully, there’s also plenty of pig documentation.

‘The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains’ runs from 13 May until 1 October.

First published on

I Saw Jefferson Airplane—and Santa Played Lead Guitar!

4 Feb

The Columbia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of classic height-of-hippiedom posters by the likes of Victor Moscoso and Bonnie MacLean. The designs are supposed to be promoting the psychedelic music of Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead and other luminaries of the tripped-out late-Sixties scene—so how come Edgar Allan Poe and Santa Claus make an appearance? We asked the eminent design historian and serial collector Mel Byars to explain.

The trippy, elaborate design of the posters, which you collected and donated to the Columbia Museum, is at odds with the slick output of Madison Avenue in the same years—a countercultural West Coast riposte to East Coast consumerism. You were working in New York in the late Sixties. What did you make of these psychedelic designs at the time?

I didn’t and still don’t like rock music. I only listened to 30s and 40s music and didn’t know about the posters at the time. It was a West Coast, particularly San Francisco, phenomenon. Living in New York City at age 30 in 1968 and working for book publishers and advertising agencies, I was only interested in Swiss design. The idea of words in advertising or posters that people cannot read would have been absurd to me—just as today. The rock-music artists were drugged hippies. Only one was female, the wife of the Fillmore Auditorium’s Bill Graham. They were not selling anything. They were not propagandists. The images included are dotty, having no relationship whatsoever to the musicians—Edgar Allan Poe, Gloria Swanson, Santa Claus with horns, the Taj Mahal and Jesus.

Does Sixties psychedelia have much importance for today’s designers?

I am trusting that those like me—teachers and historians—don’t decide what designers should think or what is important. At least I hope not. I only report. The importance for today’s designers is to think for themselves, watch TV news, read newspapers and, in fact, read. Most graphic design today and in the past is shit. Look at adverts in newspapers. Who is executing that stuff? Graphic designers will be well served to acquire an in-depth education in the humanities first.
As an aside about psychedelic posters, I had a dream a few days ago that made me aware that they are all positive—no matter how silly—nothing dark. Yet they were being created as the same time (late 60s) as the morass of youth protests in the US and Europe.

As promotional tools, the posters could be said to fail in one very important respect. That is, the text is so hard to read it’s difficult to know what they’re advertising. Why is that, do you think?

The claim that they failed is your assertion. One of the two most prominent designers, Victor Moscoso, who studied with Josef Albers at Yale University, said he didn’t care if his posters were readable. (The other most prominent designer was Wes Wilson.) There are more peculiarities such as the poster for two- to three-day venues only; the designs are intricate in most examples, and the printing is complicated. But only a handful of printers produced the posters. If you think that the phenomenon of the unreadable died after the 60s and early 70s, you are forgetting April Greiman’s messy scrapbook aesthetic and David Carson’s intentionally unreadable work, such as his so-called deconstructivist pages for Ray Gun.

You’re a serial collector. What else have you collected and where did it all begin? (Tell us about your childhood.)

Serial collectors are strange people. I don’t think that I and other obsessive collectors can explain ourselves.
About stuff: I don’t have much left except 100+ examples of Navajo blankets that I am wishing to grant to an as-yet-undetermined institution. (If there is a curator out there interested, speak up.) I have donated large numbers of design and anthropological objects to museums around the world—New York City, Prague, Paris, Israel—and the rock posters in my hometown, Columbia, South Carolina. The most rare, most interesting gift I have made—at least in my opinion—is probably a quipu to the Israel Museum of Art.
You ask about my childhood. I was bullied almost to death, being beaten up by school bullies at least once a week in a lower-class neighbourhood. Skinny. A loner. Angry. Lived with mother and aunt. A lovely black woman (I’m white) took care of me when my mother, a perfectionist, was at work as a secretary. Had one friend at a time, usually a loser like me. Father was a mess; he didn’t live with us but did live in the same town. Saw him fairly often. Was forced to go to Sunday church services—the most boring times of my life. Have been writing at least since 8th grade when I received a little trophy for a school-newspaper article. Highly influenced by Hollywood films that were, due to the times, absent of violence and sex. Good thing because I might have become a serial killer. Was normal in other ways, such as collecting insects, raising tropical fish, building models. And was abnormal in that I read and reread every page of the fifteen volumes of Compton’s Encyclopedia—must have cost my mother a lot of money. However, if a model kit was too advanced for my age and it didn’t turn out perfectly, I would smash it into a zillion pieces. Some of my mother’s friends told her that I needed to see a psychotherapist. I’m not sure that there were any in town—the same city to which I have retired now and the same city in which the museum to which I donated the rock posters is located, and the same city where there are now more than fifty psychotherapists. What goes around comes around.
Yet, memories are memories of memories. All change with time. I have discovered in my dotage that some proved to be inaccurate.

You’re also the author of perhaps the most comprehensive design encyclopedia ever published (The Design Encyclopedia, published by MoMA and Laurence King Publishing). How long did it take you to write it, and what is the biggest lesson you learned from doing it?

This question from you is covert because you, Robert Shore, were the editor of the second edition and worked with me on it almost daily. It took eight years to write it. The first four were on the first edition (1994), about which few people know, and the publisher assigned the same title to the second edition as to the first edition. Thus, confusion has been created. The second edition took another four years; however, the seeds of the first were used as a foundation for the second. For the first edition, there was no significant internet available to help me appreciably with the research; therefore, much of it was garnered from books in a range of languages. Only an insane person like me with no advanced degree in the subject and no prior books published would attempt to write an encyclopedia. Laurence King, the publisher, has claimed that he recognized that I was nevertheless capable. It is possible that he used a divining stick or witching rod. I was fifty years old at the time. The second edition, ten years later, and which included the Museum of Modern Art as the publisher, is more thorough and accurate due to internet support and a group of fact-checkers, whose expertise and energy greatly varied.
I learned that writing nonfiction books will not make me rich; in fact, will make me poor. I learned that without a patient editor, like you, Robert Shore, it might not have been possible. I learned that serendipity plays a big role in everyone’s significant accomplishments: I was relatively free at the time of the second edition, lived in Paris with a garden (the garden helped), and was meagrely supported by money bequeathed to me by my stepfather. Possibly the biggest lesson I learned is that, because I become bored easily, I have quit a number of projects in midstream in my past—the cause of great but secretive shame, if one can be secretively shamed. The fact that I persisted with the first and second editions of the encyclopedia to their very end—and I emphasize “very end”—absolved me in my mind. And when, in the introduction to the second edition, Terence Riley, the head of MoMA’s design and architecture department, called me the Diderot of design, he closed the door on my quest. Being awarded the Besterman/McColvin Gold Medal for the best reference book was momentarily thrilling, but the excitement soon faded. And, by the way, I have lost the medal—cannot find it anywhere. Besides, what would I do with it? Certainly not wear it or place it on display.

“Psychedelic Design: Rock Posters from the Mel Byars Collection, 1966–1971” continues until 12 March