This exhibition aims to address something that often perplexes those who work with 20th Century British Art: why is it that so few British artists from the Post-War period, apart from Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Anthony Caro and, lately, Lucian Freudand Frank Auerbach, receive anything like the acclaim of their European or American counterparts? This seems especially unfair on those artists of the ‘New Generation’ that emerged out of the London art schools in the late Fifties and early Sixties, amongst who Hockney, Riley and Caro were just three of many bright young things. The experience of these artists mirrored that of the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the early 90s, for whom critical and commercial success was also immediate and widespread, riding an unprecedented wave of interest in contemporary art, promoted, in no small part, by dealers and curators who were part of the ‘scene’ and the same age as the artists. In the 90s, the YBAs were an essential part of the mix of ‘Cool Britannia’, as important as ‘Brit Pop’ in terms of influence across the world: when the band Blur, at the height of their global fame, released ‘Country House’, what seemed to matter as much as the music wasthe fact that Damien Hirst directed the video. And yet, even though it felt so radical and new at the time, this collision of art and music had happened 30 years previously: Cool Britannia was just a re-run, often self consciously so, of ‘Swinging London’.

Robyn Denny working on the Austin Reed mural, 1959 - photographed by Tony Messenger

The London ‘scene’ in the Sixties was a tightly-woven nexus of art, music, poetry, theatre, fashion and film – with no real distinction between these disciplines as ideas, styles and personnel criss-crossed in-between. But unlike Cool Britannia, whose hedonism was tinged with a narcotic nihilism, Swinging London was as much part of a seismic social and political upheaval as it was a pop culture phenomenon. Britain would certainly never be the same. And many of the early ‘happenings’, which would become transformed into Performance Art and Conceptualism in the 70s – were part of this direct action against the social status quo, much as they were about creating drugged-out experiences for the newly ‘turned-on’.

David Hockney in Betty Freeman’s LA Home, in front of Beverley Hills Housewife (1966-7), 1967 photographed by Kasmin

It was the New Generation of artists that created the visual identity of Swinging London: from Robyn Denny’s mural for the hitherto rather staid clothier Austin Reed kick-starting Carnaby Street’s love of (Union Jack) red, white and blue to our Pop Artists laying down the bright colours and nostalgia-tinted Surrealist juxtapositions that became the look of psychedelia; from David Hockney creating paintings that are overtly homosexual whilst homosexuality itself remained a crime until 1967; from our colour-field painters creating vast minimal, cool canvases in front of which users of still-legal LSD could relax their mind, switch off and float downstream; to our Minimalists turning into Conceptualists and considering new ways of making art objects or, in some cases, not making them at all.

In this exhibition, by re-presenting the (still) internationally renowned – Hockney, Caro and Riley – alongside their lesser-known contemporaries, as they would have been in any number of exhibitions on the ‘London Scene’ in the 1960s, not only do we hope to make a case for re-evaluating many of these artists, we also hope to capture something of what made British art of the period so exciting at the time, for critics, curators and collectors across the world, when it was, truly, a ‘Sensation’ thirty years before Norman Rosenthal and Charles Saatchi gave the name to another ‘New Generation’.

David Hockney, American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman), 1968, acrylic on canvas, 84 by 120in. / 213 by 305cm.
© David Hockney, Collection Art Institute of Chicago, photo credit: Richard Schmidt

The title of this exhibition is an elision of the names of three shows from the first half of the 1960s which, for different reasons, can be seen as significant markers in the journey of contemporary British art from the dirty, down-at-heel studios of a still bomb-damaged London to the cool clean spaces of American museums and far pavilions of international art biennials: Situation of 1960; The New London Situation of 1962, a reworking Situation but this time, crucially, in a more commercial setting; and London – the New Scene, the major multi-venue exhibition that toured North America from 1965 to 1966, one of many international exhibitions of the new British art, which, through the sheer extent of its travels from East to West Coast and into Canada, did for these Young British Artists what appearing on the Ed Sullivan show did for the Beatles and the Stones.

The impact of British art in America in particular – although it was also widely collected in Europe, especially in Germany and Italy – can perhaps best be seen in some of David Hockney’s iconic ‘Hollywood portraits’ from the mid-to late 60s, such as California Art Collector (1964), Beverley Hills Housewife (1966) and American Collectors – Marcia & Fred Weisman (1968). Of course, the very fact that Hockney himself, still only a few years out of the Royal College of Art (where he pointedly failed to earn his diploma), was painting such major works in the intimate surroundings of their Richard Neutra-inspired mansions, says a lot about his own burgeoning reputation. However, what is fascinating is that in the foreground of each composition, one doesn’t find a work by one of the greats of American or European Modernism that one would expect and which can be glimpsed in the backgrounds, but rather a stone and wood sculpture by the Scottish artist William Turnbull. Of course, this could be an artful device on Hockney’s behalf, a nod to a fellow Brit enjoying success in LA – and Turnbulls do look good in the strong California sunlight - but one senses too that these works, the very latest thing from the most fashionable city on earth, are exactly what their owners wanted to be seen with.

Situation was held at the RBA Galleries in September 1960 and the exhibition was conceived and run by the artists themselves, with the help of the influential avant-garde critic Lawrence Alloway. As such, it can be seen as a direct forerunner of Hirst’s Freeze and like Freeze, it was not a statement on behalf of a group or movement, but collective purely in its challenge to the prevailing notions of what an art object can be and how the viewer should be involved in constructing meaning.

Gillian Ayres in her studio, 1963, photographed by Jorge Lewinski

All the work in the exhibition was abstract and ‘without explicit reference to events outside the painting’. It was also vast in scale – for a British audience at least – being ‘not less than 30 square feet’ as stipulated by the organising committee. This was no doubt a response to the two exhibitions of new American painting held at the Tate in 1956 and 1959, as well as the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1958, which were important moments in the development of British art in the late 50s precisely for the scale and ambition – the possibility of art – that the New York School expressed and the enveloping, all-encompassing experience this ambition inevitably demanded from the viewer.

The impact of Situation was mainly felt by artists themselves and a few critics. However, it also set in motion a sense of something new. The show was re-created twice, later by the Arts Council, who toured it across Britain in 1962 and 1963 but first as The New London Situation held at the newly-formed New London Gallery in August and September 1961. The New London Gallery was itself created by the extremely slick and professional Marlborough Gallery specifically to capitalize – in every sense of the word – on this new ‘scene’. For the first time, work by young, emerging British artists was being promoted as something to be taken seriously by collectors and not something to be left to the louche lesser scions of the aristocracy or idle Fabian socialists who had been virtually its sole patrons in the years before and after the War.

And so by the time London – The New Scene began its two-year, seven-venue tour at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in February 1965, many of the artists involved had already tasted a certain level of success, at home and abroad. But it was Martin Friedman, Director of the Walker and passionate aficionado of British art, who made sure that they were feted in the homes of some of the most powerful collectors in the Mid-West. But just as the London - The New Scene exhibition stands as a symbol of just how far and how fast these artists had come, it conversely – and poignantly – stands as a symbol of how far the reputations of some of the artists involved have fallen, at least in terms of international recognition. The list of exhibiting artists splits in two: Peter Blake, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley and Allen Jones on the one (famous) side; Richard Smith, Joe Tilson, Bernard Cohen, Harold Cohen, Robyn Denny, Phillip King, Jeremy Moon and William Tucker on the other.

The reasons why so few British artists of the 1960s have the same level of recognition as they did at the time are varied and certainly too complex to take on in an introduction to an exhibition catalogue. However, it is interesting to note the lament of Bryan Robertson in the introduction to the catalogue of the 1964 Young Contemporaries exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Writing in relation to what could be described as one of the best ‘graduate’ shows ever held, Robertson highlighted the almost total lack of private and corporate patronage of contemporary art in Britain which he felt forced artists to seek refuge in teaching, to the detriment of their careers. There was little irony or comfort in Young Contemporaries itself being sponsored by a corporation, the Dutch tobacco firm, Peter Stuyvesant, as they alone, despite buying vast amounts of contemporary British art in the 60s, in the process forming one of the great collections of the period, could not hold up the market. And as for museums, for Robertson it was beyond the pale to expect the odd far-sighted American museum director to underpin what was evidently an exciting moment in the history of British art.

Kasmin at the desk in his gallery, during an exhibition of paintings by Kenneth Noland, 1967 photographed by David Hockney

It was this lack of patronage that made running a commercial gallery dedicated to contemporary British art such a risky occupation and yet despite this – or maybe because of it – in the mid-1960s London was home to three of the most significant – and certainly the coolest– galleries of the era: Kasmin Ltd, Robert Fraser and Indica. All were quite short-lived (Indica little more than a year, Kasmin and Fraser until the early 70s) but whilst they lasted, they burnt incredibly bright.

Kasmin’s gallery on 118 New Bond Street was the first architect-designed ‘white cube’ space in London. It was approached down a narrow corridor, which dog-legged before opening out into a bright, white room, lit from above by a large skylight, with a corrugated rubber floor by Pirelli that had recently been developed for Rome airport. It was a space designed both for American minimalist and colour-field painting – the gallery opened with a solo exhibition by Kenneth Noland – and also for his stable of emerging artists who he had become friends with during his stints at Gallery One – the avant-garde gallery in London in the late 50s – and the Marlborough New London. He followed the cool sophistication of Noland with John Latham’s Noit, dark, dirty assemblages collaged out of burnt books that brimmed with broken narratives and complex layers of meaning. It couldn’t have been more different, but then that was the point: what linked Kasmin’s artists was more the seriousness of the proposition. This programme of alternating older established international artists with young, London-based ones, in this stateof- the-art ‘machine’ for contemplation, had a profound effect on how young contemporary artists were seen, both by serious international collectors and by the hip crowd that attended the packed openings. It also gave the artists themselves the confidence to look out, across new horizons.

Around the corner from Kasmin, on Duke Street, the Robert Fraser Gallery may have been much more traditional in its design but it was anything but traditional in its content – with the spot in the Edwardian shop-front frequently reserved for the most offensive and obscene work from the exhibition within. Fraser was the classic enfant terrible and archetypical ‘Swinging London’ figure: despite attending Eton and serving in the King’s Rifles, he was by nature everything polite society abhorred – a flamboyant and reckless hedonist, who was about as openly gay as was possible without actually being arrested. 

It was to Fraser’s that the new ‘aristocracy’ – rock stars, actors, models – were drawn. He showed classic 20th century art - Magritte, Dubuffet, Balthus, Bacon – alongside American and British Pop. As the story goes, Paul McCartney named The Beatles’ new record label ‘Apple’ after a painting by Magritte he had recently bought from Fraser. But it was certainly Fraser who suggested that Peter Blake should design the (now iconic) cover of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and then later Richard Hamilton to do the same for what has become known as ‘The White Album’ due to its minimalist sleeve.

Fraser’s reputation in the Sixties was based on his personal charisma and visual élan: when the hang of an exhibition of drawings by Bridget Riley wasn’t coming together, Fraser sent everyone home, had the entire gallery painted black – overnight – so that the small, mainly white works would stand out like jewels. The exhibition sold out. However, he is best known today for being caught up in the infamous ‘drugs bust’ of the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull at Keith Richards’ country house in 1967 – for which Fraser, who had heroin on him, went to prison. The press images of Fraser and Mick Jagger hand-cuffed together in the back of a police car were the source for Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London – the title of which is a play on words, replacing ‘Swing’ with ‘Swinge’, old vernacular for ‘kick’, thus making the work about reactionary and authoritarian suppression of the new counter-culture. But this should not disguise the importance of Fraser’s gallery, not least in its presentation of American and British Pop as two contemporary and equivalent strands of the same concept, something that is certainly obscured today by the dominance of American artists on the wider imagination of Pop, despite it being a British artist, Hamilton, who gave Pop both its name (in 1957, when Andy Warhol was still working as a designer and illustrator of Madison Avenue) and its conceptual basis: “Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business."

Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (f), 1968–9, acrylic, screenprint, aluminium & metalised acetate on canvas, 26¾ by 33½ in. / 68 by 85cm. © Tate, London 2013. © Richard Hamilton.
All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013.

Indica – named after the botanical classification for cannabis – was also located just south of Mayfair, in Mason’s Yard, now known for Jay Jopling’s White Cube, but in the mid-60s home to the Scotch of St James’s nightclub. In many ways Indica was less of a gallery and more of an on-going ‘happening’, where John Dunbar presented a challenging array of artists and Barry Miles orchestrated London’s literary counter-culture via the bookshop, Indica staged some extraordinary and ground-breaking exhibitions of constructive, kinetic and conceptual art, including a group show of South American art that included the Argentinian Julio Le Parc, just at the moment he won the prestigious Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale. The gallery also gave a young Japanese conceptual artist her first solo exhibition in Britain. John Dunbar invited John Lennon to come and check it out and when he walked through the door, Yoko Ono handed him a small card, on which was written the word ‘Breathe’. The rest, as they say, is history.

This exhibition was never intended to be a survey of the London art scene in the Sixties – although one is long overdue, as it is now twenty years since David Mellor’s superb exhibition The Sixties Art Scene in London at the Barbican Art Gallery, which even then could only scratch at the surface of what was a period of extraordinary activity across art, music, literature, film, fashion and design, as well as of radical social change, during which Britain was dragged into a modern, post-Colonial world and London transformed itself from being the capital of Old Empire into a globalised city living off its wits and its glamour.

It is also a partisan view, guided by Kasmin - who absolutely disproves the maxim that ‘if you can remember the Sixties it means you weren’t there’. And whilst there have been some basic criteria behind the selection – that each artist should have been considered as important by their peers at the time; that they should have shown with good galleries, both at home and (often) abroad; and that their work should have been collected by major museums (with this show being something of a cri du coeur for these institutions to re-evaluate what they have in their stores) the over-riding principle has been that the works themselves should still feel as innovative and exciting now, as they did back then.

New Situation — Art in London in the Sixties