Gold lamé underpants are not the sort of thing you expect to be greeted by when you enter a contemporary art exhibition, but then this year’s eighth edition of the Liverpool Biennial is hardly conventional. When taken in context alongside some of the 2014 Biennial’s other featured works – concrete sheep, a branch growing out of the wall and doors that are wired up to hack a computer game – perhaps the oversized pants aren’t quite as anachronistic as they seem.
Tucked away in LJMU’s Exhibition Research Centre on Duckinfield Street, the ADRIAN HENRI: TOTAL ART retrospective features a collection of memorabilia and works curated by art historian Catherine Marcangeli, from whom I was lucky enough to get a guided tour on the exhibition’s opening day. As Adrian Henri’s partner of fifteen years, Marcangeli is well placed to lay out the story of one of Liverpool’s most influential, if perhaps overlooked, artists.
Birkenhead born and Liverpool raised, Adrian Henri was something of an artistic polymath. Having trained as a painter at King’s College, Newcastle under Richard Hamilton in the 50s, Henri returned home to a city bubbling with possibilities, and with a desire to make his mark on a place that was fast-becoming what George Melly called “the crater of the volcano… Liverpool 8 had a seedy but decided style; its own pubs and meeting places; it was small enough to provide an enclosed stage for the cultivation of its own legend.” Here Marcangeli takes up the tale: “In the early 60s when Adrian was teaching painting in Liverpool, he initiated a poetry scene in Liverpool with Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Pete Brown.” The Mersey Sound, a poetry book published by Penguin in 1967 featuring works by Henri, McGough and Patten, would go on to become one of the best-selling poetry anthologies of all time. But Henri didn’t see himself as just a poet or just a painter, but more as a performer. So when he saw the ease with which his fellow Liverpudlian mates had conquered the world with rock music he decided to give it a go himself. Henri patched together a band, The Liverpool Scene, from a collection of mates who were members of the groups The Scaffold, The Clayton Squares and The Roadrunners; their first record, The Amazing Adventures Of…, was produced by John Peel and released on RCA Victor; their first tour took them across the country playing venues like The Albert Hall, before they were invited to tour the USA with Led Zeppelin. Were it not for the gig posters and newspaper clippings on show in the exhibition you’d be inclined to think that The Liverpool Scene’s history was a pretty tall story. But such was the pull of Henri’s alternative celebrity standing that he could go from pub poet to Isle Of Wight festival star in one seamless leap. And this is precisely how Total Art’s curator wanted to open her telling of the story.
“This first part of the collection is The Liverpool Scene, and also poetry and performance, because that was a very important thing in the 60s,” continues Marcangeli, “the notion that poetry was something you perform, but also something that you perform to an audience. Adrian always used to say it was interesting that the front row of an audience at one of his poetry readings was the same as the front row of an audience at The Cavern for a gig. They performed it to a ‘pop’ audience: remember this was the first generation of working-class people who went to university en masse. So it was really a moment of transition, where the notion of poetry itself was being questioned.” This diversity, and acceptance of pop culture as a uniting force, is one of the reasons why the exhibition is called Total Art (as well as it being the title of one of Henri’s books). “Adrian said ‘apart from limitations of time I see no reason why one shouldn’t be a painter, a poet and work in all the different media’.”
When the pop music boom died down in the late 60s, Liverpool took up pop art, and smashed the conventional boundaries between performance art, music and poetry. The Bohemian enclave of Liverpool 8 – from Upper Parliament Street down to Hope Hall at the end of Hope Street (subsequently to become the Everyman) – was the breeding ground for this, with Adrian Henri as one of its agent provocateurs. There was a sexy, disreputable atmosphere that attracted the burgeoning new crowd of socialist intelligentsia which sprang up around the university campus that butted on to L8. “It was a very effervescent time,” Marcangeli explains, “where a lot of poets, painters and musicians collaborated.” This glamorous non-conformity with a radical edge made heroes of Henri and his contemporaries, not just to the people for whom they performed but also to the wider artistic world. Henri and Patten hosted counter-cultural icon Allen Ginsberg when he visited Liverpool in 1965 (when he famously declared that “Liverpool is, at the present moment, the centre of consciousness of the human universe”). Henri also exchanged regular correspondence with William Burroughs and Alan Kaprow, and found an admirer in future Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who applied to the University of Liverpool to study Philosophy just to be near him. He was the pop art rock star of his day, Liverpool’s madcap, roly-poly Andy Warhol.
The main exhibition of this year’s Biennial – titled A Needle Walks Into A Haystack and curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman – is housed in a building on the corner of Hardman Street and Hope Street. The Old Blind School has an illustrious history all of its own, having famously been The Trades Union Centre and The Flying Picket. Walking round the old building, with its character still present on the crumbling, naked walls, I can’t help but think that the story of Adrian Henri would hold more resonance in this space, on the very road where he was once a prince among men. By the same token, Total Art’s location at the ERC gives it a distance from the Biennial’s overarching clunky, abstract theme, and the freedom to explore its own ideas with impunity and a certain amount of humour.
Where the first part of the Total Art exhibition lays out the scale of Henri’s celebrity status in the 1960s, the second part goes on to describe how this was just the beginning. The collection of artwork gathered under the titles ‘City’, ‘Love’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘America!’ shows how diverse Henri’s talents were, in both painting and pop art collage. As a painter he wasn’t merely a slapdash creator, but a well-versed student of the form’s history – what perhaps marked him out from others was the fact that he could at once be taking inspiration from the past, but rooting everything he did in cultural references of the modern day. He once declared that “the pop artist stands with one foot in the gallery and one foot in the supermarket”. Scouse populism and quotidian observances dominated not only his lyrical themes but also the reference points in a lot of his visual work. Henri understood that to connect with people, everything, from his artwork to his poetry, had to have a surface meaning. Working across different forms too helped to take the message of questioning your own comfortable notion of reality into a bigger, more accessible sphere. “Adrian wanted to be popular, he never apologised for it,” Marcangeli explains. “If you look at his paintings there are a lot of references – some symbolist Belgian artist here, some playwright there – but it never gets in the way of communication. He once said, ‘I’d rather the poetry suffered than the communication.’ He just felt that you had to give people something that they could listen to without switching off.”
In 1967 The Daily Telegraph produced a weekend special feature on “the New Culture of Beat City”, which documented this burgeoning pool of creativity that was a huge influence on the post-Summer Of Love generation. This magnetism is what brought Yoko Ono to The Bluecoat in the same year to host her own ‘happening’, with Henri and Patten among those in attendance. Henri had staged his own happening in 1962, the first such an event to take place in Britain. It was an arty, proto-psychedelic affair with no set structure, and the fad soon caught on, particularly among the UFO Club crowd in London. Marcangeli explains that Henri’s motivation was borne out of something far more innocent. “Adrian was interested in trying to get the audience to have an experience, that wasn’t just swallowing reality, but constantly creating a new relationship with reality. This notion that you need to shake people was pretty central to Adrian – and have fun while you’re doing it!””
Adrian Henri: Total Art ran until the 26th October at the Exhibition Research Centre, as part of Liverpool Biennial 2014.