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1958 A Young Contemporary

Explore the 1958 catalogue

A Young Contemporary is a painting by Ruskin Spear of the artist William Green (“Billy the Green”), aged around twenty-three (Fig. 1). Green’s gestural flamboyance—he applied bitumen and paraffin energetically to board with, among other things, a bicycle—had quickly seized the public’s imagination after it was filmed by Ken Russell in 1957 and broadcast on the BBC programme, “Tonight”. Publicity followed, its tone mostly one of bemusement: a Pathé film of Green working was accompanied by a disparagingly jocular voice-over encouraging the public to follow Green’s lead and try still more alternatives to paint brushes: “a similar effect can be got with, say, a pair of roller skates.” (Fig. 2)1 This was a reaction that found its apogee in Tony Hancock’s rendition of action painting in the film The Rebel (1961), using a process that involved boots, a cow, and inevitably a bicycle.2 The Pathé film of Green also referenced “James Pollock” [sic], an indication of a prevailing unfamiliarity with contemporary movements abroad. Only in 1958 did a large exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery bring Jackson Pollock’s work to a London public—the same year that Green himself featured in the Institute of Contemporary Arts exhibition, Five Young Painters.

Figure 2

William Green, An “Action Artist” demonstrates how he creates a picture by running a bicycle over paint on canvas, 1957, film, 2 minutes 13 seconds. Collection of British Pathé (FILM ID:67.12). Courtesy of British Pathé (All rights reserved).

Ruskin Spear’s painting, which hung in the Summer Exhibition of 1958, documents a division between London’s art institutions in the late 1950s. It hung in the Royal Academy, among landscapes, still-life paintings, and other portraits, mostly of establishment figures like Prince Philip, painted by David Jagger, and the Queen by Anthony Devas. But it could be seen as something of a Trojan Horse: its subject was from another art world focused on the Whitechapel, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the art schools (Green had studied at Walthamstow School of Art and was then a student at the Royal College of Art). Spear’s depiction of Green is a material document of that division: Spear showed Britain’s abstract expressionist in the figurative idiom which Green challenged. But the painting also accommodates abstraction in its prominent backdrop: a dark gestural mass, depicting or at least signifying Green’s work, takes up almost two-thirds of the canvas. And where Green’s reception had been preoccupied with the theatricality of his process, here Spear showed him resolutely static: Green’s face-on, centred position in the canvas makes him as much an archaic Greek Kouros as a dynamic young action painter.

The picture’s title refers to the annual Young Contemporaries exhibitions, which had promoted the work of art students and young artists since 1949. It was staged at the Royal Society of British Artists Galleries on Suffolk Street, and after remarkably successful beginnings, the exhibition gained extraordinary momentum in the 1950s. As Alan Bowness recalled, it “suddenly became of real importance, a place where new talent could be seen emerging and the general direction of the immediate future plain.”3 The Young Contemporaries was one example of the increasing attention given to young artists, and this trend elicited mixed responses. For some, it was alarming, giving untested artists too much exposure, while for others, it energised a stagnant, retrogressive art scene which seemed content to ignore many of the twentieth century’s artistic movements—European and American ones especially. Spear’s painting captures this ambivalence towards its young contemporary and the young artist cohort he represents.

Spear gave Green the recognition of being a Summer Exhibition subject (where the portrait situated Green alongside aristocracy and the captains of industry) but depicted him not entirely kindly—his features are caricatured and his face is wearing a smirk. These qualities are conspicuous given the dignity Spear gave his other subjects, be they protagonists in scenes from working-class life, or his more conventional portrait sitters. They are attributes which also make it easy to read generational conflict into the painting, but although Spear was very established in the art world (having become a Royal Academician in 1954), he was forty-seven—twice Green’s age but by no means old. At this point, Spear also taught Green at the Royal College of Art, where he would have been privy to the concerns of Carel Weight, the College’s recently appointed Professor of Painting, about the dangers that accompanied the publicity surrounding Green’s process.4 At a moment when the state was a relatively generous patron of education, Weight (another exhibitor in the Summer Exhibition that year) feared Green’s antics would prompt more governmental scrutiny of art education.

If Spear’s position towards young artists was equivocal, so was the Academy’s. The prominence of the Royal Academy Schools within the Academy gave it a structural proximity to young artists, but for an institution for established artists, a rising tide of young, relatively unknown artists was likely to be an irritation or even a threat. Some Academicians expressed a desire to participate in the Young Contemporaries’ success: in 1958, the Academy’s Council decided to allocate £25 a year for prizes in the Exhibition.5 But for the most part, ideas about accommodating or promoting young artists, such as a debate in 1959 about using the Academy’s spaces to exhibit student work, were not pursued.6 Spear’s A Young Contemporary is a trace of the Academicians’ dilemma. It brought in William Green, an emblem of early artistic success and attention, but only in a painted form, which seemed to perpetuate rather than resolve the distance between its artist and sitter. Two years later, the Academician Ronald Dunlop thought the separation remained a problem, and was perhaps even getting worse: Dunlop identified “an increasing gap between the Academy and the younger artists who stood outside”.7

  1. Action Artist (Pathé, 1957),↩︎

  2. The Rebel, directed by Robert Day (1961).↩︎

  3. Alan Bowness, “Introduction”, Recent British Painting: Peter Stuyvesant Foundation Collection (London: Tate Gallery, 1967), 13.↩︎

  4. Alex Seago, Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: The Development of a Postmodern Sensibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 126.↩︎

  5. Minutes of the meetings of the Council of 4 November 1958, RAA/PC/1/35, 251.↩︎

  6. Minutes of the meetings of the Council of 20 October 1959, RAA/PC/1/35, 289.↩︎

  7. Minutes of the meetings of the Council of 8 March 1960, RAA/PC/1/35, 307.↩︎

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Explore the 1958 catalogue