2 OCTOBER 1976, Page 26


Soft sell

John McEwen

Images of an Era, a collection of post-war American posters at the ICA (till 10 Oct) is brought to us through the rather ominous 'imagination and generosity of Mobil Oil Corporation' to 'bear reassuring news for a vigorous and free society'. So the foreword runs, and so we are prepared. Oh America, what big teeth you do have.

If you go to the ICA primed with schoolday memories of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril or more recent ones of Harry Secombe advertising British Airways in a series of funny hats, you will initially be confused by the numbers and smallness of the exhibits. But after staring out this first impression, perceptions change. Image after image, wall after wall, the over-riding message is that almost all these posters have been designed to exist as prints, as pictures to be bought and treasured long after the reason for their commission is over. As a result there are virtually no brand advertisements and most of the graphics have been done by artists or arty graphic studios. This of course reflects a 'sixties fashion for prints and posters, a fashion largely induced by art investment

forcing the price of original works of art beyond the means of intellectual buyers. It can also be seen to reflect a few other things too, of course, such as the social embarrassment of affluent artists. The one thing it absolutely does not reflect is any aspect of 'freedom', at least not in the fulsome sense intended by Mobil.

To the credit of Mobil, however, it must be said that much of this complaint is implied or stated in the excellent catalogue essay 'Persuasive Art in Society' by Alan Gowans. In particular he cites the lack of political commitment shown by most of the artists on view; also how much the avantgarde over the years has borrowed from advertising, and not the reverse as so manY culture vultures like to believe: applicable to Dada as much as Pop, Klee as much as Al Held. Implicit in such an attitude, of course, is the idea that artists must have a social function; in other words, as Gowans thinks of it, a commitment to party politics. This leaves me cold, but not as cold as the graphic titivations supposedly used to engage one's sympathy for slaughtered babies in Vietnam or murder victims in Mississippi. NaturallY in such a large show there are exceptions. Ben Shahn is commendable for the serious'. ness of his political principles and Tom' Lingerer for the ferocity of his political imagery; Warhol for his style and Paul Rand for being a dozen years ahead of his time. Anything by Georgia O'Keeffe is worth seeing even if it makes a useless poster, and it is interesting to note how Rauschenberg designs do not work as Design. There are some hilariously uninformative election efforts for trendy politicians like McGovern (whoever sold his campaign managers the idea that McGovern utterance could best be symbolised by a piece of abstract expressionism must have been the only funny man in CREEP) and John Lindsay, trying des' perately to be with it. And one of Nixon. hitting as usual below the Bible Belt. But, these apart, the hard-sell ads America Is famous for would have suited the proPa" ganda purposes of Mobil far more aPPrn.priately and, ironically, far better than this parade of good taste and liberal concern. Dr Roland of Roland, Browse and Delbanco's, is showing his personal collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures at the Camden Arts Centre (till 10 Oct). Personal collections are always fun to look at and often contain surprises, and Or Roland's is no exception. In its unevenness. its Europeanism and figurative inclinatiOn it is just the sort of group a nice Viennese doctor in Harley Street might have gathered through the 'forties and 'fifties by weekend buying or as payment in kind. But for the collection of a dealer it is bewildering. Ht34 anyone with the slightest feeling for art can select two such superb Carrieres and also the likes of Philip Sutton is mystifying. As'1 is the Carrieres alone—and there are one or two other things—make the trek LIP. t° Hampstead a necessity. What an exhibition his landscape drawings and paintings would make if these two are standard.