A decade of creative innovation and revolt, the 1960s featured many important developments in the art world. During the era few regional museums collected contemporary art, allowing the various trends and emerging genres to pass them by. The Ulster Museum is an exception.
The museum boasts one of the most important collections of 1960s art outside of London. It is therefore no surprise that their latest exhibition, My Generation: Art of the 60s and Early 70s includes work by some of the most interesting artists of the time, including luminaries such as Bridget Riley, John Hoyland, Gillian Ayres and Peter Phillips.
Taking up two of the museum’s impressive gallery spaces, the exhibition (curated by Ann Stewart) makes use of an innovative new lighting system, which allows the bold lines and garish colours associated with the period to truly pop. This is most noticeable when viewing pieces such as 'Mosaikbild 6x11' by Peter Phillips, an influential member of the younger generation of artists who studied at London’s Royal College of Art.
Heavily influenced by the energy of his American contemporaries, this piece is a hulking attempt to bring down the borders between ‘low art’ and ‘high art’. Comprised of a checkerboard of bright colours, the photorealistic painting juxtaposes images associated with popular culture – such as portraits of Elvis and glittering chrome fenders of American cars – with scenes of nobility (isn't that Queen Elizabeth?). Brightly coloured images of pencils and paints break up the tension.
Also displayed in this room is Anthony Green’s 'Mr And Mrs Stanley Joscelyne: The Second Marriage'. A striking image painted on a similarly large canvas, this piece depicts Green’s mother and her second husband standing together, arm in arm, in their front room.
Reminiscent of Van Eyck’s famous 'Arnolfini Portrait', this work captures a moment in time. It is a domestic scene, but one that plays with the conventions of form and perspective, with the entire room depicted in 2D. The viewer feels almost catapulted from above directly into the plush suburban surroundings.
The next gallery space is the larger of the two, with the tactical display of Bridget Riley’s 1967 piece, 'Cataract IV' (below), at one end. Having pioneered her own particular brand of ‘Op Art’ for most of the decade, Riley is on top form with this painting. It is a work of abstract illusion that catches the onlooker’s attention, even at a distance.
The intricate lines appear to swirl and move as the viewer walks closer to the piece – a psychedelic effect which in many ways embodies the ethos of 1960s abstract art. The viewer is forced to become involved with, to interact, with the piece.
Mark Boyle’s 'Street Corner: London Series 67-9' is perhaps the most unusual piece on show, an extremely detailed, three-dimensional recreation of an urban landscape using synthetic resin on a wooden frame. Representing a piece of the city exactly as it is found, right down to the muddy footprints, broken glass and weathered curvature of the road, this work removes all sense of the artist’s interpretation by being a direct replica; an abstract concept in itself.
Elsewhere, one can see work by Constructivist sculptor Mary Martin (who was commissioned to produce a metal screen for Belfast’s Musgrave Park Hospital in 1957), American Colour field painter Kenneth Nolan (whose work of pure colour railed against the action painting pioneered by Jackson Pollock), and Heinz Mack, a founding member of Nouveau Realist collective, Group Zero.
My Generation is an exhibition which captures the imagination of an era, an exciting time in the art world, a period of seemingly endless possibilities. It is a great privilege to be able to see pieces such as Patrick Caulfield’s pop art 'Girl In A Doorway', with its bold black lines and blocks of solid citrusy colour.
This exhibition is an interesting snapshot in time, showcasing pieces which were collected when the artists were young and part of a vital scene.
My Generation: Art of the 60s and Early 70s runs in the Ulster Museum until September 23.