Arts feature

When Britain’s avant-garde weren’t so shouty

Whether it’s Bridget Riley or Richard Hamilton, Francis Newton Souza or Bob Law, the quiet radicals of the 60s and 70s are experiencing an overdue revival

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

When the New York art dealer David Zwirner opened his London gallery in October 2012, observers expected him to make a statement of intent. Zwirner, who the magazine Art Review placed at number two in its 2013 Art Power 100 survey, is one of the art world’s most important three gallerists (the others are Larry Gagosian and Iwan Wirth). After a year of settling in, Zwirner made a newsworthy announcement: he had signed up the 27-year-old Colombian-born, London-based artist Oscar Murillo. For a twenty-something, he had just had a remarkable set of auction results at Christie’s last June, with a work going for £253,875 against an estimate of £20,000 to £30,000. These results, along with the artist’s rough, informal paintings and his exotic cultural origins, led some observers to suggest that Murillo was the new Jean-Michel Basquiat. It seemed that Zwirner had got his statement London signing.

Signing the next new sensation is a tried and tested method for such prominent dealers to show that they are fully up to speed with art-world chatter — White Cube recently made a similar statement by exhibiting Eddie Peake, another hyper-fashionable young artist. But perhaps it was Zwirner’s subsequent announcement that is more interesting. Instead of trying to sign the next hot talent, he announced a June exhibition of the British artist Bridget Riley, her first major survey show since the 2003 retrospective at Tate Britain. Riley, who will be 83 this month, is the antithesis of Murillo. Having shot to fame in the 1960s — the success of her Op Art paintings and drawings was recognised with a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1966 and she was one of a two-person presentation in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1968 — she faded from view during the 1980s and 1990s.

Recent years have seen a revival of interest not only in Riley but also in a number of British artists from the generation who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, positioned in between the parochial abstraction of mid-century British art and the Young British Artists of the later part of the century. Richard Hamilton’s retrospective is currently on at Tate Modern, David Hockney’s profile has bounced back in recent years, culminating in his exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012. And in more niched art-world circles, less well-known artists from those generations are also being looked at again — for example, the conceptually orientated Stephen Willats, who has an exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery (until 17 April), and who was recently the subject of a survey show at the not-for-profit gallery Raven Row (which was founded and is now run by the supermarket heir and curator Alex Sainsbury).

On one level, this revival of interest might reflect a flight to quality in an art world where speculation and hype are teetering out of control. ‘I’m not surprised by the revival of interest in Bridget Riley,’ says Ben Parsons, director of dealer Karsten Schubert, Riley’s long-term agent, who is working in collaboration with Zwirner on the forthcoming exhibition. ‘Collectors are following curators in realising that the British avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s quietly achieved great things.’

It does seem as if, after the relentless focus on the present that characterised young British art, curators and collectors have rediscovered avant-garde British art history from the 1960s and 1970s. The art fair Frieze Masters is symptomatic of this process, in particular with its ‘Spotlight’ section, which devotes the fair’s entire last corridor to one-person presentations of 20th-century artists. Last year it featured Francis Newton Souza, who showed at the same gallery as Bridget Riley in the early 1960s (Gallery One); Rose English, a performance and installation artist, who started working in the 1970s; and the British minimalist Bob Law, who started producing his major work in the 1960s. And over at the ICA, the current director, curator and writer Gregor Muir, a leading light of young British art, is staging a show of the Institute’s archive at its original site, now occupied by Dover Street Market.

There is also perhaps a second factor that is fuelling this revival. As a well-respected London-based art consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, ‘These artists are elderly. You know what you are dealing with — there are no surprises. They are at the end of their careers, usually with major museum retrospectives taking place or having recently taken place. Those shows validate the rising auction prices.’

The contemporary art market is booming, but it is at the mercy of speculation and fashion. Artists from the generation who were at the forefront of avant-garde practice are now approaching the end of their careers (or, in the case of Hamilton and Souza, have recently died) and are a much more robust prospect for consultants and collectors, particularly when there are serious career-surveying shows (such as the forthcoming Zwirner show on Riley). It was no surprise that Karsten Schubert sold all the Riley works on paper that were on his stand at a recent London art fair, despite prices for comparable works standing at more than £100,000.

Alongside this revival it is possible to detect a fading of interest in the generation that sent the careers of Riley, Hamilton and Hockney into the shadows — the Young British Artists. Collectors are not beating down doors to get their latest work, there are fewer major museum shows featuring them and they are not the major draws at auctions or at fairs. It is entirely conceivable that the careers of most of them will enter the wilderness that Riley for one had to endure through the 1980s and 1990s. At least, if this is a cyclical pattern, they can look forward to the possibility of their own revival in a couple of decades or so.

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