The first exhibition of "punk art", "I Groaned With Pain", was at the Eagle Gallery in Farringdon, east London in December 1995. It framed as fine art Sex Pistols posters and T-shirts showing bare breasts and homosexual cowboys exposing themselves. Now, an exhibition "Destroy: Punk Graphic Design in Britain" (mainly record sleeves) is at the Royal Festival Hall until 16 March. And Jamie Reid, the artist responsible for the Pistols' cut-and-paste poster graphics, has had a retrospective in New York that will tour Japan and Australia before showing in London later this year.
In the salerooms, a steady market in Sex Pistols ephemera has developed. Prices would take off if only auctioneers would take the trouble to verify authenticity. Meanwhile, under pounds 500 will buy a Sex Pistols poster or a T-shirt or two.
The Pistols' spitting and vomiting and the DIY tackiness of their graphics had an apparent spontaneity. But that was deceptive. In fact, the entire punk media-package was meticulously contrived by the Pistols' Svengali- like controllers, the impresario Malcolm McLaren and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who had an avant-garde fashion shop on the King's Road.
Their role as promoters is well known. The roots of punk in art less so. McLaren, who attended Croydon College of Art and Goldsmiths College, insists: "It was always an art thing. We were dealing in images". He and Westwood concocted a cocktail of pornographic, fetishistic and anti-Royal images calculated to stir up trouble during the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977.
In the late Sixties, McLaren and Reid had been contemporaries at Croydon College of Art. They sat late into the night discussing the Paris Situationists' critique of loneliness and aimlessness as the bogies that have superceded the struggle for material survival, as well as their use of street theatre to criticise consumer society.
Reid designed Christopher Gray's book Leaving the 20th Century, an anthology of Situationist writing that became McLaren's bible. Punk nihilism is essentially Situationist. So is taking art out of the galleries and onto the streets. Later, McLaren head-hunted Reid to design posters with cut- out typography - punk's hallmark.
The various, apparently disparate, images of punk graphics seem more coherent when viewed in a Situationist context. The bondage fetishism is not only sexual but social. What a deeper understanding of punk means in art market terms is that it confers upon it the gravitas of an art- historical movement. Once the art-buying intelligentsia realises that a full appreciation of it can be gained not just from back numbers of The Sun, but from scholarly essays such as George Robertson's "The Situationist International: Its Penetration Into British Culture" (Block, issue 14, 1988, pp 38-53), they will begin to reach for their wallets.
The forthcoming retrospective exhibition of Jamie Reid, now 51, records 30 years of his life as an artist, including videos and photographs. He has issued a signed limited-edition silk-screen version of his Pistols artwork. Good publicity for the originals.
I tracked him down to The Strongroom recording studios in Curtain Road, east London, where he is resident artist and working with a group of musicians called the Afro-Celt Sound System. He has embraced Druidism and Celtic culture.
How does he look back on his Never Mind the Bollocks posters? "I still think they are very valid and powerful images". When McLaren recruited him he was a printer-designer at the anarchist Suburban Press in south London, where he was already using ransom-note lettering ("we couldn't afford Letraset") on cheap pamphlets for groups campaigning for the rights of women, ethnic minorities, squatters and social security claimants. He says: "As a printer, you develop a sixth sense that certain things will look good. Ripped-out lettering, for example, looks very graphic and direct".
And when the first wave of punk was over? "Bollocks to the Poll Tax" T-shirts. They were his. He also supplied graphics for the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill - and the campaign to legalise cannabis. So start collecting.
The finest collection of punk gear, predominantly the Sex Pistols', has been accumulated over 10 years by Paul Stolper, a London dealer in contemporary art, and Andrew Wilson, assistant editor of Art Monthly. It was their collection that was shown at the Eagle Gallery. Wilson's critique of the origins of punk in the catalogue - itself a collector's piece - is an art-historical milestone.
Stolper, 32, says: "We don't collect punk items for nostalgia - I wouldn't give a fig for Johnny Rotten's signature". Wilson says: "We go for the visual image. That's what counts, rather than the music. Reid's "God Save the Queen" poster looks simple but it is a tour de force of printing. He used pink and yellow, colours that don't sit together and that are fugitive - they fade".
Only they and a handful of collectors who worked at Westwood's shop know how to recognise genuine McLaren/Westwood garments by their labels. At a Bonhams auction of rock, pop and guitars last May, seven lots of punk T-shirts and bondage gear failed to sell because aficionados doubted their authenticity. A published guide to labels would send prices rocketing. But those in the know are keeping mum. Never mind; at the same sale, Pistols posters were selling for between pounds 80 for "Never Mind the Bollocks" to pounds 180 for "God Save the Queen". Buy now. It's your turn to make cash out of chaos.Reuse content