On Dover Street, “This is Today” Looks Back at Last Century’s Visions of Tomorrow

Feb 22, 2016 7:40PM

From the outside, it looks as if balloons are lowering Gazelli Art House onto London’s Dover Street. The balloons, part of Archigram’s Instant City project, are printed onto the gallery’s windows in a vision of what the utopic future might one day become. By bringing together the Archigram group and other influential artists at work in Britain during the 1950s—Eduardo Paolozzi, Derek Boshier, Richard Smith, and Magda Cordell among them—Gazelli attempts to readdress the ways in which the artists’ changing ideals were reflected in their work throughout the 1960s and ’70s. 

Though the exhibit, titled “This is Today,” sets out to trace these artists’ individual developments, the show does much more than that. In effect, it’s an overview of how British pop art came about and evolved.

Bernard Cohen’s White Painting (1959), one of the first pieces seen when entering the gallery, is an ideal starting point for this art historical journey. Stark white ground, seemingly fresh and unbiased, holds up two boxed-in eyes staring forward just below a single fleeting, expressionistic flourish of vivid yellow. Strikingly, this canvas was produced the same year as Ed Ruscha’s Sweetwater (1959), a piece that has been described as reconciling the artist’s formal training and independent interests—a piece crucial to the development of American pop art.

Cohen’s work displays the struggle between the gestural sentiments of abstract expressionism, which had taken over the art world and art school, and elements of found objects and everyday life—essentially, a struggle between high and low culture. It is this battle the artists in “This is Today” will be remembered for fighting. 

The show’s earliest works come from Eduardo Paolozzi, a founding member of the Independent Group and, exactly 60 years ago, an exhibitor in the Whitechapel Gallery’s seminal show “This is Tomorrow.” In classic Paolozzi style, his collages present us with new ways of viewing what we’ve seen before. Plates ripped from illustrated books hang framed, splattered with watercolor and scarred by personal interaction. These works by Paolozzi—some from as early as 1946—both predate and partially straddle pop art’s emergence in the UK.

Seeing these works and others from a modern standpoint can be quite jarring. Much of the work, particularly from Archigram, was deeply concerned with figuring out the then-future interplay of art and society. You may wonder at these decades-old ideas of the future and whether, for better or worse, we are any closer.

—Jack T. N. Smurthwaite

This is Today is on view at Gazelli Art House, London, Jan. 22–Mar. 6, 2016.

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