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Hugh Pearman

If there was ever any excitement in the works at this minute show, it’s long gone , says Hugh Pearman

John McHale’s Telemath collage.
John McHale’s Telemath collage.

This is a startlingly small exhibition. So small, that this review will have no difficulty describing every key work on display. There are just five, plus two glass cases, and a large wall photo. If, like me, you feel that the ICA’s Carlton House Terrace home feels mostly like a large corridor, then the tiny room this is in is the equivalent of a broom cupboard under the stairs. Known as the ‘Fox Reading Room’, low-ceilinged, lit by harsh fluorescent strips, it has only one hangable long wall and one short return wall – and that has a door opening against it. It’s grimly, depressingly, claustrophobic.

Anyway, this micro-exhibition is to celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the key moments of the early Independent Group of artists and fellow-travellers, who used to meet at the ICA’s earlier incarnation in Dover Street. That’s three years before their more famous ‘This is Tomorrow’ show, the brainchild of Theo Crosby, at the rival Whitechapel Gallery. By then, Alison and Peter Smithson and their faithful amanuensis Reyner Banham were to the fore. Other architects involved with the group were the art-collecting Colin St John Wilson, and James Stirling. Critics apart from Banham were Lawrence Alloway and Toni del Renzio. Artists shown here are John McHale, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Magda Cordell and Nigel Henderson.

Eduardo Paolozzi’s magazine covers.
Eduardo Paolozzi’s magazine covers.

In a way this wan little show sums up that drab post-war moment (it is meant somehow to recall the early Fifties ICA). All it lacks, really, is a one-bar electric fire fed by a coin-in-the-slot meter. Creative types huddled together for warmth, there or at the Colony Room in Soho. How very tentative this work now seems – a Duchamp-influenced 1953 pencil nude by Hamilton, Henderson’s 1961 photo-collage ‘shattered glass’, Cordell’s 1955 proto-feminist bloody splodge of a female figure, Turnbull’s 1956 spatter-technique ‘Head’, McHale’s 1959 Telemath collage. There are some Pop stirrings in Paolozzi’s modified pulp magazine covers in a case. No architecture – but a reference, in a 1981 letter in the other case, from Alloway to co-curator Anne Massey.  ‘I haven’t seen the Banham film,’ Alloway writes, ‘I know that the late John McHale suspected it as a take-over bid on PRB’s part.’ PRB being Banham, of course. What film? What was Massey’s question? Doesn’t matter – fact was, the artists suspected a takeover by the architects, the kind of mutual suspicion that had always existed at the Royal Academy and was here rearing its head again among the young bloods of the contemporary art scene. 

Paolozzi’s  Bunk!.
Paolozzi’s Bunk!.

Where did all this end?  The exhibition does not say. It fizzled out like all movements, if it was a movement. Let’s say it ended at the British Library in 1998, where Wilson gave space to some of his postwar artist chums, notably Paolozzi with his great sculpture after Blake’s Newton. That was, in the end, the promised British Tomorrow of 1956: nothing especially Pop or revolutionary, just an ultra-dense layering of references, in art and architecture. It’s not that it was bad: just that all the really good stuff was happening elsewhere in the world. Banham in particular eventually grasped this, when he left Britain for America in the mid 1970s and started wearing cowboy hats and bootlace ties. A personality like his was never going to be content for too long with a bunch of over-educated, under-employed London art-school types being slightly outré in smoky pubs.


To 9 June. Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH