Each founding figure of Pop Art seems to have a story about the origins of the term, and Peter Blake’s takes place at a dinner party thrown by British art critic Lawrence Alloway. Blake was explaining his desire to create paintings with the same cultural resonance and mass appeal as Elvis. “Ah,” Alloway responded, “a kind of pop art.” It was a moment when artists were hitting on similar ideas in New York and London: Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes actually came after Blake’s near-identical work with Captain Webb matchboxes.
Blake quickly found himself in the middle of the art and music scenes of ‘60s London, though his dream of putting visual art on the same stage as Elvis wouldn’t be realized until his cover for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A design company had already produced album art in the generic, swirling psychedelic colors of the time, but Robert Fraser, UK’s preeminent Pop Art gallerist, convinced The Beatles that the imagery would quickly become generic and dated. Fraser suggested Blake, whose album cover has become one of most iconic of all time.
As the ‘60s came to a close, Blake joined the the mass exodus from London and helped found the Brotherhood of Ruralists, an informal group of artists who turned from pop culture to Shakespeare and folklore. Those paintings’ fairies and mythical characters immediately returned to their rock and roll roots when Blake moved back to London, where he has continued to make work balancing pop imagery with art historical references. Retrospectives of Blake’s work were held at the Tate in 1983 and Tate Liverpool in 2008, and in 2002 Blake received a knighthood for his services to art. His work has rarely been exhibited in New York (the artist swore off the city for most of his career), and his current show at Mary Ryan is only his third in the city.