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Image: Derek Boshier featured on Blouinartinfo.com
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Derek Boshier featured on Blouinartinfo.com

Derek Boshier has never had the best timing. In what was perhaps the archetypal grad-school, cradle-robbing, star-making group exhibition of the contemporary era, the 1961 "Young Contemporaries" at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London's East End, Boshier, alongside Royal College of Art classmates David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj, was anointed one of the seminal generation of British Pop artists. One of the most startling fallouts of this initial burst of attention was a controversial 44-minute BBC documentary entitled Pop Goes the Easel  (aired March 25, 1962), featuring Boshier, Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, and the doomed, incandescent Pauline Boty in a dazzling, fragmentary, surrealist-and currently unavailable on DVD-collage by director Ken Russell in his  auspicious debut.

Instead of riding the media wave to Swinging Sixties celebrity-as any Pop artist worth his soup would do-Boshier capitalized on his big break by disappearing to India for a year. Was he on some proto-hippie mystical quest or merely looking for more colorful package design to appropriate? "No, I just wanted to travel," he replies in his art world-burnished but still distinctly working-class accent. "I was finished with college and didn't know what to do next, and I saw a poster advertising government scholarships to go overseas, to India or Canada. I've always loved to travel; I'd already been to Spain and Morocco. So I applied and got it."

 

Ensconced on a hillside overlooking the Los Angeles River, the I-5 freeway, and Elysian Park (home to both Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Police Academy), Boshier has about as quintessential a view as one can get of the postmodern city he has called home for the past dozen years. Having recently celebrated his 76th birthday, Boshier is at the height of his powers, operating globally from a 1920s Cypress Park bungalow and tapping a new generation of admirers in the local scene, including Ry Rocklen, Laura Owens, and the proprietors of the übertrending Night Gallery, where he's just scheduled a show for spring 2014.

L.A. obviously has some kind of deep resonance for Boshier and his peers (both Hockney and Kitaj also adopted it as a base of operations at different phases of their careers), but there's evidence of a special affinity between Boshier's work and the quirky discombobulation of Westside aesthetics. Even before his Indian junket, Boshier's Pop paintings-which remain his best-known work-had a cool ambivalence toward the semiotics of advertising that had more in common with Beat Generation skepticism than the celebratory relish of a Peter Blake or an Andy Warhol. A painting like Special K,  1961, looks surprisingly like the iconic logo-koans that Ed Ruscha would make his stock-in-trade over the next few years.

If Boshier had taken the variations-on-a-theme route and done all  the breakfast-cereal trademarks, he might have become a household name by the end of the decade, but he has always been nothing if not inconsistent. On his return from India, he resumed his participation in the cultural scene of '60s London, but gone were the vertiginous pastiches of celebrity portraits, NASA ephemera, and Blake's Albion;  gone the washy red, white, and blue iconography of dueling U.S. and U.K. flags, Pepsi logos, airmail envelopes, and metastasizing extrusions of striped toothpaste.

In their place, Boshier unveiled a now almost-forgotten body of work that was fundamentally incorrect on many levels: an unholy marriage between Pop and hard-edge abstraction, with shaped canvases full of trompe l'oeil geometric solids and candy-colored Op patterns. These also coincided with the hard-edge abstraction and Finish Fetish painting trends that were emerging on the West Coast at the Ferus Gallery and elsewhere, while rather ostentatiously ignoring the politics of mutual exclusivity that ruled the post-painterly abstraction versus Pop art culturescape at the time.

Gaining massive exposure from his contribution to the prestigious "New Generation" exhibition of 1964 (again at the Whitechapel, this time alongside Hockney, Bridget Riley, and Patrick Caulfield), Boshier's "Geo art" paintings served simultaneously as notice of his disinterest in the staking out and defending of art world turf, and his devotion to the ongoing expansion of the contemporary artistic vocabulary-a devotion that would serially alienate the artist's fans but result inan endlessly surprising and variegated oeuvre that is only now beginning to be reassessed.

Born in the southern English coastal city of Portsmouth, Boshier is the son of a career sailor who, not wanting to risk being taken off active duty at sea, never rose above the rank of able-bodied seaman in his 28 years with the Royal Navy. There's something germinal concerning Boshier Jr.'s own priorities as regards worldly ambition in there. He also apparently inherited his legendary social ease patrilineally, growing up in a series of pubs managed by his garrulous father after the latter's retirement. Stumbling into the British art school system like many postwar working-class creative types, Boshier arrived on the scene with an uncommon air of confidence and nonchalance.

And Geo art might have caught on big time-if Boshier had stuck with it for more than a year: "I've always shifted about. Pop was finished for me in 1962. I use the medium that best suits the idea. It's as simple as that." Simple or not, in the puritanical '60s art world, Boshier's flexibility and curiosity were perceived as fickleness, or worse: "When I stopped painting, some guy came up to me and just said, 'You. Fucking. Traitor!'"

 

Doug Harvey

www.blouinartinfo.com

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