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Clique within a clique

The artistic indiviualities of members of The Independant Group created potent synergies

The men who set up the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) after the war − one of whom was JM Richards, a former editor of this magazine − intended it to be a meeting place for a specific clique of people. They wanted to create a space where ‘modern’ artists, architects, writers and musicians could congregate and discuss issues concerning contemporary culture. This history of the ICA as a home for various generations of cultural cliques is a theme in the current Parallel of Art and Life: The Independent Group exhibition. The members of The Independent Group − Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Magda Cordell, Peter and Alison Smithson, Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham, Toni del Renzio and Frank Cordell − met at the ICA.

Lawrence Alloway suggested that The Independent Group members had little more in common than their dislike of the ‘establishment attitudes’ of the ICA founders. However, between 1952 and 1955 they used the Institute as the site for informal discussions and later, a more organised series of seminars and several exhibitions − thus fulfilling the aims of the founding members. For this reason it’s perhaps more useful to think of them less as an ‘Independent’ group than as a clique within a clique. Most histories of The Independent Group neglect the different interests and activities of the individual members, focusing instead on single issues, particularly the birth of Pop Art. This narrative of the group as the ‘fathers of Pop Art’ simplifies the otherwise complicated history of the group’s activities. It also overlooks the role of the women in the group.

A painting by Magda Cordell is included in this current exhibition to emphasise the too-often ignored role of the wives of the ‘fathers of pop’. The curators of the exhibition offer a view of The Independent Group beyond the mythology of Pop Art. Among the original art work and archival material in the exhibition there are hints at the members’ mutual interest in popular culture − science fiction comics, books about Hollywood movies and a collage of magazine photographs in John McHale’s Telemath painting − but there is an emphasis on the differences between the members. This idea of finding unity among difference was the theme of the original Parallel of Life and Art exhibition in 1953 (the catalogue of which is in the exhibition), organised by Peter and Alison Smithson, Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi.

The exhibition focused on the aesthetic links between conventionally unrelated objects − skyscrapers and vegetable cellular tissue, Machu Picchu and a Dublin bus garage, for example. Like the assembled photographs in Parallel of Life and Art, the members of The Independent Group are separate individuals who created links between themselves, specifically to differentiate themselves from the conventions of the previous generation. By returning to the idea of The Independent Group as a collection of differences, the current exhibition moves away from the myths that surround the group and considers their pragmatic and self-conscious identity as a new cultural clique.

The Independent Group: Parallel of Art and Life

Where: Institute of Contemporary Art, London

When: Until 9 June 2013 (entry is free)

Click here to visit the exhibition website

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