Anarchy in the auction house: the ephemera of Sex Pistols that pogoing, going, gone | Sex Pistols

OOn the morning of the Queen’s death, art collectors Paul Stolper and Andrew Wilson happen to stare at a photograph of her face. It’s a piece of card, smaller than a vinyl LP, that artist Jamie Reid produced for a Sex Pistols concert. He took the classic Cecil Beaton portrait, fitted it with a safety pin through her lip, printed it on a union flag, and later punched holes in it for possible use as a bunting on the band’s infamous Jubilee boat trip on June 7, 1977, though it was never used. This is the piece that has sown the world most extraordinary collection of visual iconography related to punk rock’s foremost band. Today it fills a room in Sotheby’s west London storage facility, before going up for auction next month.

It started in 1990. Stolper and Wilson visited Christie’s auction house to see a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Stolper is now a successful art dealer and Wilson was until recently a senior curator at Tate Britain, but then they were young men on tight budgets and the Caulfield was hugely out of reach. Before leaving empty-handed, however, they half-heartedly watched a sale of rock and pop memorabilia, and the flag card caught their eye.

“We thought wow, we can afford this, it appeals to us in terms of visual language and it is steeped in 20th-century cultural history,” recalls Stolper. “We understood early on what we wanted to collect and how to do it. We were at the right time to build a really important collection, and that rarely happens. You couldn’t put this collection together right now.”

Most items in the Stolper Wilson collection only cost tens or hundreds of pounds to acquire. In the 1990s, expensive artifacts like signed records and guitars didn’t interest them, while the things they… did care about – posters, flyers, letters – did not interest punk collectors. In fact, there is no music in the collection at all. “Sex Pistols was unlike any other band, any other situation, because from the start it was about art as life lived,” Wilson says. “Yes, it was music, but it was also about a way of being in the world.”

The two friends visited auction houses and memorabilia dealers as they scoured record store walls for Blu-Tacked old handbills. Once the news got around, characters from the inner lane of the band started coming forward with items to sell. “I came home with pieces of paper and my wife said, ‘What did you buy?’” Stolper recalls with a laugh. “And I’d say, ‘This is really important. It’s Pistols’ first press release!’”

Comic artwork from the Sex Pistols collection.
Comical look… Artwork from the Stolper-Wilson collection. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

Although Stolper and Wilson could never be mistaken for aging punks, they were fans at the time. Wilson, who was 14 in 1976, remembers buying God Save the Queen the week of release. Stolper, who was 11, lived in Sloane Square, not far from the Sex boutique, owned by the Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren. “I walked up and down the Kings Road and saw all the punks. I was so young I didn’t understand the politics of it, but I got the culture because I was there.”

In 1996 the collection was large enough to merit an exhibition entitled “I Groaned With Pain”… Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols, in the Eagle Gallery, above a pub in Clerkwenwell. Stolper and Wilson opted for clean white frames on blank walls to indicate that it was art, not rock. Among the visitors were some of the Young British Artists, who were then often compared to punks, but less so now. “Every contemporary artist I know came to that show,” Stolper says. “Everyone our age was fully aware of the visual images.” Damien Hirst even named four medicine cabinets after the Sex Pistols songs.

McLaren also came and was blown away by this monument to his youthful efforts. He had moved on so quickly after the Sex Pistols ended in explosive bitterness in 1978 that he never thought of curating this period of his life. “It was a very short-lived culture,” Wilson says. “These things weren’t as valued then as they are now.”

A handwritten note from Malcolm McLaren.
Words of Truth… A Note from Malcolm McLaren. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

The collectors entered into a long conversation with him. “We didn’t want to ask what Sid really was like?” says Stolper. “We wanted to ask: where did this come from? We ended the interview with a great question: “So, Malcolm, did you think it was art?” There was a long silence, then he said, “In a sense it was… taller than art.’”

If Pistol, Danny Boyle’s recent TV series, was the story of a rock band, then this collection is the story of an idea: a collaborative multimedia art project in which Reid and McLaren, who met at Croydon Academy of Art, were at least as important. as Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. “They all brought their own unique visions, and the Sex Pistols were the pot that everyone threw everything into,” Stolper says. Many of the images, ostensibly created to promote performances and records, are works of art in their own right. You could see them without hearing a note of the Sex Pistols’ music and knowing that they represented a radically significant moment in British youth culture. “This is all in the service of something else,” Wilson says, “and figuring out what that something else is is the intriguing part of it.”

Illustration 'I hate French cooking' - an artifact from the Stolper-Wilson collection.
An artifact from the Stolper-Wilson collection. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

The two men circle the room, proudly telling the stories behind their favorite artifacts. The collection denies famous images by contextualizing them as the product of quick, low-budget experimentation. Two flyers for shows at the 100 Club in 1976, just 10 weeks apart, show how Helen Wellington-Lloyd’s original block capital logo led to Reid’s ransom note collage. Reid’s ramshackle Lion Brand exercise book charts the final days of the project, with sketched ideas for the brutally cynical 1980 compilation album Flogging a Dead Horse and scribbled memories to track down McLaren’s money. Pink lyric sheets for Vicious’s first band, the Flowers of Romance, reveal surprisingly sensitive handwriting, each i studded with a flamboyant globe. The huge poster for the band’s first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is the copy that Vicious pinned to the wall of his room in New York’s Chelsea hotel before his death in 1979. It still has the stains from when he cleaned his heroin syringes.

Stupid thing: a poster stained with Sid Vicious's blood.
Stupid thing: a poster stained with Sid Vicious’s blood. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

As for McLaren, its determination to place the band in a long tradition of English dissidents and wild boys is vividly reflected in his handwritten poster for their last concert in the UK, on ​​Christmas Day 1977. “This true and dirty story continues through 200 years of teenage anarchy,” he wrote alongside an illustration by George Cruikshank of Dickensian Hedgehogs. McLaren and Reid’s shared love of situationism led to a poster for the Belgian tourism industry being transformed into an advertisement for the biting single Holidays in the Sun. “It’s taking something familiar and presenting it in a way that changes your attitude toward the world you live in,” Wilson says. “Everything was not necessarily about a refusal, but about a reversal.”

Perhaps the funniest item in the collection is the press kit put together by Warner Bros Records for the US release of Never Mind the Bollocks, featuring its inside-out T-shirt and comic strip narration of the band’s story. The business travesty of the Sex Pistols’ underdog aesthetic foreshadowed all subsequent ersatz appropriations of punk signifiers, from advertisements to boutique hotel rooms. “The images are constantly being recaptured,” says Stolper. “If there’s a new young pop star and he’s the ‘rebel’, then there’s the punk attitude. It rebels with numbers. This is the touchstone of it all.”

Punk Queen… Elizabeth II is a recurring image in the collection.
Punk Queen… Elizabeth II is a recurring image in the collection. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

Stolper and Wilson considered their work by 2004, having acquired the original lyrics of Holidays in the Sun, No Feelings and Submission. That year they held two more exhibitions, at the Hospital Gallery in Covent Garden and Urbis in Manchester. In the spirit of punk, they thought it was getting too big and commercial, so they never did it again. “The audience in the Eagle was an art audience, and the audience in the hospital was everyone,” Wilson says.

They did lend objects to museums all over the world. Managing the collection and traveling to accompany the installation is one of the reasons they chose to sell it. After making the tough decision to break it up, they now talk about it like proud parents watching their kids fly the nest. “It has to live a different life now,” Wilson says. “The arc of collecting inevitably leads to diffusion — this sense of letting it out into the world so other people can have the fun we’ve had.”

This is their last chance to see the full collection and reflect on the story it tells about the Sex Pistols and their own lives. “When I was a kid, the music seemed very important,” Wilson says. “Now I find it quite difficult to listen to some music. But this one” – he waves his hand across the room – “I still find it endlessly fascinating and enriching. It’s more than just the music. And it’s more than just the images. It’s total art.”

Leave a Comment