John McHale Interview (cont.)
page five

35. Earlier you mentioned the Dazzle panels at the "This is Tomorrow" exhibition. The panels are reminiscent of work done by Josef Albers in the forties such as Sanctuary, To Monte Alban and Shrine. Although in reproduction these works by Albers just look like repeated geometric shapes, when you see them exhibited they are huge and vibrate in an Op Art fashion. When did your father study under Albers?

McHale's large black and white Dazzle panels positioned at the portals to "This is Tomorrow" are probably the first examples of Op Art in British modern art. In 1955 my father had the fortune to visit the USA for the first time in his life and experience America first hand. He had been around to the America Embassy in London prior to 1955 to apply for his scholarship to Yale, and at that time the Embassy staff had made their information and cultural library freely available to him and were extremely generous in giving him support and answering any questions he had about American culture and events in preparation for his Yale scholarship.This generous support, through Mr. Munsinger in the Cultural Section of the American Embassy, did not abate even after he returned from Yale.

My father studied with Albers at Yale from August 1955 to about June 1956 and also met many of the foremost American artists and some of the designers of the period. These included Buckminster Fuller who was teaching at Yale, his friend from Black Mountain days, John Cage the musician, and Noguchi, the sculptor friend of Bucky's. In addition, while at Yale, my father made numerous excursions to view the latest in American trends and wrote many letters to the leading modern artists in New York and went to visit them on his time off from Yale at their studios in Manhattan. It was during his several artistic excursions to New York that he met Marcel Duchamp several times in 1955-56.

On returning to London around June of 1956 my father brought with him to Britain an incredible wealth of experience, contacts, media material, and first hand information about the latest developments occurring in the USA. Some of this he shared with his ICA colleagues in London. From the period 1956 to 1962 my father was in regular and constant contact with American ideas and influences through his Yale friends, including Bucky Fuller, who visited and corresponded with him in London.

36. Why did your father decide to study with Albers?

My father went to study with Albers at Yale because he admired his work and knew it had evolved out of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain tradition and was cutting edge . My father had done a thorough investigation of optical properties and the perception of colour during his Constructivist work prior to going to the USA. So he naturally continued this work under Albers at Yale. If you look at the Albers' To Monte Alban work it is about his push-pull figure-ground experiments on optical perception. It also has a few Klee elements. But more importantly if one compares it to McHale's Op Art panel at "This is Tomorrow" one can see the direct influence from Albers to McHale. My father recognized that Albers was a formative influence on his work. According to my father his Op Art panels were also influenced by the Vortists who he admired and the fact that he deliberately wanted the Op Art panels to disorient the audience, as he said like " dazzle camouflage" used on wartime ships. So McHale was also consciously referencing British wartime camouflage that was also based on Vortist traditions, and the wartime camouflage research centre of Roland Penrose who helped found the ICA.

The other interesting note is that Albers liked McHale's colour paint work but Albers kept rejecting McHale's formative Pop Art collage work while at Yale. So Albers, like Hamilton on the other side of the Atlantic, tended to be anti-Pop Art in that era.The amusing fact is McHale's Pop art collage poster design for "This is Tomorrow" includes many of Albers dictums about colour, such as the black and white imagery and the use of red.

John McHale (Sr.) among the gargoyles of Notre Dame overlooking Paris in the late 1940s
(Photo copyright John McHale (Jr.))

37. You've mention that your father met Marcel Duchamp in New York and previously you mentioned that he had met Tristan Tzara in Paris. Do you think your father's work was influenced by Dada?

Yes. McHale met Tzara several times in Paris just after the Second World War where he also met a number of leading French artists, including Leger. In Paris he became engrossed with Cubism and the existential writers, Camus, Sartre and read Gide, Proust, Huysman, Eluard, Cocteau, Mallarme, Verlaine, Apollonaire, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and the other Symbolist writers. He was so taken with the intellectual and cultural ferment of Paris he almost did not return to London.

McHale and Tzara became friends in those heady artistic innovative days in post-war Paris. Tzara definitely had an influence on my father, and probably on the incipient formation of British Pop Art. In addition to Dadaist ideas, my father was greatly influenced by the French existentialists, the symbolists and the cubists. Existentialism is about freedom of individual choice and the absence of determinism. Symbolism is about the interplay between the conscious and subconscious - the artistic use of poetic allusions, metaphors and the iconic "correspondence" of symbols. Cubism is about assemblages and optical perception, relating to the compressive simultaneous multi-perspective investigation of objects in space and time. Dadaism, as McHale interpreted it, was about the freedom to choose and the deliberate exploitation of accident and non-deterministic features in a multi-spatial/textural use.

Dadaist graphic layouts explored the use of word poems and the juxtaposition of unexpected or unusual elements in an artistic unity. The Dadaist exploitation of innovative graphic layout, spatial tension and poetic symbolism shows up in a controlled, intellectual format in Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? Alloway and my father collaborated in a lecture at the ICA in early 1955 on Dada - "Dadaists as Non-Aristotelians."

38. Do you think your father's work was influenced by any of the other British artists associated with the Independent Group at the ICA? What about Eduardo Paolozzi?

This is a difficult question to definitively answer because my father never specifically told me what, if any, influence Paolozzi had on his work. In my opinion, I think Turnbull had more influence on my father's early Briish modern Constructivist sculptures than did Paolozzi. Turnbull and McHale were very close friends in the late 1940s and early 1950. I remember meeting Turnbull at my father's Maida Vale studio at 8 Randolph Mews. Although Paolozzi was an Independent Group member at the ICA, and a good friend and colleague of my father's, Paolozzi preferred to call his formative collages Surrealist and in his sculptural work he identified with the Brutalists. It is only later on when Pop Art gained wider currency that Paolozzi started to be associated with it.

My father appreciated Paolozzi's work a great deal. Both were Scots artists, my father was from a strong labour union working class background in Glasgow. He affectionately referred to Paolozzi as an "ice-cream Scot" because of his Italian background, and his father actually ran an ice-cream parlor. Sweets were also sold in the shop so, if you see a lollipop in McHale's collage design, it carries some of the humorous connotation. In the old days, ice-cream parlors were a safe and popular meeting place of delight in Scotland because, unlike the infamous rowdy pubs, people could safely mix and socialize regardless of social rank, age and gender.

McHale was definitely cognoscente of Paolozzi's formative collage work and humorously reflected this in innumerable ways in both his collage poster design for "This is Tomorrow" and the exhibit itself. For example McHale included the icon of the moon in his collage design which is prescient of his space ship theme at the portals to "This is Tomorrow" rendered in conjunction with Robby the Robot from the Forbidden Planet. The sound track for the Forbidden Planet consists of avant-garde concrete music composed by the Barrons on tape recorder machines as referenced by the tape machine and baronial Ford heraldry in McHale's Pop art poster. Compare this to Paolozzi's earlier 1952 collage Will Man Outgrow Earth, and the 1952 The Ultimate Planet with the Alien Earth by Hamilton and the Concrete Mixer by Bradbury. Continuing on after "This is Tomorrow", a few months later in 1956, McHale exhibited some of his man vs. machine space robotic Telemath collages crammed full of collage items with Ford auto parts and other iconic elements reminiscent of his Pop art poster.

McHale developed two styles of collage. One was a story telling episodic narrative style where the images are placed within a spatial context with interrelated distinct icons loaded with symbolic cross-references, as in Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? The other style of McHale's collages was a more painterly style which he employed in Machine Made America and the Telemath series. In terms of style similarities, I think McHale's story-telling version was closer to Paolozzi's work than McHale's other painterly collages. The big difference in McHale's work is in the handling of optical space, the symbolic iconic data compressions, and the fact that he intended that his two dimensional collage representations should actually be viewed like holographic/prismatic Cubist works in the round in three or four multi-dimensions. For instance, McHale's Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? is structured as an artistic time machine that conceptually moves back and forward in time, and is to be viewed in 4-D, like theatre in the round. In shape and composition it consciously harks back to the Medieval icon tradition, which McHale later elaborated on in his modernist Expendable Ikon article.

39. Did your father have any input into Paolozzi's Bunk collages?

I may be wrong, but it is highly unlikely that McHale had anything to do with the production of the series of Bunk collages that Paolozzi produced in his Paris studio. I do not think McHale met Paolozzi in Paris even though they were there at approximately the same time. According to the published accounts, Paolozzi was working on some of his sculptures in Paris and constructing some of his formative Bunk collages. Since both McHale and Paolozzi were original ICA members they would no doubt have met up at the ICA very early on in the 1950s. You will also recall the cultural focus had started to shift from Paris to London in the early 1950s with the inception of the ICA, British sculptural submisions to the Italian Biennale and the 1951 Festival of Britain which made London an artistic focal point and incubator for new artistic ideas.

40. What about Richard Hamilton? Do you think that Hamilton's work influenced your father's?

Assuredly not. For one thing there seems to be scant evidence of Hamilton producing any notable collages prior to after the opening of "This is Tomorrow". If Hamilton produced any collage work prior to 1956 that in any way resembled McHale's design then I am sure many would like to be informed of it, and I stand to be corrected. Certainly, after "This is Tomorrow", Hamilton seems to have made some collage attempts that appear to emulate some elements of McHale's formative collage work but there seems to be scant evidence, as far as I am aware, that McHale has emulated or wished to emulate any of Hamilton's collage work.

41. Did your father ever mention Francis Bacon?

I believe Alloway claims in one of his articles that Francis Bacon was a Pop artist. Let me set the record straight. At the time Alloway and my father designed and mounted the retrospective on Francis Bacon in the early 1950s there was no one in Britain who knew that Bacon was using popular art material and references in his work. It was only much later that this fact was disclosed. That is to say that when my father formulated his Pop Art theory, he had no idea about Bacon using popular material in his work and, therefore, it had absolutely no influence on the formulation of my father's theory. That is why my father was so surprised when I later told him in the mid-1960s that, in my estimation, Bacon was using material from Eisenstein's film and possibly a well-known press illustration of King Idris merged with another reference to a Renaissance Pope. Because of this disclosure and my inquiring about other artists using symbolic references in their work, my father decided to tell me about the details of his Pop Art collage poster and work at "This is Tomorrow".


to page one

Richard Hamilton responds to this interview here.