The Legacy of British Pop Here and There

Hosted by

One of the most memorable exhibitions during my recent visit to London was not at a museum but at the newly opened Mayfair venue of Christie's dedicated to private sales. The international auction house has moved into the territory of private art galleries with a truly impressive exhibition When Britain Went Pop -- British Pop Art: The Early Years. Organized with the British Pop art dealer Leslie Waddington of Waddington Custot Gallery, it is, amazingly, the first show of British Pop art ever held in London. Located in their New Bond Street location, there are examples of art by Peter Blake, known for the cover of the Sergeant Peppers album, Allen Jones, of the erotic sculpture, Richard Hamilton, R.B. Kitaj and David Hockney, all at the Royal College of Art in one way or another and ready to address advance of popular culture in the late 1950's.

Allen Jones, "First Step," 1966
Allen Jones Collection
Courtesy of Institute for Culture Exchange, Tübingen
© Allen Jones

The term Pop art was coined by an English critic and the first show of such work was held there but the reputation of those artists, less beholden to photography and more indebted to the history of European art, never matched those of the American Pop artists. This is a welcome opportunity to review that point of view and the seldom exhibited work of the period. It continues to November 24 and, if you are unable to see it, I can recommend the massive, informative catalogue with essay by Marco Livingston, biographer of David Hockney.

David Hockney, "Yosemite II, October 5th 2011"
iPad Drawing printed on six sheets of paper

(71 3/4 x 35 3/4" each), mounted on six sheets of Dibond
143 1/2 x 107 1/4" overall
Exhibition Proof #1
© David Hockney

The show includes a sizable number of early works by Hockney, with the veiled eroticism and expressive brush strokes that he would soon eliminate in favor of the smooth surfaces borrowed from photographs such as his painting of a Wilshire Boulevard scene from his 1964 trip to LA. However, for a richer, fuller view of work by Hockney, especially his recent epic paintings of his native Yorkshire, his films that explore the nature of seeing and his drawings on the iPad, you have only to go to the De Young Museum in San Francisco to see David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition on view through January 20, 2014.

Meanwhile, at LA Louver Gallery in Venice, there is a substantial group of later paintings by R.B. Kitaj who, though born in Cleveland, was a key figure in that British Pop art movement, with many pictures in the Christie's show, and a close friend of Hockney.

R.B. Kitaj, "Los Angeles No 29" (Me in You), 2004
Oil on canvas, 48 x 23 3 4 in
Courtesy LA Louver Gallery

The Kitaj paintings and drawings at Louver are from 1992 to 2007, the year that the artist committed suicide. Largely figurative, they are intentionally challenging in both subject and form, especially after his move to from London to Westwood in 1997, where he lived in a Spanish style house thought to have belonged to Peter Lorre. His reasons for moving West were complex, but among them were the fact that his 1994 retrospective at the Tate Museum had been negatively, even brutally, reviewed. Shortly thereafter, his second wife, Sandra Fisher, who was 26 years younger than he, died of a brain aneurysm. Like Hockney, Kitaj was a gifted draftsman and his paintings and drawings at LA Louver offer a productive tension in the use of line and color.


R.B. Kitaj, "Bed and Sofa" (After Abram Room), 1998
Oil on canvas, 24 x72 in
Courtesy LA Louver Gallery

His work combines aspects of his autobiography with his considerable knowledge of art history and philosophy. There is a sizeable component of lust. In Bed and Sofa (After Abram Room) (1998) a bright yellow sofa is animated by the activity of the skirting along the frame and the cozy proximity of the foreshortened red bed suggests a sexual alliance. Sexuality is expressed frankly in many paintings here including Los Angeles No. 27 (Go Down) (2003) (you can guess what that portrays) while others are reverent of his late wife, portrayed as an angel.

Kitaj may have begun his career during the period of Swinging London but it was his admiration for European modern art, particularly Cezanne and Van Gogh, and a deep involvement with Judaism that became the enduring themes visible in this show, which is both startling and moving. It is on view through November 9. For more information, go to

Banner image: Detail of R.B. Kitaj, Bed and Sofa (After Abram Room), 1998. Oil on canvas, 24 x72 in. Courtesy LA Louver Gallery