John McHale



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John McHale 1922–1978
Printed papers and tape on paper
Support: 460 x 585 mm
Presented by Magda Cordell McHale, the artist's widow 1996

Not on display


The transistor, invented in 1948, promised a new era in electronic communications. Considerably smaller, stronger and more energy efficient than the old thermionic valve, it opened the way for portable radios and televisions, and high speed computers. Such machines were, in McHale's opinion, contributing to a structural change in the way in which culture was consumed and understood. In the age of mass communication and reproduction the work of art as a single, discrete object was, in his opinion, no longer viable. Furthermore, for McHale, the distinction between high and low culture had been undermined by the proliferation of radio and television in which the two were constantly being mixed together.

Five years after the invention of the transistor, McHale made the first of several Transistor collages. As a technique collage had been central to his practice since the early 1950s, but with the Transistor works there is a marked increase in raw material taken from the mass media. This particular work consists of torn pieces of coloured paper and newspaper arranged in an abstract pattern. The use of such mundane mass-produced materials was part of McHale's strategy to engage with the new reality by using its own media, rather than those associated with an old fashioned tradition of art such as oil paint.

The pieces of paper on the left are fairly regular in shape and in arrangement: for example, the row of seven squares of newspaper clips, each with a smaller square of coloured paper glued on top, that runs along the top edge is mirrored by a similar row along the bottom. Between these two rows is a thin, horizontal strip of paper across or around which are placed seven short, vertical strips of paper. The central section of the collage is demarcated by three long, vertical strips between which numerous small squares and rectangles freely intermingle. To the right of this area are nine coloured squares in a row, and two thin, long horizontal strips beneath each of which is a torn scrap of newspaper. Both are torn from articles about such popular music celebrities as Robert Earl and Eddie Calvert. Underlying all of these elements and interpenetrating each area is a long grey form, which serves to create a sense of visual continuity between the zones.

Jacquelynn Baas has suggested that such an image may be read as a 'visual equivalent for the processing of information' (Robbins, p.87). According to her, the pieces of paper should be understood as raw data; their progression from being ordered to disordered and then reconfigured in a different order metaphorically reflects the manner in which basic data is processed by a transistor, or indeed an organic brain, into an intelligible form.

McHale's interest in cognitive systems and modern technology was in keeping with the pervading empiricism and materialism of the Independent Group, with which he had been involved since its inception around 1952. This work was probably made in London, though it is not known exactly where.

Further reading:
David Robbins (ed.), The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1990, pp.87-8, reproduced p.90,

Toby Treves
March 2001