Peter Blake: Pop-art ‘godfather’ still an outsider

 LONDON — Pop music loves him. The art establishment shuns him.

At the age of 80, British artist Peter Blake is revered for his celebrated Sgt. Pepper Beatles album cover yet at the same time dismissed as too “cheerful” to be one of the greats.

Stroking his wispy silver beard repeatedly and using a cane to walk around a central London gallery, the man dubbed the “godfather of pop art” still struggles to come to terms with his place in the world of contemporary culture.

“It’s a cross I bear,” he said of the fact that his art is not taken as seriously as that of some contemporaries.

“Perhaps it’s surprising that at my kind of age and with my infirmities I’m still cheerful,” he said at the Waddington Custot Galleries, where his latest show, “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” is on view.

Surrounding him are works ranging from some of his earliest watercolors, executed in 1948 when he was 16, to The Family, a sculpture he completed just a few days ago.

What is striking is how lively they are — plastic figures of Snow White and 30 dwarfs crowd outside a model of a Swiss chalet in one humorous work, and the 6-foot-long A Parade for Saul Steinberg is a model bursting with color and references to popular culture.

Blake concedes that he is often left having to defend his work in a world in which “serious” art is cherished above all.

“Painters all have a different reason to paint. It could be politics; it could be angst; it could be anger. My reason to paint is to make magic and to make cheerful things.”

The art market clearly ranks his peers above Blake, including David Hockney, whose Beverly Hills Housewife fetched $7.9 million at auction in 2009.

But more of a bugbear is being overlooked by Tate Modern, the most important British gallery for modern and contemporary art — which, ironically, gave a major retrospective this year to a much younger artist whom Blake helped nurture, Damien Hirst.

After uttering a few choice words in what he himself called a “rant” to a newspaper against influential Tate director Nicholas Serota, he sought to strike a more conciliatory tone.

“Oddly enough, Serota came in earlier to see the show,” Blake recalled.

What Serota saw was an artist still bursting with ideas in a phase of life Blake describes as an“encore” to the main acts of his career.

Blake named the show after the children’s game rock-paper- scissors, and childlike touches surface throughout.

Blake was producing art by 1945, at age 13, and in the 1950s and “swinging ’60s” emerged as one of the front-runners of pop art, which drew on popular culture and advertising to subvert the traditions of mainstream art.

He is best-known for designing the album sleeve for the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring a collage of famous figures behind the band members dressed in bright military-style regalia.

That album has led to a lifelong association with British pop music, including designing sleeves for the charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? in 1984, the latest album by Madness and the Brit Awards statuettes last year.