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Reference group
Independent Group (act. 1952–1955) was formed in 1952 from a small group of younger members of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) based at 17–18 Dover Street, London. Membership of the Independent Group fluctuated, but at its inception it comprised the artists Richard Hamilton (1922–2011), Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, and William Turnbull (b. 1922), and the critics (Peter) Reyner Banham and Toni del Renzio (1915–2007); they were joined before the end of the year by the critic Lawrence Alloway (1926–1990) and the architects Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Henderson, Paolozzi, and Turnbull had first met in the 1940s while students at the Slade School of Fine Art, where Henderson also met Hamilton.

The programme of the ICA, founded in 1946, reflected the social, libertarian, and surrealist interests of its president, Herbert Read, and chairman, Roland Penrose. Yet notwithstanding his credentials as a leftist intellectual, art historian, and poet, Read (and to a lesser extent Penrose) was a principal target for the Independent Group's dissent. For them the ICA epitomized the conservative modernism of what the ICA's gallery assistant, Richard Lannoy (b. 1928), described as a ‘pompous, formal and antiquated’ art establishment (Harrison, 94). Read in turn was antipathetic to the group's inclusive (and relatively apolitical) stance, and to its analyses of ‘low’ as well as ‘high’ art—what Alloway described as the ‘long front of culture’ (Cambridge Opinion, 17, 1959, 25–6).

The provision of a separate forum for this dissident sub-group was Richard Lannoy's idea. He convened three meetings of what was initially termed the Young Group, the first of which was a slide show given by Paolozzi in April 1952. Ironically, Paolozzi's projection of his collages of commodity advertising and comic-book imagery drew an audience of fewer than twenty (ICA membership then stood at more than two thousand) and was met with general bemusement. None the less its ramifications were far-reaching, although its ‘proto-pop’ significance was, and is, contested. Like Paolozzi, Turnbull and Alloway collected pulp fiction imagery. All three were avid cinema-goers, devoted to science fiction as much as to ‘art house’ movies; Turnbull had worked in his native Dundee as an illustrator of D. C. Thompson's comics, and Reyner Banham (a recent graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art) had trained with the Bristol Aeroplane Company, an experience that underpinned his formulation of the ‘machine aesthetic’. After Lannoy's departure to India in July 1952 Banham became the effective leader of the Independent Group proper.

In July 1951 Richard Hamilton had organized the ICA exhibition ‘Growth and form’, which took its didactic thrust from D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's book of the same title (1917), an anti-teleological text that demonstrated a ‘mathematical aspect of morphology’ (D. W. Thompson, On Growth and Form, 1982, 3). Its provision of a philosophical grounding for Independent Group theory was augmented by A. C. Korzybski's Science and Sanity: an Introduction to Non-Aristotelean Systems and General Semantics (1933), Norbert Wiener's writings on cybernetics, Claude Shannon on information theory, and John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944). ‘Growth and form’ also brought the physicist Desmond Bernal, the geneticist Conrad Waddington, and the engineer Lancelot Law Whyte into the group's orbit, but the intense debates provoked by the exhibition's multi-disciplinary conflations of art and science (several years before C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures, which warned of a dangerous gulf between the humanities and the sciences) proved to have limited consequences for the visual arts.

In the words of another member of the group, the artist John McHale (1922–1978), the Independent Group was ‘small, cohesive, quarrelsome, abrasive’ (Robbins, 29). At the height of the cold war, for example, del Renzio and Henderson were opposed to the perceived pro-American bias of their colleagues. But despite these antagonisms the group's artists shared an interest in not assimilating images merely to recycle them, unmediated, but rather to integrate them into new forms. Thus Paolozzi incorporated mechanical debris in his robotic sculptures; Hamilton reformulated nineteenth-century engravings of farm machinery in new etchings, and—reflecting the group's intellectual engagement with art—advocated that images might be tabular as well as pictorial. Attracted by the Independent Group's pluralism, most of London's avant-garde art critics, notably Robert Melville (1905–1986) and David Sylvester, became active participants in its debates. The Art News and Review, founded in 1949, published work by these ‘outsiders’ as well as by Alloway, Banham, and del Renzio, and was an important medium for the dissemination of the group's thought.

Alloway's mission was to wrench art from the ‘iron curtain of traditional aesthetics which separate absolutely art from non-art’ (Alloway, 28), and he angrily embarked on demolishing the art-historical legacy of Roger Fry and Clive Bell. He absorbed David Riesman's study of urban American society, The Lonely Crowd (1950), and was one of the first Britons to import a copy of The Mechanical Bride (1951), Marshall McLuhan's pioneering analysis of advertising and mass media communications as symptoms of modern society. The Independent Group's programmatic deconstruction of art, and the refusal to approach it as transcendental and ahistorical, prefigured post-modernist discourse of the 1970s.

Nigel Henderson's contribution as a catalyst within the Independent Group was in sharp contrast with Alloway's. Slightly older than his colleagues, he bridged the cultural stasis of the war years back to the 1930s, when his friendships with the painters Julian Trevelyan and Graham Bell had coincided with their involvement in Tom Harrisson's Mass-Observation movement, a spur for the socio-anthropological aspects of the Independent Group. It was Henderson who had circulated Growth and Form and who introduced Paolozzi to the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and so made possible Paolozzi's ‘introduction to another world’ (R. Spencer, ed., Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, 2000, 56). The copy of Marcel Duchamp's Green Box (1934) that Henderson loaned to Richard Hamilton had equally profound implications for Hamilton's career. Henderson took up photography in 1949, using the camera not to make definitive statements but as an instrument for exploring the potential of received visual data. He regarded the photographic negative as analogous to a musical score, a latent image open to multiple interpretations, and the darkroom enlarger as ‘a kind of drawing instrument’ (Harrison, 102), a means of altering perceptions or preconceptions—a radical redefinition of this quintessentially modern medium.

In September 1953 Henderson, with Paolozzi and Alison and Peter Smithson, organized the exhibition ‘Parallel of life and art’ at the ICA. Extending Independent Group notions of a democratized collage of images—random and non-linear—it allowed viewers to create their own associations and thus become active participants. Its imagery struck most observers as aggressively raw and grainy: re-photographed works by Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet, and Alberto Burri were presented alongside such ‘non-art’ material as enlargements of micro-photographs, fossils, or news photographs. Reyner Banham located the origins of new brutalism in this display, and its non-hierarchical arrangement also fed into the contemporary concept of ‘image’—the image as a conveyor of meaning irrespective of value judgements concerning its status as high or low art.

As the boundaries between the ICA and the Independent Group became less distinct, the ICA's lecture programme reflected the pan-cultural scope of both groups. It embraced not only avant-garde art, poetry, and jazz, but also a pioneering demonstration of Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète, and Siegfried Giedion's revisionist readings of palaeolithic art, which he presented long before their publication as The Eternal Present (1967). Giedion's concepts of transparency, simultaneity, and interpenetration had significant implications for the rendering of pictorial space, as exemplified in the sculpture of William Turnbull, which emphasized the fluidity of overlapping forms in constant motion. The artists John McHale, Magda Cordell (b. 1921), and her husband Frank Cordell (1918–1980), a composer and arranger with the BBC and from 1955 musical director of HMV, were drafted early into the Independent Group: theory and practice coincided, since Frank Cordell actually produced pop hits of the day, and Toni del Renzio (one of the first to deconstruct the frivolity and fetishism of fashion) was art director of Woman's Own. But although the group expanded slightly, as del Renzio observed, beyond the core of ‘eighteen to twenty people … it was very hard for anybody else to get in, even if they wanted to’ (Robbins, 25).

The first phase of the Independent Group ended with nine seminars on ‘The aesthetic problems of contemporary art’, held in 1953–4. The group's victory in its ideological battle with the ICA was implicit in Alloway's appointment as the institute's assistant director in 1955. A ‘second session’ of seminars, exploring the relationship between popular culture and the fine arts, was convened by Alloway and McHale in 1955, and was the final project organized under the group's auspices. The disbanding of the Independent Group had begun in 1954 with the departure of Nigel Henderson from London to the Essex coast, where Paolozzi joined him in the following year. Lawrence Alloway, an ardent promoter of American abstract expressionism, emigrated in 1961 to become senior curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and John McHale (now married to Magda Cordell) moved permanently to the United States in 1962, devoting his remaining years to monitoring the mass media, the globalization of culture, and future theory.

Paradoxically, given that the diffusion of Independent Group theories was limited by its hermetic constitution, its most accessible project, ‘This is tomorrow’, conceived by the architect Theo Crosby and held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, took place after the group had disbanded. Architects, artists, and designers, including two further participants in the group, the architect Geoffrey Holroyd and the graphic designer Edward Wright (1912–1988), formed twelve separate groups to create futuristic habitation spaces. John McHale, who collaborated with Richard Hamilton and the architect John Voelcker (1927–1972) in the Fun House, shipped a trunk full of glossy magazines from New York, the base material for the group's ‘pop’ collages. But most of the stands struck visitors as esoteric or dystopian. Only the Fun House fired the public's imagination, due mainly to the inclusion of a jukebox, a cut-out Marilyn Monroe, and the loan of Robbie the Robot from the film The Forbidden Planet. ‘This is tomorrow’ exposed how, despite theoretical common ground, the cross-fertilization between disciplines was hard to attain in practice: for example Turnbull's 1957 design for a playground, an ‘open’ arena for human interaction, related to interest among architects in the ludic, but remained unrealized.

If the Independent Group's revisionist art theories and socio-anthropological readings of the mass media only obliquely affected art practice, their influence on the urban environment, if indirect, was arguably more profound. Reyner Banham and Theo Crosby were influential staff members of the Architectural Review and Architectural Design, and a majority of members who augmented the original Independent Group's nucleus were architects—in addition to Crosby, Cedric Price, Colin St John Wilson (1922–2007), Sam Stevens (d. 2000), and James Stirling; moreover, attendance at debates was swollen by students from London's architecture rather than its art schools. Leading architects of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Ron Herron and Denise Scott Brown, testified to the crucial impact of Independent Group polemics in framing their own challenges to high modernism.

The legacy of the Independent Group was neglected in the 1960s and relegated to footnotes in accounts of the rise of pop art. Its protagonists' versions of events diverged, and (like some recent historians) they sought to reverse the pop bias associated principally with Alloway; yet the group's innate heterogeneity is the most persuasive disincentive to narrowed readings of its activities. Substantial reaffirmation of the group's role was instigated by the Arts Council film Fathers of Pop in 1979 and the ICA's touring exhibition ‘The Independent Group: postwar Britain and the aesthetics of plenty’ in 1990. The renewed interest sparked by these events spread into continental Europe and the USA, and continues undiminished. The sustained relevance of Independent Group discourse to architectural and design history, communications theory, and digital media is testimony to the intellectual frameworks it anticipated and in certain respects initiated.

Martin Harrison

Sources  

D. Robbins, ed., The Independent Group: postwar Britain and the aesthetics of plenty (1990) · M. Harrison, Transition: the London art scene in the fifties (2002) · L. Alloway, ‘Personal statement’, Ark, 19 (spring 1957), 28 · A. Massey, The Independent Group: modernism and mass culture in Britain, 1945–1959 (1995) · October, 94 (autumn 2000) [[Independent Group special issue]] · private information (2008) [M. Cordell; R. Hamilton; R. Lannoy; P. Smithson; C. St J. Wilson]