Art Glam, or as the title of Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition has it, Glam! (the exclamation mark oh so very important in this context) is a movement that everyone knows and everyone knows best through its images and music. It’s David Bowie of course, and Marc Bolan. It’s Suzie Quatro and The Who. It’s platform boots and high collars. Angel’s wings. Leopard skin leggings. Lou Reed hanging around Andy Warhol’s loft. Flares but in an ironic way. It’s dandyism, crushed velvet suits and giant floppy hats. It’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. It’s the transitional moment between flower power and disco when identities were being created and deconstructed by the day.
All of which passed me by because as curator Darren Pih explained in his press briefing this morning, the whole thing was largely dead by 1974, in other words before I was born. Glam! is one of those movements, like disco and like punk, which exists within the vicinity of my experience, but which I’m only aware of through the prism of post-modern cutting and pasting, through biopics and BBC Four documentaries and rereleases and filtered through other pop cultural escapades. The first Bowie album I probably listened to was the soundtrack to the film Labyrinth (“You remind me of the babe!” “What babe?” “The babe with the power!” “What power?” “The power of voodoo!” “Who do?” “You do!” “Do what?” etc).
Which also means this an occasion when attending an exhibition is like visiting upon someone else’s subculture, picking out the iconic images that everyone else probably identifies but knowing in your heart of hearts that you’re not as excited about the thing as someone steeped in the period, not in the same way as I was at that Kylie costume exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery or if by some remote chance the Tate decided to mount a show inspired by the music of the Sugababes featuring art inspired by the songs (Richard Long’s Being In The Moment, that sort of thing). But art should also to an extent be about education and to an extent I was educated. I'm listening to Bowie as I type and loving it.
Not that we not we of Glam! are left entirely rudderless. At the opening of the exhibition is a Glamscape filled with ephemera, magazines, album covers, posters, costumes which rather like the first paragraph to this review acts as a primer reminding the visitor as to the era under question and offers a sense of how movements are amplified from their first proponents to the wider public, through Harpers & Queens and Vogue, through T-Rex on tour, through designer outlets like Alkasura on the King’s Road. This was an organic movement that developed through a communication between media; there was no initial group meeting in a pub somewhere that decided what Glam! should be.
But as with the similar structured Alice in Wonderland display from last year, it’s important to remember the topic is being filtered through a Tate perspective. Whereas at the V&A, the exhibition might continue into the costumes of the period, original album artwork and a reckoning of how Glam! influenced pop culture in general with due deference given to Todd Haynes’s film Velvet Goldmine this filters Glam! through contemporary art, of how its concerns were expressed by photographers and painters either directly or imaginatively through thematic connections. Those connections are admittedly closer (justifiable?) than in Alice but my interest still wained in the latter stages just as it did there..
The exhibition is at its most comfortable, or perhaps I was most comfortable with the exhibition, when it’s reflecting the culture of the movement. Nancy Hellebrand’s photographic series captures fans of the music, their bedrooms covered in photographs of Bowie and Bolan snipped from music magazines and oddly in the case of “Delia” an advert for Green Shield Stamps (“Don’t Forget Father’s Day on June 20”). Mick Rock catches their idols in similarly private moments, Bowie (in full make-up) and Mick Ronson having lunch on the train to Aberdeen (c. 1972) which explain some of the attraction of Glam!, that it had a performative aspect clashing the mundane or banal with the fantastic.
The biggest surprise is an appearance from Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, the one David Hockney painting for which I have a postcard having once travelled all the way to Manchester to see it at their art gallery where it was on special loan. It’s not an image I would have immediately associated with Glam! but given that Hockney was apparently embedded in the scene (he’s threaded through the Glam! chronology at the back of the exhibition catalogue), it’s possible to see the movement bubbling under the surface, in Mr Clark’s hair, in the pink of his wife’s jumper and their facial expressions, repeated in many of the other images in the exhibition, of contented superiority.
It’s beyond here, when, as the press notes suggest the exhibition uses Glam! as a prism “through which to view artistic developments in Europe and North America” that I became slightly restless. While it’s always welcome to see some of Andy Warhol’s exhibition tapes (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and the luminous Nico) and anything by Cindy Sherman (her reimaging of a Jerry Hall Vogue cover in triptych), I’ll never be convinced by Allen Jones’s godawful sadomasacystic representations of women as furniture (this being the fifth time I've seen them), or Jimmy De Sana’s similarly repulsive photographic body horror. Luckily, James Lee Byars, The Wings for Writing, two red silk cuffs with feathers are there to remind us that transformation does not necessarily mean degradation and can instead be rather fabulous.
There is a further Glamscape representing the USA, The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and Star Magazine, a reminder that this was a global movement. But I expect what I would have liked to have seen at the end would have been a more V&A approach to bookend the show, a Glamscape about how the movement seeped back into culture, through Slade and Elton John (both of which are absent) and yes, I also do mean during the Pertwee era of Doctor Who, beginning with the costumes (the Doctor’s coat, Liz Shaw’s hat on the Silurians) and right into the alien antagonists from Autons to Axons, now filtered again by Paul Magrs in his Eighth Doctor audios (Horror of Glam Rock, The Zygon Who Fell To Earth) and his new cd series, Vince Cosmos: Glam Rock Detective.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t leave the exhibition without a sense that I should probably listen to some more glam, some Reed, some Bolan, some Quatro and get around to watching Tommy. That’s ultimately what these displays are about, curators passing on their enthusiasms to the general public and hoping enough of us will pass through the doors to allow them to wax lyrical about something else. At least I understand now why there was such excitement surrounding the sudden release of a new track from David Bowie, even if its contents had less to do with Glam! than reflecting human maturity.
Glam! The Performance of Style is at Tate Liverpool until 12th May. Entry is £12 but concessions and family tickets available.