While studying at the Royal College, Blake concerned himself with popular entertainments as both the subject matter and the source of formal solutions for his paintings. The cinema, the circus, the funfair, wrestling and popular music, previously largely neglected or derided as beneath the dignity of the fine artist, were appreciated as forms of creative expression in their own right, to be honoured for the glimpses they offer into mass culture. The very notion of presenting his own art in the guise of entertainment was a radical and iconoclastic one in its affront to the earnest seriousness and high moral tone characteristic not only of academic traditions but also of much avant-garde art of the twentieth century. Allying himself with journeymen decorators, sign painters, commercial artists and self-taught naive painters, Blake bravely and democratically declared himself as an artist of the people rather than as one who wished to address only his fellow painters or a cultural elite. He did so not only through his choice of subjects, but also by apparently submerging his own artistic identity into that of existing styles from outside fine art traditions, presenting his paintings as if they were objects he had found ready-made in a timeworn condition.
The directness with which Blake gave expression to his enthusiasms for mass culture during the 1950s – independently of the investigations of other British, American and European artists into similar areas – brought him to the forefront of the Pop Art movement before it had even been named. As soon as news filtered back to Britain in the late 1950s of the incursions into popular culture by American artists – as exemplified by the flags and targets of Jasper Johns, the ‘combines’ of Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers’s paintings based on found imagery and such banal artefacts as playing cards or restaurant menus – Blake was poised to act on his understanding of the radical implications of this new work.
The cheeky aside to Johns represented by The First Real Target? (1961), delivered in a spirit of both homage and challenge, provides evidence of the role allotted to humour in Blake’s art but hints also at the importance attached by him and other artists to the question of influence and historical precedence. While much attention has rightly been given to the discussions of the Independent Group in London during the 1950s in creating an intellectual atmosphere in which Pop Art could flourish, and to the work produced by Hamilton and Paolozzi in relation to their membership of that group, Blake’s early and sustained exploration of his own brand of Pop Art has often failed to be given due credit. The fruitful dialogue that he established both with contemporaries such as Richard Smith and Joe Tilson and with younger artists including David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, Patrick Caulfield, Pauline Boty and his future wife Jann Haworth also made him a singularly influential figure within British Pop.