Jane Scarth from the Student Forum spoke to Anne Massey, art historian and co-curator of the current Fox Reading Room display The Independent Group: Parallel of Art and Life, about the fraught and dramatic history of the ICA archive, what makes the Independent Group radical, and the challenges of re-contextualisation.
When asked if she could describe her relationship with the ICA archive, Anne Massey laughs and tells me “It’s the longest one I’ve had in all my life!” Her extensive research career as an art historian began in the late 1970s, doing a PhD at Newcastle Polytechnic on the Independent Group. Anne stepped through the doors of ICA for the first time in 1980, coming to consult the archive with a strong desire to get her hands on primary sources.
Anne was put in touch with Dorothy Moorland, ICA Director from 1951 to 68 and one of the biggest advocates for the Independent Group within the ICA staff in the early years: “She really helped me. She had looked after the archives and was really concerned that the history wasn’t being properly recorded or preserved or shared. The ICA’s archive was more or less accidental and it would have been thrown out if it wasn’t for Dorothy and Judy Lawson. We had a good relationship and we worked on this together throughout the 80s and 90s. We tried to get the ICA to put on an exhibition about its history but there was no interest. I carried on using the archives when they were based here at the Mall – all in grey metal office cupboards”.
In the mid 1990s, the ICA sold its archive material to the Tate who had the space and facilities to house it.
Jane Scarth: In the display there is a lot of your own archive material. How has that been generated and evolved?
Anne Massey: Just by accident! Partly it is because people know of my interest and give me things. I own a lot of original photos of the opening of Parallel of Life & Art in 1950 that no one else has got. For instance I don’t think anyone else has a copy of the installation shot that is blown up in the display.
A lot of the founding of it was from my own father. He was training to be an architect at Kings College when Richard Hamilton was teaching there, so he designed things like the arts ball invite for 1956. That is what partly sparked my interest as well. My dad came from that mind set, he was very similar to them in the way that he looked at the world.
JS: The Independent Group has been brought together with Bernadette Corporation for this season on radical collectives. In what way can the Independent Group be considered radical? Is it just an aesthetic radicalism or is it political too?
AM: They were young, working class and lower middle class people who would not normally be part of the art world. It was only because the ICA was so open and welcoming that they managed to infiltrate the place and were given some kind of space in which to operate. But it wasn’t a central space, they were on the fringe.
A lot of people have told me that they actually weren’t that friendly because they were so ambitious. They argued a lot between themselves too and it did get quite nasty. It was that burning ambition to make it that I think was beyond anything else.
It’s like you’re watching that film Top Hat, and on the one hand you’ve got a stuffy gentleman’s club in London and Fred Astaire comes in and starts tap dancing to jazz music, I think it’s like that. There is just that shock value of talking about the popular in an archaic atmosphere that I think can be quite political.
JS: Just to finish could you talk about the upcoming event Parallel of Art & Life: A Conference on the Independent Group that you are organizing and the kind of things that will be addressed?
AM: The plan is for it to be a two way process: looking at the IG’s own exhibitions and then how exhibitions now reflect the IG. I am really looking forward to the first morning, as it is PhD students or people who have just completed their PhDs. It will be great as we will get some new material and ideas. There is a younger generation coming along with their own ideas and that is fantastic, I really welcome that.
There are some excellent speakers over the two days and I am hoping there will be a bit of disagreement! It’s part of what we need to do at the ICA. I think often we’re far too polite!
Anne Massey is founding editor of the Berg journal, Interiors: Design, Architecture, Culture and Research Associate, ICA Archives. She is the leading expert on the interdisciplinary history and contemporary significance of the Independent Group. She has written several books including The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-59 (Manchester University Press); Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture (Berg); and Out of the Ivory Tower: The Independent Group and Popular Culture (Manchester University Press).