Summer 2009

Pop Art’s moving target

Peter Blake: One Man Show

By Marco Livingstone
Lund Humphries, £35

British painter Peter Blake, who has just turned 77, makes a point of introducing himself as both ‘artist and graphic designer’. You could argue that his popularity and longevity are due in part to the way each practice informs the other. Blake’s design output has been sporadic but high-profile, with book jackets, posters, record sleeves and adverts, which he approaches with the same mix of seriousness and levity you find in his paintings.

Marco Livingstone’s long-awaited Peter Blake: One Man Show (Lund Humphries, £35) makes a point of addressing every facet of the painter’s output, from conceptual gestures to the most sentimental fairy paintings. The author divides Blake’s work into eight, non-chronological headings: Amusements, Pop!, Fantasy Figures, Observations, Art for Others (design and tributes), Escapist Fantasies, Revisiting Art History and Collecting as an Art.

Livingstone points out that the working-class Blake (see also ‘The celebrated Mr B’, Eye no. 35 vol. 9) was the right age to take maximum advantage of postwar educational reforms, studying graphic design and art at Gravesend and the Royal College of Art before winning a Leverhulme research award to study popular art in Europe during 1956-57.

Blake is younger than Pop Art pioneers Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi; older than David Hockney and the Beatles. There’s a separateness in his work that put him slightly outside the trends and movements of the time. As a young man, with face scarred and teeth knocked out by a bike accident, Blake was painfully shy: the pictures of what Livingstone calls ‘unavailable, sexually alluring women’, pin-ups and pop stars are the work of someone who felt more at home in the margins.

Early mixed-media depictions of comics, circuses, tattooed performers and wrestlers show that Blake’s passion for popular visual culture predated the Pop Art movement by many years. Livingstone reports that Blake was ‘underwhelmed’ by a visit to the Independent Group’s now-famous Whitechapel exhibition ‘This Is Tomorrow’, joking to his friend Dick Smith that it should have been called ‘That Was Yesterday’.

Livingstone’s text and selection of material makes a strong argument for Blake as a proto-postmodernist, happy to ‘rip himself off’, and poke fun at art history with works such as The First Real Target? (1961) and The Second Real Target 25 Years Later (1986), part of what Blake calls ‘staying ahead of the avant-garde’.

In the 1990s, his residency at London’s National Gallery sparked a prolific new phase of work that combined the cheerful appropriation of his collage methods with his hard-won brush skills, in paintings such as The National Gallery Madonna (1994-2000), a method of working also demonstrated by his whimsical ‘Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour’ series. Sadly, the book’s design and underwhelming print qualities don’t quite meet the meticulous talents of its subject.

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