Where John met Yoko: The gallery that broke the mould

Indica was the acme of swinging London, the happening place for contemporary artists in the sixties. Now the spirit of the times is re-captured in a new exhibition in Soho

John Lennon met Yoko Ono when she was exhibiting there. Paul McCartney was an occasional backer. The first "underground" newspaper, International Times, was founded there. And a young man called Marc Feld - who changed his name to Bolan - ran errands for the owners.

In the mid-Sixties, when Swinging London was just about the hippest city on the planet, Indica, the capital's first conceptual art gallery, was just about the coolest place to be.

Founded by three young men, Barry Miles, John Dunbar and Peter Asher, who knew little about art, but an awful lot of groovy people, Indica flowered for two golden years. It opened its doors in Mason's Yard, Mayfair, in November 1965 and closed in November 1967, in the autumn of the Summer of Love.

Now four decades on, as London again lays claim to be the centre of the contemporary art world through the efforts of Damien Hirst and the others of his generation and the mega-dealer Jay Jopling opens his latest White Cube on the site of the original in Mason's Yard, Indica is being partly recreated in an exhibition which opened yesterday and aims to contrast the art and the spirit of two very different eras.

Ono, who was one of the original artists at Indica, was there again yesterday at the opening of "Riflemaker becomes Indica", in which a Soho gallery, based in a former gun shop, has transformed itself into Indica.

The exhibition consists of works by artists such as Ono, some of which were shown at the original gallery and some newer works, as well as a series of specially commissioned pieces by some younger, modern counterparts, all of which relate in some way to each other. "London is at the zeitgeist of the contemporary art scene and we wanted to see how the work from this earlier, more innocent age, related to what is happening now," said Tot Taylor, a director of Riflemaker. "It is about comparing and contrasting the work."

Thus the exhibition features Ono's Apple, which consists of a perfect, green Granny Smith's apple on a clear plinth, shown at the original Indica - of which more later - and Add Colour Painting, in which visitors add their own colours to a blank stencil of the words I Love U, a variation on an Indica original.

Among the young artists on display is Juan Fontanive, an American who studied at the Royal College of Art and who now lives and works in London.

"My generation was very influenced by that period, it is something you simply can't escape. And the scene in London now is much better than anywhere else, including New York, which I visit frequently. It somehow doesn't feel as thoughtful over there."

Liliane Lijn, another of the class of 1966 with work from both then and now on display, said: "It was a very exciting time to be an artist. It was all very fresh and new, the first time young creative people were making money."

Jagger and Lennon both came to her show opening, although it was McCartney, she said, who had the greater interest in art. The exhibition, which runs until February, also involves a series of evening talks by some of the founders and original artists.

From the beginning, Indica was intricately woven into the burgeoning pop culture scene of the 1960s. One of its co-founders, Asher was the brother of Jane Asher, for a long period McCartney's girlfriend, and half of the singing duo Peter and Gordon, who had already had big hit in 1964 with Lennon and McCartney's "World Without Love".

The other co-founders were John Dunbar, who with his granny glasses and insouciant air could have been mistaken for Lennon but was really a Cambridge science graduate and at the time married to Marianne Faithfull, then pregnant with their son, Nicholas, and Barry Miles, a bookshop manager and aspirant journalist.

The concept was an antithesis to the stuffy British art world then centred around the staid Mayfair dealers; Indica was about breaking new ground catering for the emerging counter-culture. "We went to an Albert Hall poetry reading and there were 5,000 people there, so we thought, well, maybe we can do something," said Dunbar says in the exhibition catalogue. Yesterday, he added: "In my case, I had just finished college, I was about to have a kid and it was a way of making some money." In another typical 1960s move, they called their company M.A.D. Ltd, conveniently their initials. They found cheap premises and decided to have a bookshop on the ground floor, stocking rare books, alternative and radical literature and the gallery in the basement, showing works by the new conceptual artists.

The Mayfair location was a good one: Gered Mankowitz, the Stones' photographer and son of the playwright Wolf, had his studio next door and William Burroughs, heroin addict and author of the beat generation classic, The Naked Lunch, lived close by.

The Scotch of St James nightclub, frequented by McCartney and others, was in the same courtyard. Indica was said to derive from the word "indicator", an idea of where art was going. Others actually believed it came, also in the true spirit of the 1960s, from a variety of cannabis.

The enterprise got off to a good start. McCartney provided some funds and designed the wrapping paper and flyers; Jane Asher donated the cash till and would help out in the shop while her brother would sometime use Indica as a venue for interviews, giving it valuable publicity. A young and excitable teen model called Marc Feld began to hang around the gallery; later he would change his name to Marc Bolan, perm his hair and, for a brief period in the early 1970s become one of the biggest stars in the world. Then, he helped to paint the walls.

Indica developed as a focal point for the counterculture and Miles became one of the founders of IT - International Times, the so-called "hippie newspaper" that would form part of the underground press alongside Oz and Friendz. Apple Records, the Beatles label, was conceived in Dunbars' flat one "very acidy afternoon". Artists they showed included Lijn, the Greek conceptualist Takis, Mark Boyle and the Boyle Family, Julio Le Parc, who would later win the Venice Biennale and Carlos Cruz Diez, whose public art is installed in many places in the Americas, including the United Nations building. And then there was Ono, "who sort of came in off the street one day and we gave her a show", as Dunbar says in the catalogue.

Lennon would first meet her at Ono's Unfinished Paintings and Objects show in November 1966. Ono, now 73, said yesterday that Lennon had seen Apple and, in that typically wacky Liverpudlian way, taken a bite out of it. Predictably, the serious conceptual artist had been furious; Lennon apologised and the rest of the story has been pretty much documented. She said: "I was thinking the sculpture would organically change and gradually deteriorate. It was a conceptual idea and I didn't think somebody was going to take a bite out of it.

"Then somebody came and took a bite and I was very upset. John could see it on my face and he put the apple back on the stand. It was very sweet of him." Indica, she said, was "a very special place", adding: "It was the only cutting-edge gallery at the time and it was fantastic. Today's British artists should know that in a way it all started there."

After about a year, the bookshop needed more space and moved to new premises in Southampton Row, while the gallery expanded up to the ground floor. There it continued for another year before, as with many1960s enterprises, the debts caught up with the free-wheeling altruism and it was forced to close. The bookshop continued successfully for three more years. Dunbar admits they simply went from exhibition to exhibition; forward planning was "a disaster".

But for the Indica founders it was just a launch-pad for their future careers. Asher, after Peter and Gordon, would become one of the most respected producers in pop and rock, working for artists as diverse as Linda Rondstadt, Cher and James Taylor. After IT folded, Miles, usually known by just his surname, would briefly work for the Beatles' Zappel Records imprint before writing for the New Musical Express during its late 1970s/early 1980s heyday; he has also written biographies of Burroughs and Frank Zappa among others, as well as McCartney's official biography, Many Years From Now.

Dunbar's marriage to Faithfull broke up after she left him for Mick Jagger, after which he "retired" to Scotland for many years. Now 63 and back living in London, he still works as an artist himself. Being involved in the exhibition, he said, had been like being "woken up, like Rip Van Winkle. I feel like I am being dug up. It is making me feel very nostalgic for the era, seeing a lot of people from the Sixties, some after such a long time. But I am also glad to see people realise that some of what we did helped".

He added: "There is really no comparison between the way we treat contemporary art now and the 1960s. There is much more money, much more interest, people and galleries. Then it was all very brand new and different."

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