Terry Grimley reviews the new pop art showpiece in Wolverhampton.
Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s long-awaited #6.7 million extension, providing a permanent home for its outstanding pop art collection plus additional temporary exhibition space, finally opened to the public at the weekend.
Designed, like earlier phases of the gallery's redevelopment, by Bristol-based Niall Phillips Architects, the development provides a new entrance on the Wulfrun Street side of the building, creating a pedestrian link through from Lichfield Street to the university and Arena Theatre.
The initial impression of this linking space, with its bright mix of glass, chrome, white walls and dark, smoked oak flooring and its intriguing glimpses through into the Victorian building, is exhilarating.
Unfortunately, this is not sustained when you step into the actual galleries on the ground and first floors, which, because of the limited space available in the former backyard, are triangular in plan.
If the notion of a triangular gallery seems dubious in principle it proves more so in reality, particularly in the smaller ground-floor pop gallery, where the feeling is not so much of entering an art gallery as a large cubby hole.
This is exacerbated by Wolverhampton's recent tradition of cluttering up displays of art with interpretive material and interactive opportunities.
This isn’t at all to my taste, but you can see where the gallery is coming from when you are told that these days many young people don't know who Elvis Presley was and mistake images of Marilyn Monroe for Madonna.
The fact that Wolverhampton Art Gallery has the best collection of British and American pop art outside London is a tribute to the late David Rodgers, its colourful former director who arrived in 1969 and began blowing away the cobwebs of this small Victorian art museum.
Establishing a contemporary art-friendly culture which made Wolverhampton a beacon in the West Midlands and put larger centres like Birmingham and Coventry to shame, he built up a pop-themed collection through the 1970s.
This included not only British art but examples by American artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein (said to be a favourite painting of the artist, and a bargain at #30,000), Larry Rivers and Richard Lindner.
Not everyone appreciated the legacy Rodgers was building. When he bought a small early Peter Blake painting of a cigarette packet for #1,800 in 1980, the local newspaper went into a paroxysm of righteous self-indignation, even working out the cost to ratepayers per square inch.
But while some foolish councillors saw an opportunity for a soundbite, others remained supportive of Rodgers, with the result that Wolverhampton now has a distinctive cultural selling point.
Taking its cue from the pop collection, Wolverhampton's collecting since then has concentrated on representational and socially engaged art.
Its latest major acquisition, now on show, is Resolution, a large installation by Northern Ireland artist Anthony Haughey dealing from a forensic point of view with the massacre at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.
Perhaps surprisingly, the initial pop display leaves out some of Wolverhampton's own major items to make way for a number of large-scale loans from various public and private collections.
As well as early paintings by Peter Blake and David Hockney, there are no fewer than three by Birmingham-born Peter Phillips, including one from the Tate and his best-known, For Men Only Starring MM and BB (1961) from the Gulbenkian collection in Lisbon.
I've been seeing this regularly in reproduction since the 60s, but it's the first time I've ever seen it in the flesh.
Incidentally, Phillips was taught at Birmingham School of Art in the late 1950s by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, currently the subject of a display in in an adjoining gallery.
The fact that Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery doesn't own a painting by Phillips shows how much ground it still has to make up, despite its relatively recent discovery of post-1950s British painting.
This is the first of four displays of the pop collection which will look at it from various perspectives during the gallery's first year.
Called Pin Up: Pop Art and Popular Culture , it stresses the popular ephemeral material plundered by pop artists (the term pop art was initially coined to describe this kind of thing), but this is only one half of the equation.
The point about pop was that it took this imagery into the hallowed portals of fine art galleries.
What would really put it into context would be examples of the kind of high-minded modernism it elbowed its way alongside.
Despite inevitable predictions that pop art would prove as ephemeral as its sources, it has recently been suggested that much of what passes for contemporary art today is rooted in it.
That certainly might apply, for example, to the exhibition Pleasure Gardens (Metamorphoses and Mutations), which launches the new special exhibitions space on the first floor.
Organised by the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Sunderland, it combines work by seven artists all dealing in a more or less lurid way with aspects of plant-life and gardening.
There is one of Edward Allington's cornucopia sculptures from the early 1980s, in which a golden shell, seemingly magically suspend in the air, spills fruit out on to the floor.
The other works, all much more recent, include Maria Ledinskaya's giant kitsch toadstools, Holly Mitchell's wrap-round installation Magic Garden – something like a corner of a garden centre with the colour-contrast turned right up – and Carolyn Godsiff's edgy untitled installation, in which bare electric wires are twisted into beguiling but potentially life-threatening flower forms.
Pin Up: Pop Art and PopularCulture is on display atWolverhampton Art Gallery until August, and Pleasure Gardens until June 9. Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, admission free.