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Gambit Weekly Brit Prints

By D. Eric Bookhardt

AUGUST 4, 1997: 

WHAT: Hockney to Hodgkin
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art
WHEN: Through Aug. 31

At the outset, the idea of British prints from the more or less recent past sounds a little standoffish. Prints, after all, are traditionally regarded as cooler and dryer than other media, and the Brits, for their part, are not known for being passionate about much beyond dogs, tepid beer and certain sorts of amplified guitar music. So the whole notion of a British print show sounds, at least initially, like a double dose of Sominex.

And, in fact, this is a rather dispassionate exhibit. After all, any show in which David Hockney is the apex on the emotional Richter scale is not exactly going to galvanize the masses. On the other hand, there are some surprises here that make it well worth seeing. Surprises in the form of pop art from the early 1960s, when pop not only was in full flower in Swinging London but had been for almost a decade before Andy Warhol started showing his advertising art in galleries under the pop banner. It has even been implied that it was really the British who devised pop art in the first place, although this is hardly a matter of universal consensus. (Jasper John's proto-pop American Flag painting dates way back to 1954, after all.)

Lacking the juicy sensuality of the French, the Italians or even the Spanish, the Brits have historically opted for wry humor in lieu of hormones. (Swinburne for Baudelaire, Tom Jones for Don Juan, and so on.) And because pop art is, after all, a pretty sarcastic idiom when you get right down to it, Swinging London and pop seemed a perfect fit. In fact, London went pop long before it ever thought of becoming hip or swinging.

Actually, pop art in Britain began as a kind of cabal among a group of London designers associated with the Institute for Contemporary Arts around 1953. Inspired by the mass media, they used commercial art as a starting point for their investigations into the effect of advertising and consumer culture on the public mind. Their work, along with some later arrivals, forms the basis for this show. Taken from London's Roland-Geist collection and NOMA's own ample print archives, it conveys something of London's typically wry pop sensibilities from 1960 to 1980. And, like a Bombay gin martini, it may be something of an acquired taste.

Personally, I found it gratifying to see Eduardo Paolozzi's colorful prints once again. A Scotsman despite his Italianate appellation, Paolozzi was one of the original pop conspirators from early on. Although David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin get top box office billing, a close look at art history suggests that Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton were more influential from the start. And if most pop is about as superficial as the ad art on which it is based, Paolozzi's quirky ideas and even quirkier techniques convey multiple layers of meanings.

Paolozzi's work -- including his As Is When suite -- is among the most influential of the British print masters.

Wittgenstein in New York is a leading image in his mid-1960s silkscreen suite titled As Is When. A busy mix of dayglo colors, terse forms and precisely patterned geometry, this is really a witty "celebration" of 20th century modernism in general. The Wittgenstein in the title was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a pioneer of the symbolic linguistic logic that eventually led to computer language, and As Is When refers to the time and space warps that occur when language is restructured along the lines of higher math. It is no coincidence that Paolozzi's design schemes often bear an eerie resemblance to computer circuit boards.

Yet he was also a master of complex colored patterns that appear to pulsate with hallucinogenic energies. Impersonal yet stimulating, Paolozzi's work not only foreshadowed postmodernism but psychedelic art as well. And what with the recent vogue in Wittgenstein, it is hard to believe that this series dates from 1964. Roughly speaking, Paolozzi was to the print medium what Pink Floyd was to popular music.

Another proto-postmodern artist from 1960s London is Robyn Denny, whose Paradise Suite and Light of the World silkscreens presaged Peter Halley and the neo-geo craze of the 1980s. But the show's overall drift leans more toward playfully ironic personal themes and some whimsical, if effete, sorts of formalism. Hockney and Allen Jones are typical of these personalistic proclivities.

Hockney, who dyed his hair blond and moved to L.A. after art school, is famed for his playfully shimmering swimming pool scenes and pseudo-School of Paris portraits. Jones is known for his garishly expressionistic views of the sexes, as we see in his Marriage series, in which fetishistic flashes of flesh and clothing appear in manic maelstroms of gender innuendo.

It may all smack of decadence, but this too was a sign of the times. Any period in which the most vital prints took the form of acerbic psychedelic art gives us something to ponder.

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