Heralding the dawn of British Pop art, Man Versus Look, Versus Life, Versus Time, Versus Man About is an arresting early work by Derek Boshier. It was painted in 1962, the year that Boshier, alongside his friends David Hockney and Allen Jones, graduated from London’s Royal College of Art; that same year, they showed together at the Royal Society of British Artists’ exhibition ‘Young Contemporaries’ in a display widely recognised as the foundational moment of British Pop. In an audacious composition that echoes diagram or blueprint, Boshier has ruled the canvas into geometric zones. Against the dry-brushed blue-green of the largest section, a man in a green suit and bowler hat pedals along a straight line towards a steeply sloping triangle; his bicycle is doubled as if in a twice-exposed photograph. He gazes through a periscope whose sightline bounces up to the top of the canvas, where it meets four brightly-coloured toy cars falling from the sky. A procession of nude men run down the slope. Small palm trees and a pyramid – a symbol, for Boshier, of stability – sprout at its base. Beneath is a plan of what looks like a mining structure, complete with a labelled ‘air shaft’ and filled with tiny human figures. More nude men fill a bare chamber below that is lit by a tiny yellow lightbulb. A commanding hand appears from the right to hold them in their place. Boshier, a keen reader of cultural critics such as Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin, was interested in the impact of Americanisation and the manipulations of the media, which he saw as reducing people to components in a machine. Walled up, falling or on the course of collision, the people and objects in the present work’s tense composition appear headed for disaster, at the mercy of forces beyond their control. This was unorthodox subject matter at the time, and the ‘Young Contemporaries’ show shocked teachers at the Royal College who wanted their students to stick to more traditional material. As Boshier reflected, though, ‘We weren’t interested in wine bottles and fruit. We were interested in the world we lived in, in sex and music and culture and advertising’ (D. Boshier, quoted in C. S. Sykes, Hockney: The Biography Volume 1, London 2011, p. 77).
With its flashes of raw canvas, divisions into flat colour, use of text and the painterly blur of its falling cars, Boshier’s painting closely resembles the style of such iconic early works by David Hockney as Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape (1961, Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf) and A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in the Semi-Egyptian Style (1961). Both young artists were also inspired by the work of Francis Bacon, whose own use of Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs of figures in motion is likely referenced in the running men of Man Versus Look, Versus Life, Versus Time, Versus Man About. Boshier, however, who later played an important role in the Post-Punk era – he taught The Clash’s Joe Strummer at the Central School of Art before designing the visuals for the band’s famous Clash 2nd Songbook, and would go on to create stage sets and album covers for David Bowie – has a unique place in the story of British Pop, blending glamour and humour with his sophisticated existential vision. His ‘falling man’ motif, a vulnerable figure based on William Blake’s Elohim Creating Adam (1795), held particular resonance for Bowie: the singer had starred in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) just two years before meeting Boshier, and posed, fallen, for the 1979 Lodger album artwork that he and Boshier designed together. ‘The point about the Pop Art movement in Britain’, Boshier says, ‘is that we’re all grouped together, but we were very different. David [Hockney] was much more autobiographical, coming out of the closet … and marvellously inventive. Allen Jones came out of European art and turned the colourist aspects of French art into Pop. Peter Blake and Peter Phillips were much more interested in celebrating American culture, pin-ups and all that stuff. I came out of a more critical aspect’ (D. Boshier, quoted in ‘R[esource], C[reativity], A[dvancement]: Derek Boshier’ RCA Blog, https://www.rca.ac.uk/news-and-events/rca-stories/derek-boshier/). Playful, daring, and gently ominous, Man Versus Look, Versus Life, Versus Time, Versus Man About is an impressive statement of Boshier’s erudite Pop intent.