Adrian Henri, ‘painter, poet, organiser of happenings, teacher and touring musician’, is currently the subject of a small but fascinating exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Curated by Catherine Marcangeli, the Paris-based art historian who was Henri’s partner during the last fifteen years of his life, the exhibition features paintings, collages, rock posters, posters advertising happenings, a copy of Howl signed (and doodled on) by Allen Ginsberg, photographs of Henri’s varied performances, objects, ephemera and correspondence, and rare video and audio material. Based on a larger showcase event, Total Art (also curated by Marcangeli), which took place in 2014 at Liverpool’s Exhibition Research Centre, as part of the Liverpool Biennial, First Happenings reaffirms Henri’s talent and passion for collaboration, the genius with which he juxtaposed high culture with commonplace images, and his warm and eccentric sense of humour.
Marcangeli delivered a curator’s talk and gallery tour on the exhibition’s opening evening that was both scintillating and highly apt. Speaking without notes and occasionally breaking off to warmly welcome latecomers to the cavernous concrete space in which her talk took place, she succeeded in evoking the spirit of Henri’s life and work, even for those members of the audience who were less familiar with him. Emphasising the importance of performance to Henri’s work, as well as ‘the ordinariness and grittiness of the street’, Marcangeli explored the urban iconography of his early work, the appearance of heroes and friends within his paintings and poems (‘Batman cheek by jowl with Liverpool Football Club legends, André Breton with Pete Brown, Henri Rousseau with Eduardo Paolozzi, Claude Debussy with George Melly’), as well as his poems, collages, happenings, and collaborative plays and epistolary novels wrought around the theme of love. She also discussed Henri’s affinities with America’s Beat poets, Pop painters and jazz musicians, and vividly evoked his life as a member of poetry/rock band The Liverpool Scene, touring with Led Zeppelin, playing the Isle of Wight Festival, and working with John Peel, who described him as ‘one of the great non-singers of our time’.
Henri, along with Brian Patten and Roger McGough (who was in the audience during Marcangeli’s talk), was instrumental in establishing a poetry scene in Liverpool that looked like ‘modern entertainment, part of the pop movement’ (to borrow from McGough) and that eschewed dry, academic erudition. Henri, McGough, and Patten brought the Beat to Liverpool, bringing the city into creative parallel with London and New York. Their 1967 Penguin anthology, The Mersey Sound, remains one of the best-selling poetry collections of all time. Henri also pioneered the ‘happenings movement’ in the UK, staging his first happening, City, at Liverpool’s Hope Hall in 1962. He aimed to extend his urban collage-assemblage aesthetics into a multi-dimensional environment, realising,
as he explained in ‘Notes on Painting and Poetry’, that ‘happenings consisted of what you couldn’t stick to a canvas – people, obviously, smells, perishable objects, places’. City recreated an urban environment (including adverts, newsstands, graffiti, and city sound effects), and featured live poetry, painting, photography, music, and acting, in order to ‘convey a city experience especially through the senses of touch, sight and hearing’. A newspaper report, included in the exhibition at the ICA, remarked that, as the audience filed out, ‘covered in soapflakes, chewing sweets and swapping bottle tops’ (items which had been dropped into the audience from a tarpaulin stretched over their heads), ‘they appeared to have enjoyed it’. The ICA exhibition perfectly embodies this reporter’s sense of bemused delight – as Marcangeli notes in the catalogue that accompanied the Liverpool exhibition, ‘enjoyment, accessibility and inclusiveness were political imperatives for Henri, however experimental the art form’.
‘Experimental’ is perhaps too imprecise – even diminutive – a word to describe Henri’s work. One of Henri’s chief aspirations was the ‘revolutionary re-enchantment of the real’. That he achieved this aspiration is clearly in evidence in this exhibition, particularly in his large painting The Entry of Christ into Liverpool in 1964, which features a multitude of Henri’s friends and heroes painted from memory, and its feverish corresponding poem in which Liverpool is jarringly brought to life. Henri’s work is also, particularly for the uninitiated, an embodiment of the title of Henri’s 1975 performance with Rob Con (Robert Conybear): ‘Sanity as a Complete Fallacy’. Henri leaps off the walls and out of the vitrines at the ICA, larger than life in his thick glasses, dressed as Père Ubu, riding a bronco at a Liverpool nightclub, or looming off a poster for The Liverpool Scene with an aubergine in his mouth and an IT Girl button on his lapel. The exhibition reflects simultaneously his love of life, art, and laughter, and the enduring significance and originality of his contribution to twentieth-century culture.
First Happenings: Adrian Henri in the ‘60s and ’70s runs from 27 January to 15 March 2015, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), The Mall, London.
Adrian Henri: Total Artist, edited by Catherine Marcangeli, was published by Occasional Papers in 2014.
Rona Cran is the author of Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan (Ashgate, 2014).