British rock music and art have always been closely aligned. Alongside their exhibition Peter Blake and Pop Music, Pallant House Gallery feature an examination of Derek Boshier’s work alongside The Clash and David Bowie.
Writer Paul Gorman examines the fifty-year career of an artist who remains fascinated with the cultural power of music.
Derek Boshier’s practice is informed “by a view of the relations between art and our surrounding culture”, as the author and museum director Sandy Nairne has noted. Meanwhile critic/curator Guy Brett identifies Boshier’s position among British artists as “one of the most closely attuned and critically attentive to cultural and political change”.
As politics remains a matter of deep absorption, so Boshier’s engagement with popular culture and in particular popular music can be seen as an aspect of this abiding preoccupation with the contemporary. Brett has also talked of the artist’s “infectious enthusiasm and rebellious wit”, both defining ingredients of rock & roll in its purest form. And so it follows that when pop and rock music has been most vital – in the early 60s, say, and the late 70s – Boshier has reflected the impact on mass culture.
I Wonder What My Heroes Think of The Space Race, 1962, by Derek Boshier. Government Art Collection.
One thinks of his inclusion of Buddy Holly with Abraham Lincoln and Horatio Nelson in the painting I Wonder What My Heroes Think Of The Space Race?, as featured in the 1962 Monitor documentary Pop Goes The Easel. “Buddy Holly personifies everything I like about pop singing and pop heroes and I suppose heroes in general,” says Boshier in the voiceover to the segment dedicated to his work in Ken Russell’s film, which incorporated sequences on such fellow travellers as Peter Blake, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips. Much later, in vastly different musical and social circumstances, Boshier created one of punk’s most vivid visual documents in Clash 2nd Songbook. Simultaneous to the release of that remarkable publication, Boshier was working on commissions at the other end of the music biz hierarchy, from David Bowie.
As revealed in his recent selection for the US college radio show Stranded – which has a Desert Island Discs-style format – Boshier’s appreciation for the form goes back 60 years to membership of the British branch of the Guy Mitchell Fan Club. Creative expression of this interest in popular sound emerged in a pair of sketches of Bill Haley & The Comets. Made in 1962, these constituted a retrospective tip of the hat to the plump, kiss-curled and unlikely character who had introduced rock & roll to these shores in the mid-50s, and coincided not only with the broadcast of Pop Goes The Easel but also Boshier’s first solo exhibition, Image In Revolt at London’s Grabowski Gallery.
A decade later, Boshier cropped up again in a pop (music) context, at a time when rock was entering the so-called “progressive” phase; in truth the genre was at its most over-blown and pretentious, as was much of the accompanying artwork. This era of stadium gigs and concept albums was matched by an onslaught of elaborate and expansive record sleeve packaging, the trend having been set in train by Blake and Jann Haworth’s ambitious Pop collage for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.
At the behest of the British blues/r&b rockers The Pretty Things (whose lead singer Phil May was a sometime tennis partner), Boshier – who had at this point forsworn painting in favour of bookworks, film, photographic augmentation, print-making and sculpture – was commissioned to produce a design for a triple gatefold album cover consisting of three double-sided 12” sq card panels. Imposing the thematic device of pairs, Boshier juxtaposed an image of Laurel & Hardy with that of two tribes people from an ethnological book and a 1950s cocktail advertisement featuring a glamorous young couple.
Julie’s in the Drug Squad, study for The Clash 2nd Songbook 1978, Derek Boshier
Examples of triple-gatefolds are few and far between, even amid the excesses of the period in which Boshier was commissioned; Grave New World, the cover designed by the Liverpudlian designer Steve Hardstaff for the 1972 album by folk-rock band The Strawbs, is the only other which springs to mind. Yet Boshier’s Pretty Things sleeve was never manufactured, a fact which grates not just for the fan of record cover art. “In the end I became pretty pissed off,” sighs Boshier down the line from his Los Angeles home. “I’d bump into Phil or the guys at parties and ask what was happening but they were always vague, until one day they revealed it wasn’t going to happen, and, to make things worse, my materials had been lost!”
Concurrently, Boshier was teaching at London’s Central School of Art. Among those on the foundation course in 1971/2 was John Mellor, an acoustic guitar-strumming 19-year-old who styled himself “Woody”. The student admired the artist (at that time, politically a Troskyite); Boshier recalls liking Woody Mellor in return, and giving him and his classmates such appropriation exercises as replacing the stations on a London Underground map with images and names. When Boshier encountered Woody on a London street in the autumn of 1978, the ex-student was transformed into Joe Strummer, charismatic frontman of incendiary punk-rockers The Clash.
The group had recently sacked their Situationist slogan-spouting manager Bernie Rhodes and installed in his place Caroline Coon, the journalist and founder of drugs charity Release who had also studied under Boshier, at Central in the 60s. Without delay, Boshier was given the task of producing a songbook to accompany the release of the group’s second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Making a merit of the spare use of spot colour dictated by the minimal budget, Boshier’s 60-page paperback in 12” x 9” format proved as visually startling as the aural aggression communicated by The Clash in concert and on record. Spiky lettering, brutally presented monochrome photography and harsh graphics are enhanced by the red and yellow palette and aid the foregrounding of the street-level concerns of the lyrics to such songs as Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad, about a nationwide police clampdown on illegal trafficking, Stay Free, a message to a childhood friend then serving time in HM Brixton for armed robbery, and Safe European Home, about the paranoia resulting from a disastrous trip to Jamaica’s ultra-violent capital Kingston.
Study for The Clash 2nd Songbook, 1978 by Derek Boshier
It is no coincidence that Clash 2nd Songbook shares approaches with designs for similar publications produced in this period by the late music business graphic designer Barney Bubbles for new wave stars Ian Dury & The Blockheads and punk-poet John Cooper Clark.
Around this time Boshier had been introduced by author and critic Marco Livingstone to Bubbles’ work and commissioned him to design the catalogue and poster for the 22-strong group show Lives: An Exhibition Of Artists Whose Work Is Based On Other Peoples’ Lives. This presented purchases made by Boshier on behalf of the Arts Council, and included work by Bubbles in the guise of “Ovski”. Subsequently, the pair enjoyed something of an artistic exchange, with Bubbles incorporating Boshier’s techniques of photographic augmentation in his music press advertising.
David Bowie, 1980, by Derek Boshier
One of the other participants in Lives – which opened at London’s Hayward Gallery in April 1979 before travelling the country – was photographer Brian Duffy, whose CV was marked by the astounding Aladdin Sane sleeve for David Bowie earlier in the 70s. Bowie, himself a painter, had long been an admirer of Boshier’s output, in particular the recurrent use of the Falling Man motif, and so drew him into a collaboration with Duffy for the cover of his new LP, Lodger. “There’s another connection David and I share: mime,” says Boshier. “He had studied and performed with Lindsay Kemp and I had taken a course in the early 60s.”
Bowie 3 1979, by Derek Boshier
Boshier’s Lodger “postcard” depiction of Bowie as though he had plunged from a great height necessitated construction of a trestle to support the superstar’s apparently broken body. Physical distortion – achieved by use of mime training – was also a facet of Bowie’s appearance in the lead role of a US production of The Elephant Man in 1980, as captured in a portrait by Boshier as he took up painting again after a decade. By 1983, when Bowie released his album Let’s Dance, Boshier was in residence at the University Of Houston, where he became best known for the so-called Naked Cowboys series. According to David Brauer, Boshier also turned his “detached, almost mordant gaze” on the Southern city and in particular it’s skyline, which became the subject of such paintings as The Darker Side Of Houston. And so it was appropriate that another of Boshier’s skylines is projected onto the shape of Bowie adopting a boxer’s stance in the design for the Let’s Dance cover.
During his Texas years Boshier grew interested in a musical form at odds with his location: reggae. “I used to go out of my way to track down reggae events; I’d be just one of a handful of white guys present,” says Boshier, who produced a series of paintings associated with the music, including Stepping Razor for the genre’s superstar Peter Tosh and 1987’s Reggae Dancer In The Snow. The latter – sparked in part by Breugel’s incongrous setting of his 1566 Nativity painting Census At Bethlehem in snowy Brabant – was initiated in sketches Boshier made on paper while attending a dancehall reggae concert in Houston. As if to underline the extent of Boshier’s understanding of the music scene, he based the figure’s silhouette on the “nutty” poses struck by British pop/ska outfit Madness.
Boshier returned to his association with David Bowie in the late 80s by producing bold, gestural stage sets in the form of five scale models for an international live tour. “When I asked David for a brief he told me: ‘Think big band; think punk’,” says Boshier, who was also instructed to disregard considerations of portability and ease of installation and instead stay focused on the concept. “In the event the sets didn’t happen because they weren’t deemed useable by the handlers and crew,” adds Boshier, who says that Bowie approved of the models to such an extent that he kept one for his personal archive.
2012 has already delivered the latest steps in Boshier’s musical/artistic tango in the form of his CD sleeve for the independent single release An Englishman In LA (Mr Boshier). This knowing slice of rock from art-tribute band Clem Crosby, Jonathan Stapleton and David Stephenson (from their album Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Band, no less), makes ready with the references and hits the right note as the lyrics proclaim that Boshier is “not bound by the Sixties or any passing fad.”
The Culture of Narcissim, 1979, by Derek Boshier
As underscored by this exhibition, Derek Boshier has incorporated the contemporary into the heart of his practice yet defies definition by a moment or a movement, consistently slipping the shackles of predictability and thus achieving the unpindownable status of the restlessly inquiring artist.
This article appears in the Summer issue of the Pallant House Gallery Magazine. The magazine, which also includes Mark Ellen talking to Sir Peter Blake, plus Tracey Emin and Paul Huxley on the artist Adrian Berg, is available from the Gallery reception for £2. It’s also available free to Pallant House Gallery Friends.
Derek Boshier: David Bowie and The Clash is at Pallant House Gallery until 7 October 2012.