Fine art collided with popular culture to create a flamboyant new 70s Britain, Tate Liverpool’s Darren Pih tells Laura Davis
BEFORE he became a celebrity model for the Marks and Spencer-buying mainstream, it was famously said that Bryan Ferry had led such an art-directed existence that he ought to be hanging on the walls of the Tate gallery.
Pop art pioneer Richard Hamilton backed up this observation by cultural commentator Peter York, saying he regarded the Roxy Music lead singer as his greatest creation.
Hamilton, who taught Ferry at Newcastle University, would go on to produce art work for The Beatles’ White Album and is well known for his piece Swingeing London 67, which documented the 1967 drugs arrest of his art dealer Robert Fraser and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger at Keith Richards’s Sussex farmhouse. His work embraced the crossover between art and popular culture that Ferry was to embody.
At art schools across the country, the seeds were being sown for a new way of looking at the world and of presenting yourself within it – a change that Tate Liverpool curator Darren Pih calls a “gearshift” in British culture.
It was the emergence of a glamorous and flamboyant style that mixed together so-called high and low cultures – pop music, fashion and fine art – along with dandyism and gender politics to create a glittery, androgynous, extroverted aesthetic, accessible to anyone who fancied a bit of self-reinvention.
From 1971-75, glam ruled record shops and bedroom walls as well as art galleries, and despite being overtaken by punk, it still, Pih argues, has resonances today.
The curator is behind Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition, Glam! The Performance of Style, which opens at the Albert Dock gallery next month, presenting more than 100 works by artists including Hamilton, David Hockney and Cindy Sherman.
“Glam wasn’t just an aesthetic – it marked a gearshift, a stepping up,” says Pih.
“It was British culture in acceleration. It was the idea that you could reinvent your identity, create a fictional persona.
“Glam was more than just a style. It was a state of mind.”
At the centre of this gearshift were the art schools – of which Britain had more per capita than any other nation at the time.
Unfettered by traditional class boundaries. these were nurturing places for creativity and new ideas which became incubators of culture that spanned more than fine art.
Ferry’s contemporaries at Newcastle included Tim Head (whose painting Cow Mutations won the 1987 John Moores Painting Prize and hangs in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery) and Nicholas de Ville, the creator of many of Roxy Music’s album covers.
The 1960s had already seen artists influencing popular culture and this resonated on art school students.
Andy Warhol, the Pittsburgh-born fourth child of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, created his own glamorous parallel universe in Manhattan and had adopted the band The Velvet Underground.
David Bowie visited Warhol’s Factory, populated with the artist’s invented superstars such as the transsexual Candy Darling (the subject of a photograph by Peter Hujar that features in the exhibition). He also attended a performance of the pop artist’s theatre production Pork at the Roundhouse in London and, shortly afterwards, reinvented himself as Ziggy Stardust.
He, Ferry and Warhol’s superstars were seen as living works of art – the ultimate embodiment of the convergence of popular culture and fine art which glam was all about.
Several images of Bowie appear in Tate’s exhibition – among them Terry O’Neill’s 1974 photograph of the singer seated next to a leaping great dane to promote the album Diamond Dogs and one of Mick Rock’s iconic shots.
The show also features work by Hamilton, including Soft Pink Landscape (1972) – an oil painting incorporating an advert for toilet roll which demonstrates a mixture of high and low culture – and one of de Ville’s Roxy Music sleeve designs.
Art and popular culture again converge in Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation Celebration? Real-life, which with mirror balls, lit candles, fresh flowers and glitter strewn about the floor, resembles the aftermath of a decadent party.
“I find it interesting that at a time when the country was in a difficult place, pop culture was a reaction against that idea,” says Pih.
“Either you get dragged down or you try to create something from scratch.
“I do believe glam meant more to more people than something like punk rock, which was great but it was kind of extreme.
“To be a punk you had to wear a bin bag and put a safety pin through your nose but glam was like a retuning. You looked at Bowie and you thought ‘I could do that’. I could just tweak my identity. glam was really achievable.”
And yet, until now there has never been a major art exhibition critically evaluating the period.
“Maybe it was too close,” suggests Pih.
“The 70s got such a bad press for a long time. It takes time for historians to take stock of what occurred.”
GLAM! The Performance of Style is at Tate Liverpool from February 8 to May 12.