Monday, July 6, 2020

Something New

  We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE MIRROR STEAMED OVER – Love and Pop in London, 1962” by Anthony Byrt (Auckland University Press,  $NZ45)

It is probably true that books about art should be reviewed by people who have expertise in art, so I begin this review with one clear warning. I admire, appreciate, and could call myself an informed amateur of, much art; but I am no expert, and I am certainly not an expert on either 1950s Abstract Expressionism or 1960s Pop Art. In reading Anthony Byrt’s The Mirror Steamed Over, however, I do not believe that this puts me at too much of a disadvantage. Although he is deeply immersed in his subject, Byrt writes in an excellent, limpid prose, totally devoid of the mandarin-speak that befouls many of the publications on art that I have encountered. Byrt is not in the business of mystifying his readers. He is in the business of celebrating his subject and enlightening a large readership, including both experts and non-experts, who are interested in art.

So I begin by giving my verdict on this book. Byrt’s prose is exemplary, clear and vivid. Although his story takes us down many side paths, he does not lose his esssential narrative thread. Byrt has consulted many archives and sources. The odd comment here and there suggests he is either a friend of, or confidant of, one of his central characters, Billy Apple; and he has conducted interviews with him. But his prose is not weighted down by the research. To put it simply, this book reads well, and I spent two very happy days reading it closely and with great pleasure.

At its core, The Mirror Steamed Over is a celebration of the making of two artists with, perhaps, a slightly deflating coda.

Aucklander Barrie Bates went on a scholarship to art school in England – the Royal College of Art (RCA) -  to study graphic design. This book deals with his work and interactions with others there in the early 1960s until, on 22 November 1962, Bates rebranded himself as “Billy Apple” and has remained Billy Apple ever since. A very minor confusion is caused in some sentences where Anthony Byrt says “Apple” has told him something about “Bates”, as if they were two separate people; but for clarity in this review I will refer to the book’s hero as Barrie Bates.

At the RCA, Bates associated most closely with two people – David Hockney, a student of painting and therefore in different classes from Barrie Bates’ graphic design classes; and Ann Quin, who was not a student but had an administrative role at the RCA . Why were Bates and Hockney attracted to each other? Sometimes Byrt suggests that Bates the New Zealander and Hockney the Northerner had in common the status of being outsiders among the London crowd that made up most RCA students. There is some delicate to-ing and fro-ing early in this book as to whether Bates was sexually attracted to the openly-gay Hockney. Ann Quin, Bates’ sometime lover, teased Bates about this. But, for all the journeys Bates and Hockney made together, their friendship was apparently not sexual and apparently Bates/Apple does not regard himself as gay.

In much of Byrt’s narrative we get a chronicle of student rebelliousness and misbehaviour. Bates was almost expelled from the RCA a number of times for his violation of regulations. Both Bates and Hockney failed their diplomas at RCA, mainly because both of them baulked at the General Studies papers they were required to do, but which they both saw as a distraction from their art. Later, however, the books were cooked so that Hockney could get his diploma, because he was already the RCA’s most visible and praised artist and it would have been embarrassing to fail him.

The third character in this tale is Ann Quin the experimental novelist who, despite her talent, was mentally unstable and eventually suicidal. She ghost-wrote Bates’ “thesis” for a part of the course he wished to avoid. She also provides this book with its otherwise opaque title The Mirror Steamed Over. As is explained late in the text (p.175 to be precise) Ann Quin’s first published novel Berg has a man who recreates himself as his own double, a sort of mirror image, which steams over when he sees connections with his former self. This Byrt interprets as a metaphor for Barrie Bates re-making himself as Billy Apple, his own mirror image. Byrt also discusses the apple in relation to Adam and Eve and how much apples had figured in Bates’ work up to this point as symbols of both temptation and sensual pleasure. Personally, though Byrt doesn’t consider it, I can’t help wondering how much Bates’ choice of moniker might have also been related to the Big Apple – the New York he so often visited, sometimes with Hockney. Both became acquainted with New York’s jazz and drug cultures. Hockney hit the gay bars while Bates hit Madison Avenue to learn advertising agencies’ latest graphic techniques.

So much for the purely biographical details, which are only part of Byrt’s design.

In his Prologue, Byrt declares: “Beyond the surface effects and pop potentials of mass consumerism, both [Hockney] and Bates intuited a much larger cultural revolution underway, namely, that the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically – was becoming the new unit around which British and American society would be organised.” (p.9)

Byrt is very concerned to see this moment, the early 1960s, as a real turning point in art, but he situates it in the context of wider social change. Homosexuality was becoming more acceptable and was nearer to being decriminalised in Britain, so Byrt gives us details on the Wolfenden Report and its consequences. This relates very much to the flamboyance of Hockney and the themes he chose to present in his work. Censorship was loosening up, so there is an account of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and the phenomenon of porn publishers in the USA fighting censorship in the courts - a fight which, over half a cantury later, doesn’t look all that beneficial, given the subsequent growth of porn, and its inherent misogyny, to a multi-billion dollar industry. The advent of hip minority-audience plays and movies, seen by both Bates and Hockney, leads Byrt to dissect in some detail the play (and film) The Connection and the film Pull My Daisy (amusingly Byrt has to apologise for the sexism of the latter – much avant-garde material of the time now looks distinctly arriere-garde).

The bubbling cultural cauldron of the early 1960s, and the figures who influenced Bates and Hockney, also mean pages on Marshall McLuhan and his perceptions on advertising, media, and the global village; R.D. Laing with his now-largely-discredited diagnosis that mental illness was caused by the traditional family structure; and Norman Mailer with his hipster and “White Negro” schtick. Mercifully Byrt also gives us James Baldwin’s stinging riposte to Mailer, which argued that in many ways Mailer was in thrall to the very racial stereotypes he claimed to refute.

Then there was the American artist Larry Rivers. Byrt sees American Abstract Expressionism (the school of de Kooning, Jackson Pollock etc.) as having become an oppressive norm by the end of the 1950s. A younger generation of artists was looking for ways to break with it. Larry Rivers, promoted by his acolyte Frank O’Hara, seemed to show the way with his return to a sort of representationalism. This had a strong influence on Hockney, whose work became more representational. In his own way, Bates was equally impressed by Larry Rivers.

But the painter Hockney and the graphic designer Bates began to diverge in theory and in practice. Despite failing to get his diploma, Bates was “the RCA’s graphic design star – the young man learning how to make image, text and typography work together to maximum effect.” (p.53) Putting together image, text and typography was the stock-in-trade of advertising, but Bates used advertising’s techniques to become a conceptual artist. Text, typography and chosen image could undercut, or make ironical comment on, commercial advertising. Yet here there was a problem. How much did Bates’ conceptual art really move from being advertising itself? How much was it just another form of advertising?

At this time there was much McLuhanesque critique of the (American) advertising industry, with British artists like Derek Boshier attempting to push back against it. As Hockney embraced representationalism, some of his artwork at this time implicitly criticised Bates for surrendering to pure commercialism. One of Hockney’s student paintings depicted Madison Avenue spewing out the words “Lie$, Lie$, Lie$”. Says Byrt: “The moralising tone in his drawing for Bates – lies, lies, lies – was clearly part of a wider concern Hockney had about art’s commodification and the impact of advertising and consumerism on society, but also about his own potential to get lost in the attractions and promises of American life.” (pp.109-110)

Hockney was at least aware that he himself was in danger of being absorbed into superficial American culture. The two students bonded in many playful ways, including at one point both bleaching their hair. But Byrt remarks: “The hair bleaching had been a point of connection between the two men, but it was also arguably the last meaningful one. Both were beginning to manifest new ideas of what an artist could be, but in opposite ways. Bates now relentlessly driven by ideas and looking towards new technologies and the future; Hockney more interested in grappling with, and conquering, the shadows of art history.” (p.118)

So the scene is set for what will be Hockney’s best-known representational works of muscular young men leaping into Californian swimming pools; and Billy Apple’s brash advertising-influenced designs selling… something. Perhaps selling himself. Among other ways in which Larry Rivers influenced Bates was, says Byrt,  “a contrarian attitude to art world orthodoxies; the sense that you didn’t have to love your subject matter to make great art from it; a committed individualism ; and a capacity for personal branding and self-mythologising.” (p.148) Much of The Mirror Steamed Over is the story of artists learning that they had to have a public profile to get noticed. This seems to be part of their “performivity”.

We are also told that “the emergence of Billy Apple was unquestionably informed by Bates’s experiences on Madison Avenue: his deep awareness of the power of branding on the way we perceive and desire products, and the notion that the best visiual expression of an idea is often the most stripped down. Apple became all three – the brand, the product and the idea – starkly realised, with no embellishment, just a shock of blonde hair and the eyebrows to match.” (p.207)

So Billy Apple became a saleable commodity, first in Pop Art, then in Conceptual Art.

Do I have any quarrels with The Mirror Steamed Over? As a piece of writing, certainly not. It is an engaging, informative, lively and well-written book. My mild quibble would only be with the author’s determination to see Bates and Hockney as at the centre of a major cultural change. They might have been symptomatic of the way the 1960s were developing, but they were not major driving forces of cultural shift.

And what of that “slightly deflating coda” that I mentioned early in this review? On p.225 of The Mirror Steamed Over, there is, in effect, an admission, too long for me to quote in full, that Bates’ and Hockney’s views, in the early 1960s, of the way society was developing, did not come to pass. Byrt asserts that in the 1960s “the sexual revolution” and psychotherapy took “new and monstrous forms” and that there was the rise of a “new, conservative individualism” which would become neoliberalism and the era of Reagan, Thatcher, Roger Douglas etc. To put it more bluntly, the art movements that Hockney and Apple came to represent were not the dawn of a new, enduring perspective or consciousness. And after all, if you bang on about “the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically”, then what can you expect as an outcome but the “me” generation, self-absorption and neoliberalism? Doing your own thing easily morphs into not giving a stuff about society at large. There’s the added problem that what was once the avant-garde and rebellious often ends as pure Establishment. David Hockney, the student rebel breaking taboos, is now David Hockney, Californian resident, loaded with civic honours, and with his paintings selling for millions. (One of his works went for $US90 million at auction).

Art has always been in some way enmeshed with commerce, and The Mirror Steamed Over obviously cannot avoid the implications of this fact. Anthony Byrt deals with it honestly.

Minor footnote: The Mirror Steamed Over has a generous selection of (mainly) black-and-white photographs of the youthful Barrie Bates and the youthful David Hockney and some of their respective works. I ached to see more images of the many works which Byrt discusses in detail. But perhaps I am asking too much here, having been spoilt by recently reading my way through Peter Simpson’s well-illustrated Colin McCahon volumes.

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