The Indica art gallery was the heart of swinging 60s London. Can its radical spirit be revived? By Will Hodgkinson
Tuesday October 31, 2006
It was the place where Yoko Ono met John Lennon, where William Burroughs hung out and Paul McCartney helped with the carpentry. For two years, the Indica was the hippest art gallery in London. But on November 3 1967, its founders, Barry Miles and John Dunbar, closed its doors for the last time. Miles packed up two boxes of artwork and correspondence and left them in the Tate's basement library, hopeful that future generations might benefit from his chronicle of a key 1960s moment.
It has taken 40 years, but the treasure chest has finally been opened. Tot Taylor of the Riflemaker Gallery in London has rummaged through the boxes to create a show that will combine the work of Indica's original avant-garde artists with their modern-day counterparts. Whether the gallery's idealistic ethos can survive in an age when the art world has become an extension of the stock exchange, however, remains to be seen.
Occupying a purpose-built space in Mason's Yard, Mayfair, next door to the in-crowd's nightclub the Scotch of St James and the studio of the Rolling Stones' photographer Gered Mankowitz, Indica was at the heart of "swinging London". A teenage mod named Marc Feld - later known as Marc Bolan - was the gallery's errand boy. "Art galleries back then were part of the establishment," says Miles today. By contrast, Indica showed installation, sculptural or op art pieces by relatively unknown artists such as Takis, Liliane Lijn and Conrad Shawcross. All were chosen by Dunbar on the criterion that what they did intrigued him.
Miles and Dunbar set up Indica (with the help of Miles' friend Peter Asher, of pop duo Peter and Gordon) after attending a now-famous poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, which featured American beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. According to Michael Horowitz, a bohemian and poet who booked the two beats, that was the night Dunbar and Miles "realised that they were part of a big community. The capital was full of American draft-dodgers becoming folk singers, experiments in lifestyle, and people getting smashed in an intelligent way." Indica, he says, was conceived in that spirit.
The gallery made an instant impact because, says Dunbar, "there was nowhere like it". Its first show, Indications 1 and 2, was by an op art collective called Groupe de la Récherche d'Art Visuel; their leader, Julio le Parc, won the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale a few days after the Indica exhibition started.
Indica also marked the point where the counterculture met the new pop aristocracy. Miles was friends with John "Hoppy" Hopkins, who staged Pink Floyd's first London shows. Peter Asher's sister, the model Jane Asher, was going out with Paul McCartney. Dunbar, a Cambridge science graduate, was married to Marianne Faithfull before she left him for Mick Jagger.
Yoko Ono, a rising star of New York's experimental Fluxus group, held her first London show at Indica. There are differing accounts of what happened on the night she met Lennon. According to Ono, Lennon picked up one of her exhibits - an apple on a plinth - and took a bite out of it. "I was terribly cross," she recalls. "He'd been showing his sophisticated artist side, and then he suddenly did that and I thought, 'Oh dear.'"
Miles remembers it differently. "There was a stepladder leading to writing on the ceiling so small that you needed a magnifying glass to read it, and John went up to discover that it said something positive like 'love', which he liked. Yoko was intrigued by him, and from then on she bombarded John at every opportunity." Miles now sees Ono's burgeoning relationship with Lennon as "a bad career move. She was doing all sorts of interesting things, and was ahead of her time in many ways. By throwing in her lot with Lennon, she blew it for her own art."
A visit to Indica offered the possibility of bumping into William Burroughs, Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate, or a Beatle or two. The Beatles were among its most sympathetic benefactors - in fact, without them, it's likely that Indica would have been known as the gallery that threw the best parties in town and sold no art whatsoever.
"I think we shifted an average of two pieces per show," says Dunbar. "But people didn't buy avant-garde art in England back then." No wonder Miles says the Indica was, financially, "a complete disaster". Unpaid bills and rent - £19 a week - saw it off for good.
As far as Dunbar is concerned, "You didn't go into art to make money in the 60s. It wasn't like today, where you might waver between becoming a lawyer or an artist. There weren't people like Damien Hirst who were excellent businessmen as much as anything. The scene has changed beyond all recognition."
Today, British people do buy art. And in what seems like the completion of an ironic full circle, dealer Jay Jopling, a key figure in the transformation of the British modern art world into a major industry, is to open a branch of his White Cube gallery on the site of the old Indica building in Mason's Yard.
Over at the Riflemaker Gallery, Miles, Dunbar and a handful of artists old and new - Ono, Le Parc and Alison Goldfrapp among them - are going to find out how Indica might fit into this new climate. Which raises a question: what was the philosophy behind Indica in the first place?
"To call it a philosophy would be to give it too fine a distinction," says Dunbar. "But there was a reason why we did Indica in the first place: to have fun. In that, I should like to say that we were successful."