In April 1968, David King visited New York, where he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, legendary residence and hangout of artists and bohemians. The purpose of his visit is unknown, but it’s likely he was in town on an assignment for The Sunday Times Magazine – he returned to the city in November to work on a magazine feature.
Back in London, King assembled mementoes of the earlier visit into a montage, which he then photographed. A single, small print – 89 × 114 mm – was found among his things after he died. The assemblage is not exactly a collage since the pieces don’t appear to be stuck permanently into position, but are held in place by pins on a sheet of heavy paper or card. The pins suggest the piece may have been displayed vertically, though not all the elements are pinned. King laid the montage on the floor and photographed it using a tripod. The photograph implies a purpose – perhaps the composite was some kind of illustration – but the image wasn’t used in The Sunday Times Magazine and nothing else has come to light.
It’s possible that the piece was simply an experiment, occupying a position somewhere between the intuitive grouping of images on a pin board and a more formally resolved artwork. King gathered these items because they held some meaning for him and now he was trying to see whether they could fit together in a way that made visual and conceptual sense, as a reflection of his interests and tastes. At this stage of his life – he was 25 – he was a few years from engaging fully with his life-long passion, the visual history of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. He had an impulse to collect images, but no strong focus or direction. Like many British people at the time, he was drawn to American culture – its mythic scale, glamour and energy. In 1957, Alan Fletcher, a trailblazer among British designers crossing the Atlantic, filed a “Letter from America” in Ark magazine, recording his wide-eyed “first impressions” of New York.
King’s montage has the same bedazzled air. He takes delight in items that would be merely ordinary to Americans – the Hershey’s wrapper, Olympia beer label, receipt from Macy’s department store, and drugstore façade. The pictures of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall are standard tourist choices. Less obviously, King may have dropped by Max’s Kansas City, favoured watering hole of musicians, artists and writers. In his memoir Still Spitting at Sixty, King’s friend and colleague Roger Law recalls going to the club with King later in 1968, while he was a temporary resident in the city, to drink boilermakers – beer with Bourbon chasers. The front page of the Daily News, dated Friday, April 12 1968 (the year is obscured), recalls King’s attraction to crime stories in his work as a rapidly developing visual journalist.
Two postcards represent quirkier selections, neither of them connected with Manhattan, although King presumably found the cards in the city. The man engaging in horizontal two-wheeled travel is Rollie Free, who in 1949 broke the American motorcycle land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. I drew a blank with the murky postcard King paired with the fearless rider, but an American friend I consulted, Mark Nelson, managed to discover the source. The woman in the elegant dress is standing next to five slot machines sculpted like cowboys. The place: Las Vegas. The date: sometime in the 1950s. The card reveals King’s sense of humour as well as his practiced eye for a compelling image.
While there are oblique glimpses, such as the cards, of the enraptured collector King would become in the course of the 1970s, the most revealing images are the five that relate to art. The largest picture in the group is the portrait of Andy Warhol with Gerard Malanga, his close collaborator in the 1960s. Law recalls a visit from King during his November visit. “One day he came by with news of a consultation he had just had with Andy Warhol at his Factory.” We don’t know whether King saw Warhol on his earlier trip (before Warhol’s shooting by Valerie Solanas in June), but he gives the Pop artist pride of place at the centre of the composition. The inclusion of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces (1955) and Tom Wesselmann’s Smoker 1 (Mouth 12) (1967), both in the Museum of Modern Art collection, underscores King’s attraction to Pop Art. He also had a liking for abstraction, eventually making abstract paintings himself, and he counterpoints the Pop imagery with a picture by the colour field painter Larry Zox. This could be an announcement card for Zox’s show in early 1968 at New York’s Kornblee Gallery; Artforum ran a review in April 1968.
In terms of King’s development as a designer, the most significant element is Paul Citroën’s photomontage, Metropolis (City of My Birth) (1923), which is also in MoMA. This differs from the other exhibits in King’s New York display because it’s composed of a multitude of images and the complex fractured surface sits awkwardly with the other singular pictures, unless we view it as a statement of his organising principle. Citroën’s metropolis doesn’t depict New York, but it perfectly expresses the architectural layering and clash of perspectives in what was still, in 1968, the most futuristic and exciting of modern cities.
The photomontage also comes from a period in history that would shortly preoccupy King. Photomontage would be an important technique for his visual practice and, from this point, his first published photomontages began to appear. A photograph of King’s living room from 1974 reveals Metropolis’ enduring appeal to him. Perched on a wall heater below the Communist flag, Citroën’s iconic montage is a focal point in the room.
Perhaps the most enigmatic element of King’s montage is easily overlooked in a small picture: the badge on the left, which reads “Johnson did it”. Is this a reference to the sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and what did he do?
According to a conspiracy theory still around today, Johnson was implicated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It seems unlikely that King intended any particular comment by including the badge. It was merely a curiosity he picked up on his travels. The montage doesn’t resolve itself into a single, clear-cut meaning, nor was that King’s intention in making it. The piece was a catalogue of a stimulating visit and an attempt to find out whether visual elements acquired by chance could be fused to make a unified image. It’s likely the project progressed no further than the photo.
Thanks to Mark Nelson, Charlie Stuckey, Roger Law and Ian Denning. King’s photographs are courtesy of the Estate of David King
Updated on 8 July and 6 September 2022