3. Bookish and Arty

The genesis of a cover concept in the cut-up culture of the 1960s.

While Vasarely's rearrangeable Op Art was beguiling the art world, a parallel development was taking place in the world of words. The cut-up method involved slicing random snippets from newspapers and other printed media and rearranging them to form fractured new texts. The English beatnik Brion Gysin attributed his discovery of the method to serendipity and showed it to his friend William Burroughs, who popularized it in his trilogy of novels The Soft Machine,
The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express in 1961-64.
As he walked past the Sargasso Café black insect flak of Minraud
stabbed at his vitality centers. Two Lesbian Agents with glazed faces of
grafted penis flesh sat sipping spinal fluid through alabaster straws.
William Burroughs, Nova Express, 1964.
The endless possibilities of Op Art and cut-ups captured the Zeitgeist and many young artists became Vasarelians, including Oliver Bevan, a graduate from the Royal College of Art in 1964, whose hard-edged geometric paintings were exhibited at the Grabowski Gallery, London, in 1965-69.

The paintings were based on isometric projections of a cube and played on the viewer's visual perception through tonal flicker, figure-ground reversals and other optical ambiguities which Bevan described as 'a conflict between the certainty of the geometry and the uncertainty of the perceptual mechanism in dealing with it'.
Oliver Bevan, Both Ways 1
Oliver Bevan, Both Ways 1, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 150 x 230 cm.
It was around this time that John Constable, art director at Fontana Books, was looking for a cover concept for a series of brief biographies on the vanguard thinkers and theorists whose ideas were shaping the twentieth century. Constable had been experimenting with cut-ups of The Mud Bath, a key work of British geometric abstraction by the artist David Bomberg, but after seeing Bevan's
work at the Grabowski Gallery, Constable put aside his scissors and
commissioned Bevan to create the cover art.
David Bomberg, The Mud Bath
David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914. Oil on canvas, 152 x 224 cm.
What Constable had seen at the Grabowski was a tabletop piece similar to Vasarely's Planetary Folklore kits but reduced to sixteen square tiles which were each divided diagonally into two of four colours – red, yellow, violet or emerald green. The tiles could be arranged to create different combinations of figure and ground, as visitors to the gallery were soon discovering. The normally passive viewer thus became an active participant in creating the artwork on display, which became, in effect, a temporary collaboration between the artist and viewer.
Oliver Bevan, Connections
Oliver Bevan, Connections, 1969. Painted plywood blocks with countersunk magnets, shown here in various arrangements.
Bevan then developed the idea further, using magnetic tiles on a square steel
sheet which was covered with black canvas. Connections used six such tiles of three different sizes and shapes which were painted with yellow triangles, emerald green stripes, and orange and dark blue parallelograms. Like his earlier tabletop piece, the tiles could be arranged to create larger tesselating patterns and shapes, only now it could be hung on the wall like a painting. Connections was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1969-70 as part of Play Orbit, an exhibition of artworks that visitors could interact or 'play' with in the manner of toys and games.