John McHale

1922–1978

John McHale tends to get marginalised in histories of the Independent Group, however, he was a key member, contributing a knowledge of cutting edge technology and popular culture to its debates. He did not personally contribute to the initial construction of the myth of the Independent Group in the early 1960s, and this may explain his low profile, and his later work was devoted to issues of sustainability and futurology, rather than mainstream art and design.

Like many key members of the Independent Group, he was from a comparatively humble background. He was born in Glasgow and worked as a technician before the war, and then volunteered for military service and worked as a medical officer and sub-lieutenant for the Royal Marines. Taking part in action at Tobruck and Malta, he then met his future wife, Evelyn Hitchcock, whom he married in 1945. She introduced him to the very different world of the Hampstead artistic mileu, a long way from the streets of Glasgow’s Kelvinside and Maryhill. According to Lawrence Alloway, he met McHale at an art history class at the Courtauld. They were to form a highly significant partnership for the intellectual development of the Independent Group, bringing a sharp interest in technology and popular culture to IG discussions. In 1947 John McHale and Evelyn visited William Turnbull in Paris and again in 1949. By the early 1950s he had established himself in a studio in Randolph Mews, Maida Vale and Alloway, Turnbull and Frank and Magda Cordell were frequent visitors there. McHale was certainly involved in the first session of the Independent Group from 1952-3 and moved into the Cordells’ home in Regents Crescent in 1952. Frank Cordell’s work as a composer in the world of popular music was a tremendous inspiration for McHale, and for his development of an all-inclusive aesthetic.

In 1954 John McHale exhibited his important Transistor collages, which visually codified the process of communication using the new invention of the transistor, which would revolutionise radio and computer technology. The exhibition was organised by Alloway and entitled Collages and Objects, and also included work by Kurt Schwitters. Alloway and McHale were then invited by the ICA’s Assistant Director, Dorothy Morland, to convene the second session of the Independent Group from 1954&emdash;5. They decided on the theme of the expendable aesthetic, cutting edge technology and American popular culture for the nine sessions. McHale in particular steered the session given by communications expert, E. W. Meyer, and also Dadaists as Non-Aristoteleans. Later in 1955 McHale left for a highly significant study visit to Yale where he met Joseph Albers and Marcel Duchamp. He returned in 1956 with a trunk full of American popular culture images, mainly magazines, just before the opening of This is Tomorrow, which made a significant contribution to the display and catalogue entry for Group 2. McHale’s groundbreaking analysis of popular culture is exemplified in his articles of the later 1950s, including ‘The Expendable Ikon 1’ and its sequel for Architectural Review in 1959. Typically for the Independent Group, collaborations continued beyond the formal meetings of the Group, and he made an important film, Haupstadt Berlin with Frank and Magda Cordell for the Smithsons’ entry to an architectural competition for the Berlin Revitalisation Project in 1959. McHale moved to the USA in 1962 with Magda Cordell and his two sons, Julian and Evan. There he followed his interest in the work of Buckminster Fuller and was Director of the Center for Integrative Studies at the School of Advanced Technology, State University of New York when he wrote The Future of the Future (1969).

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