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Modern & Post-War British Art

Artist David Medalla talks Beatles, Rolling Stones and London's 1960s Experimental Art Scene

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DAVID MEDALLA, 1964 © CLAY PERRY, ENGLAND & CO.

Sotheby's S2 gallery in London is hosting an exhibition in the spirit of Signals London, one of the city's leading experimental art spaces through the 1960s. The exhibition opened on 27 April and runs until 13 July. The exhibition showcases work by original exhibitors at the gallery, and connected artists, including: David Medalla, Takis, Sérgio de Camargo, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Mira Schendel, Lygia Clark, Antonio Calderara, Gerhard von Graevenitz, Mary Martin, Hélio Oiticica, Li Yuan-Chia and many others.

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DAVID MEDALLA, UNTITLED , 1965. © DAVID MEDALLA

David Medalla was among the founders of London's Signals gallery, and also devised and produced the Signals Newsbulletin to promote the gallery's exhibitions and to explore a range of contemporary ideas across everything from art to literature, science and more. Eleanor Crabtree, Director at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, interviewed him in 2009 to get his account of London in the 1960s, the birth of Signals gallery and the creation of Signals Newsbulletin. This interview was adapted from Eleanor Crabtree's 2009 Master's Thesis attained at the Courtauld Institute of Art titled 'Laboratory of the Invisible': Signals Gallery, London (1964-1966).

I thought Signals was really nice because it was about communications. And that name was taken from Takis' ‘Signals’ sculptures.
- David Medalla

Eleanor Crabtree: Your role in Signals was primarily through the Newsbulletin. What was the decision behind starting this up, and how did it relate to the gallery’s practice?

David Medalla: When we started at Cornwall Gardens, I had already done a kind of catalogue of my art so I knew the printers and I got on very well with them. One day they said ‘instead of a catalogue, why don’t you do the newspaper of the arts?’ There was already another newspaper of the arts at the time, a small one in Paris called Iris Time. It was for the Galerie Iris Clert, and I had an idea that we needed something like that, but not in that format because Iris Clert’s was really about her! But then I said we’ll do one in Windsor and we printed the first one.

By the time we moved Signals to Wigmore Street there was a bit of money around, so we linked the Newsbulletin to all the artists exhibiting. I wanted to expand it, but the gallery became known for its association with kinetic and Latin American artists. A lot of my artist friends were actually American artist, but I think I only managed in one issue to put Barnett Newman in, and I wanted to put things from Rothko and all these people. But the gallery, Signals, had a gallery ‘line’ or ‘style’ and that was not my cup of tea really. So we did things like Soundings where I could put in all kinds of other artists.

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SIGNALS NEWSBULLETIN, VOL ONE, NUMBER ONE, AUGUST 1964 © DAVID MEDALLA.

This was very important, in those days there was a rather monolithic demeanour and also the art world in London for contemporary art was very small. The main people who used to show art really had their own state of artists. Robert Fraser had all the American Pop artists and Kasmin had the colour field artists and then Gallery One had Europeans like Klein. There were only four galleries, and we had our Latin American and kinetic artists.

And also I liked to put a lot of good literature in it, I had the good fortune to meet Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and they all contributed to it.
-David Medalla

But nevertheless if you look at the Newsbulletins there were a lot of things that were not in the line of the gallery. And also I liked to put a lot of good literature in it, I had the good fortune to meet Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and they all contributed to it. I would say we are doing a Takis issue could you write something and they would. A lot of these people weren’t known and later became famous. I had many issues planned, I had so much material for them, and I had so many people that wanted to contribute to them, a lot of stuff. But unfortunately it closed. I wrote to other magazines but they didn’t like it, it was too avant-garde for them.

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LILIANE LIJN, YELLOW DRILLING, 1961. PHOTOGRAPHY: RICHARD WILDING. © LILIANE LIJN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS 2018.

EC: There’s also a kind of similar link to ‘Indica’ – which, aside from the strain of cannabis, was taken from the idea of ‘indicating’. Was there a link between the two galleries?

DM: John Dunbar was a contributor to Signals, so when Signals closed many of the artists moved to Indica, including me. He was married at the time to Marianne Faithful and they opened Indica gallery in Mason’s Yard where Jay Jopling’s gallery is now. It was just a kind of yard, it was cheaper and it was very good. But it was small and Signals was enormous; Signals was a big block, four big blocks and a big basement. Indica had a bookshop on Southampton Row as well as the gallery, and the pop world all supported it, the Beatles and John Lennon and the Stones would hang out there. 

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LILIANE LIJN AND DAVID MEDALLA WITH LIQUID REFLECTIONS, CIRCA 1966 © CLAY PERRY, ENGLAND & CO.

I had a double show there with Liliane Lijn after Signals closed. And many of the artists we were going to show at Signals went to Indica. It was a real arrangement, and many of the artists like Morellet went to Indica. Indica was far more informal, we were much more formal and Indica was more ‘hip’ - a lot of people taking drugs. It was that time when people experimented with mind expanding drugs. Indica was a groovy kind of scene.

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MAILING SIGNALS NEWSBULLETIN, 1964 © CLAY PERRY, ENGLAND & CO.

EC: I’m interested in analysing Signals’ position in terms of the London art scene and contemporary galleries such as Indica. What did you think of other galleries such as Kasmin and the New Vision Centre?

DM: Kasmin’s was the most beautiful gallery. Signals was more imposing with its floors on the corner of Wigmore Street, but it wasn’t slick like Kasmin, which was on Bond Street. It was beautifully done, particularly because they exhibited big paintings. Robert Fraser was the one who alongside Signals was the most experimental, he brought in lots of American artists like Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg and John Cage. He was also open to these kinds of things. The New Vision Centre was a bit different, they were people who came from what you would call the developing world. It was run by Denis Bowen who was from South Africa, a painter himself. England at this time was very parochial, it was a small world, but it was very exciting in one way because there was no such thing as contemporary art, it was almost like a religion, if you liked contemporary art it meant you were something different from other people. So everybody knew everybody and they were against the establishment, like the Royal Academy who controlled all the exhibition space and all the money so a few eccentric ladies and lords would buy art.

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DAVID MEDALLA WITH SAND MACHINE, CIRCA 1964 © CLAY PERRY, ENGLAND & CO.

EC: Considering the boom of art galleries at the time, all catering to different crowds and movements, I wondered what you felt was unique about Signals, and indeed what you tried to promote as unique about Signals?

DM: Almost every day it was a different situation. It was open 24 hours a day. During the day the great scientist J. D. Bernal would pass by and I remember once Jonathan Miller was looking around trying to find ideas. People would come in, have a look and talk to each other. It was a good meeting place and we always had good refreshments! There were a lot of literary people so a lot of the poets would meet there and the musicians, classical music and popular music. That was what Signals was very famous for, and eventually Indica took over but Indica was a younger crowd in its day. There was a difference from the early Sixties and Indica’s later Sixties. The crowd that went to Signals were much more mature, they had arrived at the scene. Indica was more the youth culture, David Bailey crowd. It was also the beginning of the Sunday Supplements, which was wonderful for the visual arts.

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DAVID MEDALLA, CLOUD CANYONS NO.31 , CONCEIVED IN 1964 AND EXECUTED IN 2016. INSTALLATION VIEW AT SIGNALS, S│2 LONDON, 2018.

EC: Signals held a link with Latin American artists at this time – how would you identify the common bond in your outlook?

DM: It wasn’t just Latin American but also Greek artists like Takis. There were people from countries that you would call ‘developing’ and so they could look at technology in a different light. Like me, I was born in the Philippines and partly grew up there, and it was a rustic, agricultural community, even in the cities. And then I went to New York at a very early age, and I was right in the middle of very high technology. So in my art I looked at the natural and the technological, scientific. In bubble machines, sound machines, light machines and even when I was doing the Newsbulletin it was this mix of the agricultural and the technological. So those Latin American artists were similar in background but were also emerging. Signals was looking at how the artists related.

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CLOUD CANYONS BY DAVID MEDALLA, 1964 © CLAY PERRY, ENGLAND & CO.

EC: In terms of a ‘legacy’ or lasting influence of Signals, would you say this was locatable in British art history? Or where would you locate it?

DM: Not much, because first of all kinetic art is not really liked in art history because it takes a lot of trouble. British artists did go into kinetics but more of them were from an engineering point of view. Art was secondary to what they were doing and that’s why there wasn’t a sort of major eruption of their work. The other side, of Signals in Latin American art now, is very well known and connected here thanks to people like Guy Brett and Sir Nicholas Serota.

There’s more support in this country. That is a strong thing that we did, we were welcoming artists from countries that were not recognised. That is something I feel very proud of because they were totally unknown then. Paul Keeler did a lot of work in this and Guy Brett – he’s a kind of hero to Latin American art. It’s fantastic because these works have affected many students since.

This interview was adapted from Eleanor Crabtree’s 2009 Master’s Thesis attained at the Courtauld Institute of Art titled ‘Laboratory of the Invisible’: Signals Gallery, London (1964-1966).

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