John Hurrell – 14 October, 2020
To explain the complexities of the relationships of Bates and Hockney and Bates and Quin, Byrt draws in a vast array of other influential creative personalities, famous in the Anglo-American arts of the early sixties, ranging from Norman Mailer and RD Laing to Wilhelm Reich and Larry Rivers—while also explaining the social/political structure of the London art school, the Royal College of Art, which provides the setting.
The Mirror Steamed Over: Love and Pop in London, 1962
Paperback, 312 pp,
Colour and b/w illustrations
Auckland University Press, June 2020
Astonishing in its detailed research and clear elucidation, this exceptionally informative second ‘mainstream’ book by Anthony Byrt looks at the interwoven lives of David Hockney, Barrie Bates / Billy Apple and Ann Quin: the friendship of two young artists (one homo, the other hetero) and an experimental novelist (the lover of Bates). To explain the complexities of these relationships Byrt draws in a vast array of other influential creative personalities, famous in the Anglo-American arts of the early sixties, ranging from Norman Mailer and RD Laing to Wilhelm Reich and Larry Rivers—while also explaining the social/political structure of the London art school, the Royal College of Art, which provides the setting. (Another parallel setting, never too far away because of its huge cultural influences, is of course North America.)
The detail is really dense. So dense in fact that you wonder at times if Byrt will ever successfully tie up all the seemingly digressive connections in this complicated art historical / English literature story (he does) which looks at the three protagonists’ ways of thinking about the Self as a carefully constructed disembodied object—instead of something firmly embedded in mental interiority. Byrt’s brilliant book title comes from part of a Quin novel and refers to the materiality of signifiers for the Self, and not the possibility of direct access. Only surface.
Even if you are not a New Zealander—one familiar with Apple’s extraordinary conceptual art practice, or Hockney’s fabulously courageous and formally innovative early paintings (some of which came to this country in touring shows)—Byrt’s book still offers much in its account of how ideas of personal liberation exploded on the pre-Beatles English scene in the early sixties. It is (for Kiwis especially) a damn good read, as good in my view as Horrocks on Lye or Wedde on Culbert: both wonderful publications. Mirror… also includes all sorts of cultural / philosophical / psycho-analytic discussions that you can thematically follow up elsewhere if so inclined. And Quin is only just now being discovered by a larger global audience, so Byrt’s account of her importance is revelatory.
As for Apple followers, this Byrt book is essential, but note, next month Christina Barton launches her own eagerly awaited Billy Apple ® Life /Work. The presentation of that substantial volume will be a significant event, for Barton is much admired for her meticulous research and explanatory skills, and infectious enthusiasm for Apple’s achievements. She and Byrt are similar but Byrt has formidable skills as a journalist, and is not so beholden to academia.
His publication puts under the microscope the activities of three energetic and cocky individualists who were in their mid-twenties and immensely talented. I’ve always been fascinated by Pop Art—and icons like Hamilton, Warhol and Lichtenstein—and even though Hockney and Apple were only spasmodic participants in that movement in its ‘pure’ sense (especially Hockney who clearly was never interested in consumerism), this book makes English (and American) artworld activities of almost sixty years ago thrillingly vivid.
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