When Britain Went Pop!, Christie’s, London – review

In 1957, Richard Hamilton presciently defined pop art as “popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business”. That famous description was right in every respect except that the art proved the opposite of transient: no postwar movement has been more influential. Pop also became bigger business than anyone could have imagined – thus Christie’s choice to launch its luxurious new Mayfair gallery with a charismatic show devoted to the early years of British pop.

London’s first comprehensive exhibition on the subject, it is both a perfect distillation of this period and fascinatingly unfamiliar because the majority of pieces – well over a hundred – come from private collections. Many belong to the artists and are studies for or unknown versions of acclaimed works, including Hamilton’s “Study for Hommage à Chrysler Corp” and “Swingeing London 67 (a)”, and David Hockney’s “First Love Painting”, an oil and pencil sketch for “We Two Boys Together Clinging”, paintings in the Egyptian series (“Kaisarion strolling in Alexandria with small stain on character”) and a stunning “Swimming Pool”.

There are 18 artists in the show, and a rich, jumbled hang reprises the exhilarating moment around 1960 when it was unclear how each would develop and who would last the course. Some, such as Patrick Caulfield (“Portrait of Juan Gris”, “Lit Window”), are innovators who scarcely shared pop’s concerns but contributed formally to its flat, bold look. Some are unfairly forgotten pioneers – Gerald Laing’s cool oil paintings (“Brigitte Bardot”, “Surfer Girl”) mimicking newsprint. There are those who merely flirted with its methods – R.B. Kitaj, essentially a history painter, in collages of consumer and news images, “Vibration” – and others who remained pop artists to the core: Peter Blake and Allen Jones, whose semi-nude fibreglass dummies in bondage gear glued to tables and chairs are as kitsch and provocatively regressive as anything created by Jeff Koons 30 years later.

Until November 23, christies.com

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