In 1975, the artists Kevin Whitney and Luciana Martinez de la Rosa went to a party at the home of the disgraced Conservative MP Lord Lambton. It had been thrown by Lambton’s daughter, Anne, and the guest of honour was Andy Warhol. As Whitney recalls, “the world and its mother turned up”, their enthusiasm undimmed by the paparazzi outside. The next morning, Whitney awoke to discover that the front page of the Daily Express featured a large photograph, not of the world’s most celebrated pop artist, but of himself and De La Rosa. “We looked very striking,” he says. “I was in white, Lucinda was in black. It was a big photograph, too. Apparently, Warhol was furious. And that happened because it was like, ‘Oh look – Them have arrived!’”
Such were the perils of life as a member of Them – a loose gang of artists, film-makers and designers given, as the writer Paul Gorman puts it, “to living art-directed lives. They were living visual culture – people who were kicking against the pricks of quite dull 70s Britain.” It’s certainly a description that painter Duggie Fields, a member of the group, would agree with. “We shared that attitude of there being no separation between what we create and how we live. I’ve never lived any differently. I’ve never known how to live any differently.”
Them’s ranks also included the film-maker Derek Jarman, who was initially a painter until he developed such an interest in Whitney’s Super-8 camera that Whitney just gave it to him, as well as fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and Andrew Logan, who made sculptures and jewellery and, in 1972, founded the Alternative Miss World. This was an eye-popping “pansexual beauty pageant” that straddled the worlds of fashion and performance art. Logan hosted it dressed half as a man and half as a woman, which embodied Them’s attitude to gender and sexuality.
“They were all born pretty much during or just after the second world war,” says writer Jon Savage. “They were the first generation that said, ‘Fuck it, we’re not going to be intimidated.’ They weren’t going to make specifically pro-gay statements, but they were the first generation to really live that out. If you look at the Alternative Miss World, it’s a kind of gender-fuck, it’s almost like the English version of the Cockettes.” As their name suggests, the Cockettes are a radical US drag troupe.
The term Them was coined by cultural commentator Peter York in a 1976 Harpers & Queen article that didn’t have a great deal to say about their work, but celebrated the impact on popular culture of this “mysterious aesthetic conspiracy”. Curiously, they were never more influential, even if virtually every member went on to become better-known as artists. (Jarman became one of Britain’s most celebrated arthouse directors before his death from Aids in 1991; Fields’ postmodern post-pop art paintings became an omnipresent cultural phenomenon in 80s Japan, after cosmetics firm Shiseido staged an exhibition of his work; Whitney has been the official artist of the Olympic Games since 1982.)
Them’s approach to style, their various fascinations, trickled into pop culture – from their look (50s sci-fi, comic books, 1930s design) to their knowing sense of camp and love of wilful artificiality in the teeth of prevalent trends (“the Bland Authenticity of James Taylor, Habitat and the Sunday supplements”, as York put it).
Them artist Chelita Secunda is probably best known as the woman who put glitter under Marc Bolan’s eyes before he went on Top of the Pops in 1971, effectively glam rock’s ground zero moment. York suggested they influenced everything from the clothes sold in Biba, the era’s most celebrated fashion boutique, to the craving for retro design (he seemed to hold them personally responsible for the renewed interest in Clarice Cliff’s “repellent” 1930s ceramics), not to mention the appearance of Queen, Elton John and – especially – Roxy Music. York thought Roxy frontman Bryan Ferry “summed up Themness”: like most of the Thems, Ferry was a product of the boom in art school attendance in the 1960s, a self-styled “mock balladeer” who shifted through a series of tongue-in-cheek images, from glittery sci-fi to 1940s GI.
York’s piece highlighted the problem with Them: they were better known as tastemakers, exotic-looking throwers of hedonistic parties, and exemplars of what Whitney calls “bohemian chic” than they were as artists. Fields wasn’t particularly bothered. “It was to a professional disadvantage perhaps, but I don’t think any of us really cared – I’ve never been a careerist.” Whitney thinks it was inevitable: “That’s been the case with a lot of artists. Francis Bacon’s lifestyle was known more than his actual work.”
But others believe this was an oversight. “The work was great, that’s what sets Them apart,” says Gorman. “It’s not just a bunch of ponces walking around with kettles on their heads – it’s actually people producing great art.”
And that’s where a new exhibition comes in. Them, at London’s Redfern Gallery, gathers together work by Whitney, Fields, Logan and De La Rosa, as well as some of Jarman’s later paintings. Logan’s fibreglass orchids and models of Pegasus sit alongside Fields’ exuberant yet disturbing figurative works – glamorous bodies with their heads sliced off. Then there’s De La Rosa’s homage to Manet, Pru Pru, and Whitney’s portrait of Chelita Secunda leaning out of a vintage American car, glitter in place below her eyes.
To its curator, James Birch, Them were a bridge between two eras. He calls them “post-pop art, pre-YBAs”. They certainly shared the latter’s penchant for hedonism and self-publicity, but not their steely business acumen. “I hate to say the word forgotten,” says Birch. “But they are sort of semi-forgotten. Certainly Luciana – this will probably be the first time her work’s been shown in London for a long time. She was the thing that bound them, an artist and a muse, but she died very young.” De La Rosa contracted meningitis and died in 1995 at the age of 47. “She got forgotten because she wasn’t in the era of social media. If she was still alive, she would be out there.”
“Luciana was very charismatic and influential,” agrees Fields. “She was beautiful, very forceful mentally. She had a glamorous, unique sense of what it was to be a woman. She was very conscious of the disadvantages socially that could have, but at the same time revelled in her femaleness.”
Perhaps the most famous passage in York’s Them feature concerns “a group who take a dim view of much Themness”. This is “the people who run the Sex clothing store [who have] produced a T-shirt detailing the people they endorse and those they dislike. The wrong side includes a fair sprinkling of Thems.” Almost as an aside, York adds that the store’s “associated pop group the Sex Pistols are alleged to cause trouble wherever they go”.
In fact, the Thems were in more or less at the birth of punk. Jarman shot the first-ever footage of the Sex Pistols when they played at Logan’s Valentines Day party in 1976, an event that gave the Pistols their first brief mention in the national press, in a piece accompanying a photo of the party in the Sunday Times Magazine. As Gorman points out: “Punk sort of bursts out of Them – particularly the Sex Pistols. They came out of those art-directed lives.”
It’s a fact, says Savage, that is “fairly conveniently written out of history. He thinks this is “because punk had that year zero approach, that line that you had to destroy everything that came before. I couldn’t work out why Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood [who ran Sex] were so horrible about Them. But then Malcolm and Vivienne had a kind of cruelty. You could argue the cruelty was necessary in order to get punk up and running.”
The standard line is that punk brought the influence of Them on pop culture to an end. The reality is rather more complicated. Whitney remembers another photo of him and De La Rosa that appeared in Italy under the headline: “I NUOVI ROMANTICI.” “Steve Strange came round and he saw it and said to Luciana, ‘What does that mean?’ She said, ‘It means The New Romantics.’ He brought the Spandau Ballet lads around, they saw it and the rest was history.”
Gorman thinks the exhibition arrives at a timely moment: the kind of Bland Authenticity they rebelled against is in the ascendant, whether in pop or in the spurious notion of a mythical past Britain that fuelled Brexit. “I think it would be a shame if Them were consigned to some kind of glittering dustbin of history,” he says, “because I think they’re still relevant. I think they’ve got something to offer today. It was about rubbing against the grain. There’s a sense that the bad guys are winning, Boris Johnson, man of the people, all that bullshit. Younger people should be living lives that deliberately flout that kind of hegemony.”
The curator is James Birch, not Paul. This was corrected on 4 February 2020. The writer is Paul Gorman, not Burston. This was corrected on 5 February 2020.