The Hidden Mod in Modern Art: London, 1957–1969, by Thomas Crow. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. 200 pages.
THOMAS CROW’S NEW VOLUME, The Hidden Mod in Modern Art: London, 1957–1969, is a meticulous account of the imbrications between artmaking and stylemaking in postwar London, flanked by a jeremiad against what its author perceives as received ideas in contemporary art history. Indeed, Crow’s street-level method—we are treated to a litany of place names, hairstyles, and vivid descriptions of magazines—is part and parcel of his complaint: If art is to be meaningful, Crow seems to insist, it needs to be woven into the fabric of life just as a boutique storefront lodges itself on a city street; to square it just so is the job of art history. To make his case, Crow recovers the figure of the mod, a particular kind of English enthusiast for a particular kind of foreign product—Italian scooters, American haircuts, Black music—whom both social art history and cultural studies have maligned as a naively aspirational, self-deceiving rude boy, and claims it as a keen change agent able, against all odds, to cut a narrow (and stylish) path through the ever-closing ranks of postwar culture. By aligning this figure with the period’s artmaking, Crow forges a new canon, reimagining the art of the time—which, when considered at all, is generally called Pop—as walking a similarly tricky but ultimately beatific, indeed mythic, path.
Crow is an ambidextrous scholar who enjoys jumping back and forth between time periods. In his first book, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (1985), he chronicled the emergence of the Salon and an attendant world of criticism, but soon after, he established himself as a key critic of postwar American and European art. (In the years since, he has returned again to French art in the wake of revolution.) Modern Art in the Common Culture (1996), a collection of essays dedicated to topics ranging from Warhol’s social import to the “unwritten histories of conceptual art,” pitted itself against the rise of visual studies, which Crow considered too visual and too horizontal in its reach: To properly understand an artwork, one had to understand its discursive formation, he claimed. If, in that volume, Crow wanted to locate modern art in culture, and thus save it from what he perceived to be aloof, ivory-tower theoretical activity, in his new book, Crow does himself one better by insisting that modern art (at least in London in the late 1950s to early ’60s) not only belonged to the wider culture but was itself possessed by the spirit of the mod—in other words, that a not-so-common culture (or at least a meticulously self-fashioned one) is constitutive of modern art as it was then being imagined.
Crow makes his argument by sketching the figure of the mod, short for modernist, a typically male aficionado of bebop and hard bop who turned himself out in impeccable fashions apparently pilfered from the closets of the upper classes. Miles Davis was an important icon, and one that the mods aspired to emulate. In his tailored suits and skinny ties, Davis played “the enemy beautifully,” and though his British acolytes were almost all white, albeit lower-class, they imagined their simulation of him more in the spirit of identification and solidarity than appropriation. While Crow’s book starts with the cut and color of suits (khaki was best), it soon moves to the composition and context of canvases: The first chapter examines an early movable “Pop” mural by Robyn Denny, Great, Big Wide, Biggest, 1955, a kind of abstracted hoarding full of deconstructed Pepsi logos and hip buzzwords melding into one another that graced the wall of the Austin Reed men’s shop on Regent Street. That it was meant as background and not stand-alone, autonomous art is OK for Crow, and in fact, the work might have only fully taken on its proper meaning when the Beatles, then still thought to be a bit scruffy and dangerous, visited the shop and had their portrait taken standing in front of it. (Denny would later go on, with ex-Situationist Ralph Rumney and Royal College of Art grad Richard Smith, to make an even larger painting environment in the 1959 Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, exhibition “Place,” which, Crow argues, was put together with a jazzman’s sense of collaboration.)
Art history has been arguing about the meaning of people posing in front of paintings for some time now. In his landmark essay “Fashioning the New York School,” Crow asked, “What difference does it make that some of Jackson Pollock’s most commanding, fully realized paintings were used in 1951, when they were barely dry, as a backdrop for fashion models in the pages of Vogue?” These photographs later served as examples for what T. J. Clark would call the “bad dream of modernism”—which is to say, modernism pushed against its grain and put to uses antithetical to its iconoclastic intentions and desires. Crow doesn’t see it that way, though, especially when artists and scenesters work in tandem to cut a look for themselves, suturing figure and ground together in a fine-tuned, deeply aesthetic mise-en-scène that finds the possibility for something like grace in a cloying contemporary world.
People posing (with or without paintings) might be one of the leitmotifs of this book. But how is this posing different when Pauline Boty, equal parts painter and pop personality, stands in front of her own creations, especially when these paintings depict the artist’s doppelgängers, as is the case with The Only Blonde in the World and Celia Birtwell Surrounded by Her Heroes, both 1963? Birtwell herself was a key fashion designer on the London scene, and though her designs sidestepped mod territory (they betray something of a Ren faire spirit), she was dear friends with David Hockney, who himself sported a college-boy crew cut and gold lamé jacket that successfully queered the mod look. (His great 1963 painting of his gallerist John Kasmin, Play Within a Play, squishes mod style and modern art together by pressing Kasmin, done up in mod duds, against the painting’s American-style flatness.) Hockney is pictured in Boty’s Birtwell canvas in a poster stuck to an inspiration wall—he holds space with Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and a Kenneth Noland–esque target—but Birtwell is front and center, displaying herself to be what Crow calls “a new female Mod elite.” Birtwell stands, red rose in hand, in a pair of blue jeans and a white blouse left casually open so as to expose her midriff, chest, and brassiere. The pose communicates a confidence and intimacy that only fully makes sense when one considers that the painter who crafted the image is a female intimate, not a Freudian (Lucian, not Sigmund) lech. Indeed, Boty posed with her paintings often, not only because, as a pop celebrity, she was used to standing next to things (she appeared on the music program Ready Steady Go! and in the 1962 Ken Russell documentary Pop Goes the Easel), but also to mark an identification with her subjects, which included New Wave idols such as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Monica Vitti. Although Crow shows us a striking 1963 image of Boty in a great patterned dress posing between two of her paintings from the same year (5-4-3-2-1 and a work in progress), we don’t get to see Michael Ward’s 1963 portrait, which presents Boty with her hair done up the same way as Birtwell’s and her blouse similarly wide open: Boty with her heroes, in other words. Can a female painter be both active subject and glamorous object at once? Can one be one’s own hero? Boty provides affirmative answers, but we also see that such identification and self-fashioning necessarily make use of quixotic proxies and vertiginous mirror images. In short, Boty had to forge a complex web of alliances in order to make a place for herself in the wider culture, a project that her male counterparts did not have to confront.
Part of the pleasure of reading this book is imagining the lived experience of knowledge changing hands and trading places. Crow writes in a way that mimics his subjects; his prose is scrupulous, just so, and the many glossy full-color illustrations exalt his wide array of objects—from a spectacular poster for the Royal College of Art Jazz Society, designed by a young Billy Apple (he was still going by his birth name, Barrie Bates), to Ida Kar’s moody black-and-white photographs of Terry Taylor smoking a joint. (After reading the book, you will feel like you know these folks, too.) One can’t help but envy the intertextual web Crow weaves or quite figure out how he does it, though David Mellor’s 1993 The Sixties Art Scene in London seems to have offered one jumping-off point. Crow somehow makes a lived world out of the back pages of defunct art magazines, and the book shares the forensic depth of other titles that look at the art/music crossover of this moment, including Michael Bracewell’s 2007 milestone Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music, which locates the band’s origins equally in Richard Hamilton’s art class and Newcastle High Street men’s shops. But Crow’s is not a book of arcana; rather, it’s a careful report that builds its argument about artmaking and world making slowly and surely, stitch by stitch, button by button.
The book ends by wagging a finger at cultural studies, a distinctly British field of inquiry that was watered down and sprinkled across the States in the form of visual studies, Crow’s old bête noire. For cultural studies, the mod—unlike the punk—is somehow on the take from and in thrall to the upper classes: Before he became Mark Bolan of the glam group T. Rex, Mark Feld was a top mod in a leather waistcoat who infamously said of the Conservative Party, “They’re for the rich, so I’m for them,” performing a class (mis-?) identification that sends shivers down the spine today in the messy wake of Trump’s America. But Feld also supported the Campaign for Nuclear Dis-armament, and Crow wants to see more than cynicism or irony in his class allegiance; indeed, one might say that he wants to find in the mod a certain model of richness for how life might be lived. Crow bridles at the language of “subcultures” coined by cultural studies, especially its implications of lowness, and he is also critical of other strains of social art history: namely, those established by Clark, his mentor, who, Crow believes, condescended to earlier incarnations of youth culture in his transformative 1985 volume, The Painting of Modern Life. (A bit of generational wrestling can be generative.) But Crow has greater aspirations in saving style from cultural studies—he wants to save it for art. Art for him belongs to a space of agency, enthusiasm, mystery, and veneration—art possesses a privileged place, even if it’s not always where we expect it to be—and he is quick, perhaps too quick, to separate it from an Adornian negativity that Crow believes has come to serve as a superficial “badge of seriousness” in academic art history. (Isn’t pushing away from one thing and striving toward something else part and parcel of the same activity?) Art for Crow occupies a strange place: Not beholden to any institution, it remains a privileged part of life, full of heroes and moments of reaching toward ecstasy. At its most potent, it might be touched by myth, that old-time religion, and create cults of worship. The mod might have been one instance of this. Sometimes, I guess, the stars do align.
Alex Kitnick teaches Art History at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, NY.