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date: 08 June 2023

Pop artfree

Pop artfree

  • Jaimey Hamilton Faris

Eduardo Paolozzi: I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, collage mounted on card, 359×238 mm, 1947 (London, Tate); © 2007 Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

International art movement in the 1960s inspired by the imagery of mass media and commercial and ‘popular’ culture. Pop was initially defined in 1957 by English artist Richard Hamilton, a member of the Independent Group, and achieved its greatest recognition as a movement with American artists Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol. At the height of the Cold War (1962–9), when America cultivated new political, economic, and cultural spheres of influence, the American artists’ works were often seen to reflect the apex of consumer capitalism. In this context, regional Pop art-oriented circles also arose in Western and Central Europe, Japan, and Latin America, often in direct response to American Pop and American commercial and political interests. Because of its international dissemination, Pop coheres less around a strict notion of style or consistent attitude and more around a period interest and varied response to mass media and new commodity-driven lifestyles. Artists associated with the movement often appropriated business logos, billboard and magazine advertisements, household objects, grocery store commodities, comic book strips, pulp fiction, movie icons, TV broadcasts, and more. At its most rigorous, Pop art exhibits a direct relationship between popular culture and the techniques of its production and dissemination. Even when painting on canvas, many artists referenced commercial design and printing (for example Roy Lichtenstein’s use of Ben Day dots). Airbrush, stencilling, photo transfer, and silkscreen printing became more accepted. Multiples (as in Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, 1964) and repetition in imagery was also widely adopted. Some artists forayed into film (Warhol, Screen Tests, 1964–6) and live-broadcast TV (Öyvind Fahlström, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, 1966). Others experimented with mimicking contemporary marketing tactics in their work such as the use of shop displays (Claes Oldenburg’s The Store, 107 E. 2nd Street, 1961) and promotional events (Konrad Lueg and Gerhard Richter’s Leben mit Pop: eine Demonstration four den Kapitalischen Realismus, 1963). Pop’s expanded media platforms intersected with other movements of the time including Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme, and Happenings. The embrace of popular culture as new subject-matter sprung from a number of factors. A new generation of artists had training and/or experience in commercial art (for example Eduardo Paolozzi designed printed fabric and wallpaper, Warhol started as a graphic designer, and James Rosenquist worked as a billboard sign painter). Despite the dominance of abstraction, there was resurgence of critical interest in Dada, and especially in Duchamp’s Ready-mades. Taking cues from Duchamp, artists began developing a Neo-Dada, junk art, or assemblage aesthetic in the mid-1950s that embraced everyday life. The groundwork for the critical acceptance of Pop was laid by the rising international success of two American Neo-Dada artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (see fig.), who took as his imagery “things the mind already knows”. This culminated with Rauschenberg winning the Grand Prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale for his photo transfer silkscreen prints. His coup, along with a strong showing by Johns, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg at the American pavilion incited critics to call it the ‘Pop Biennial’.

Richard Hamilton: $he, oil, cellulose, collage on panel, 610×406 mm, 1958–61 (London, Tate); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London, photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

1. The beginnings: British Pop.

Peter Blake: The Toy Shop, mixed media, glass and painted wood, displayed: 1.57×1.94×0.34 m, 1962 (London, Tate); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London, photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

The term ‘Pop’ originated in the mid-1950s at the ICA, London, in the discussions held by the Independent Group concerning the artefacts of popular culture. This small group included the artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi as well as architects and critics. Lawrence Alloway (1926–90), the critic who first used the term in print in 1958, conceived of Pop art as the lower end of a popular-art to fine-art continuum, encompassing such forms as advertising, science-fiction illustration, and automobile styling. Hamilton defined Pop in 1957 as: ‘Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at Youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; and Big Business.’ Hamilton also featured the term ‘Pop’ printed on a lollipop in a collage titled Just What is It that Makes Today’s Home so Different, so Appealing? (1956; Tübingen, Ksthalle). Much of the material for this work came from American magazines brought from the USA. It was composed in such a way as to exaggerate the gender ideals, covert eroticism, hidden psychological connotations, and other marketing techniques used by the post-war advertising industry (see fig.).

The most cohesive group of British Pop artists, and those to whom the label was first consistently applied, emerged at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962. Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Richard Smith, and Joe Tilson, who studied together in the mid-1950s at the Royal College of Art, London, took separate paths into Pop art. Blake could rightly claim to have been the first British Pop artist, in that his student works directly reflected his love of folk art and popular culture, for example Litter (1955; Sheffield, Graves A.G.). In the late 1950s he made constructions and collage-based paintings that incorporated postcards, magazine photographs and mass-produced objects (see fig.). Boty’s photo-based images, such as It’s A Man’s World II (1965; Boty Estate) explored the objectification of women in pin-up magazines. The group also included the American-born R. B. Kitaj as well as younger students such as David Hockney, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, and Patrick Caulfield. Other British artists associated with Pop art later in the 1960s included Clive Barker, Anthony Donaldson (b 1939), Gerald Laing, Nicholas Monro (b 1936), Colin Self, and the American-born Jann Haworth (b 1942).

2. American Pop.

Jasper Johns: Flag, encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, 1.07×1.54 m, 1954–5 dated on reverse 1954 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, NY,, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Sidney Janis’s New Realism exhibition in October 1962 is generally considered the moment that launched American Pop. The show was a collaboration between Janis and French critic Pierre Restany, champion of the French Nouveaux Réalistes. Juxtaposed alongside the assemblages and torn poster décollages of the French artists, Janis presented American artists Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg (see fig.), James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann. He discussed the artists as having a new ‘factual’ and ‘cool’ style and also made direct reference to the Independent Group’s coinage of ‘Pop’. The American artists shown in the New Realists exhibition were discussed a few months later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s ‘Symposium on Pop Art’ (December 1962), quickly becoming the core of the movement in the USA.

Claes Oldenburg: Giant Ice Bag, programmed kinetic sculpture of polyvinyl, fibreglass, wood, hydraulic and mechanical movements, h. 2.1 m, diam. 5.5 m, diam. at resting position, h. 4.9 m, 2.4 m diam. at maximum height, 1969–70 (Paris, Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne); © Claes Oldenburg, photo credit: CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

Andy Warhol developed his signature style of repeating iconic images with his first show at the Ferus Gallery in California in July 1962. His Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962; New York, MOMA) were propped on shallow shelves by curator Irving Blum, as if they were in a supermarket. Soon after, Warhol began work on the Marilyns, Car Crashes, and Race Riots—all part of his Death and Disaster Series (1962–7). By 1965, Warhol had expanded his operations at his studio, which he called ‘The Factory’, to include producing films, managing the rock group The Velvet Underground, cultivating a crew of ‘Superstars’, and planning The Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia events (1966–7).

Andy Warhol: Campbell’s Soup Cans, synthetic polymer paint on 32 canvases, each 508×406 mm, 1962 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA /Art Resource, NY

Roy Lichtenstein focused his imagery on formalized enlargements of the frames of comic strips, often violent or melodramatic, for example Drowning Girl (1963; New York, MOMA). Oldenburg, produced likenesses of ordinary objects, often as ’soft sculptures’ in fabric materials and on a huge scale, as in Floor-burger (Giant Hamburger) (1962; Toronto, A.G. Ont.; see also Soft art). James Rosenquist favoured dream-like combinations of grossly enlarged familiar images, which he painted in the manner of billboard advertisements, such as I Love you with my Ford (1962; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.) and F-111 (1964; New York, MOMA), a mural of a new American bomber plane that he characterized as ‘flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising’. Tom Wesselmann specialized in provocatively posed female nudes and in domestic still-lifes of consumer products, for example Still-life #30 (1963; New York, MOMA). Though American Pop was male-dominated, Marisol achieved early recognition alongside her male cohort for her blocky sculptures that commented on fashion, movie icons, and family life.

Roy Lichtenstein: Drowning Girl, 1963, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 1.72×1.7o m, 1963 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Others associated with Pop in the USA include Jim Dine, who consistently rejected the term, Richard Artschwager, Billy Al Bengston, Chryssa, Allan D’Arcangelo, Rosalyn Drexler (b 1926), Joe Goode, Dorothy Grebenak, Robert Indiana, Yayoi Kusama, Ray Johnson, Mel Ramos, Ed Ruscha (see fig.), George Segal, Marjorie Strider (1934–2014), Wayne Thiebaud, and John Wesley. The success of American Pop can be attributed to a new class of art patrons who admired commercial imagery, including German chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig, Italian Conte Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, and the Sculls, owners of a New York taxi fleet.

3. International Pop.

Ed Ruscha: Standard Station, screenprint, printed in color, 495×938 mm, 1966 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © Ed Ruscha, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Regional groups in Germany, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, and beyond emerged along with and in direct response to American Pop. News and images of the American Pop shows of 1962–3 were disseminated as air travel became more accessible to artists and critics, as art magazines (especially Art International) were circulated, and as key exhibitions were mounted. Pontus Hulten’s 1964 exhibition American Pop Art: 106 Forms of Love and Despair for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (travelling to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk near Copenhagen); and Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, etc. opening at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna in 1964 (travelling to West Berlin and Brussels) made a deep impression on European artists. In 1964 both Rauschenberg and Johns made appearances in Europe and Japan. The 1967 São Paulo Biennial featured a large number of American Pop artists who came under discussion in the South American avant-garde scenes.

In Düsseldorf, Germany, Manfred Kuttner (1937–2007), Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke (see fig.), and Gerhard Richter were drawn to the language of mass-produced imagery arising as part of the so-called ‘Economic Miracle’ in West Germany. Richter painted copies of cropped advertisements and then blurred and smeared them, as in Folding Dryer (1962; Stuttgart, Froehlich Collection), while Polke lampooned folky commercial advertising (as in the Sausage Eater, 1963; Friedrich Christian Flick Collection). Lueg worked on accentuating commercial colour printing processes (FGR Triptych, 1963), while Kuttner emphasized the repetition of new commercial design motifs. They quickly saw that other artists were interested in the same visual vocabulary when Lueg picked up the 1963 Art International issue featuring the American Pop artists. Soon after, they formulated the group Capitalist Realism, which they described in their first press release as German Pop art. The group’s most elaborate event was Leben mit Pop: eine Demonstration four den Kapitalischen Realismus (‘Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism’, 1963). In a local furniture store, they carefully staged an evening centred around the furniture displays. They watched TV from new couches and drank cold beer from the new refrigerators, as a parody of Western modern and technological households.

Sigmar Polke: Skull (Mercury Cosmetics); Totenkopf (Quecksilberkosmetik), dispersion on linex, 2000×1900 mm, 1974 (Private collection); © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne/Artists Rights Society, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/image licensed by The Bridgeman Art Library International

Beyond the Capitalist Realists in Düsseldorf, there were a number of other Western European artists operating in the international orbit of Pop, even as they often disassociated themselves and their art from the term. Öyvind Fahlström, a Swedish artist who was included in Janis’s New Realists show spent much of his time in New York during the 1960s, where he developed his ‘variable paintings’, such as Sitting… Six Month After (Version A) (1963; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.) based on comic-book language and made with magnetized pieces that could be moved by viewers. He also helped pioneer the use of live TV broadcast in his Pop-oriented Happening Kisses Sweeter than Wine (1966). Evelyne Axell (1936–72), a Belgian artist, created new feminine icons culled from the media. She devised a technique of cutting out translucent plastic silhouettes of her heroines, including Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova for her painting Valentina (1966; Philippe Axell Collection). French artist Bernard Rancillac co-organized a Parisian exhibition called Mythologies Quotidiennes in 1964, which launched his own use Pop’s figurative language to create critical political commentary, especially against French colonial ties to North Africa and the Vietnam War, the latter featured in Enfin silhouettes affinées jusqu’à la taille (‘At Last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist’, 1966; Grenoble, Mus. Grenoble). Icelandic artist, Erró, who lived and worked in Paris and was also included in Mythologies Quotidiennes, made several trips to New York to meet Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Dine. He settled on a socio-political collage technique focused on media clichés.

As some Eastern bloc artists travelled to other European cities, they began adopting Pop’s visual language to look at Western mass culture from a communist context. In Hungary, avant-gardists Sándor Altorjai (1933–79), György Jovánovics (b 1939), Gyula Konkoly (b 1941), László Lakner, and Endre Tót, contributed to a lively avant-garde scene in Budapest. The influence of Rauschenberg’s silkscreens can be seen in artist László Lakner’s Danae II (Rembrandt Postcards) (1968; Budapest, Ludwig Múzeum), which features a double silkscreened reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting along with a large airmail stripe. It reads as a large unsendable postcard, indicating the isolation of the life behind the Iron Curtain. In Czechoslovakia, artists Peter Bartoš (b 1938), Stanislav Filko (1937–2015), Jiří Kolář, and Július Koller (1939–2007) all briefly used Pop idioms. Polish artists related to Pop include Jerzy Ryszard Zielinski (1943–80), Jan Dobkowski (b 1942), and Natalia LL (b 1937). ’Towards Communism on Lenin’s Course (1967; artist’s col.), by Yugoslav artist Dušan Otašević (b 1940), a hand-painted triptych featuring Lenin, a five pointed star, and a traffic sign of ‘no right turn’, also exemplifies the interest in using everyday semiotics (a theory of signs being discussed in the context of Pop) for critical political commentary.

By the early 1970s, the Soviet Union also experienced a Pop boom when television, music, and Western goods became more accessible. Pop was widely considered emblematic of the decadence of the West and was used as a subtle foil to point out the equally propagandistic nature of Socialist Realism. Soviet artists Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid first exhibited such double-edged critiques as Sots art (derived from Russian word for Socialist Realism, but sounding like Pop art; see Komar and Melamid).

Tokyo Pop arose from a mix of avant-garde activities—some hosted at the Sogetsu Art Center, others organized around a group of artists associated with Anti-Art (Han-geijutsu) and Hi-Red Center (associated with Fluxus) in the early 1960s. News of Pop spread as many Japanese artists and curators travelled to Europe and America, and as other international artists, including Rauschenberg and Johns, visited Japan. Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara (b 1932) proved a pivotal figure. He organized the June 1964 exhibition Off Museum: New Pop, New Junk, New Toy at the Tsubaki Kindai Gallery in Tokyo. He also developed his Imitation Art series, which expressed his frustration that his Pop art would appear to be an imitation of the American ‘original’ by dint of America’s cultural and political power at the time. He exaggerated this situation by simply making ten imitations of Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan to show the American during his visit to Japan in 1964. Shortly after, Shinohara turned to ukiyoe prints as source material for his Oiran series (1964–5). Other notable Tokyo Pop-affiliated artists include Genpei Akasegawa (1937–2014), Nobuaki Kojima (b 1935), Kōichi Tateishi (b 1941), and Shinjiro Okamoto (b 1933).

In Brazil, both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo fostered thriving Pop-related scenes from 1964 to 1968 that were primarily known under the terms ‘New Figuration’, ‘Popcreto’ (coined by poet Augusto de Campos), and ‘New Brazilian Objectivity’ (also the title of a 1967 exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro), all of which in turn were sympathetic to the Tropicália movement that emphasized street actions, reclaimed public space, popular song, and samba dancing. Many of the artists associated with these groups, including Rubens Gerchman (1942–2008), Antônio Dias, and Hélio Oiticica, actively distanced themselves from American Pop, which they generally considered an instrument of imperialism (a strong sentiment related to American backing of the 1964 coup d’état). Some pieces were explicitly critical of American military support of Brazil’s military dictatorship, such as Claudio Tozzi’s Usa e Abusa (1966), which played on the Portuguese term for ‘use’ and the acronym USA. Wanda Pimentel (b 1943), Anna Marie Maiolino (b 1942), Maria do Carmo Secco (b 1933), and Teresinha Soares (b 1927) achieved a high level of recognition in the art scenes in Brazil and developed strong themes around domesticity and motherhood (e.g. Pimentel’s Involvement Series, 1968; Lili and João Avelar Collection). By 1968, the military dictatorship suspended many political and civil rights, making explicit political subject-matter of this cohort difficult to exhibit and propelling new conceptual and ephemeral forms that departed from Pop iconography.

In Buenos Aires, an atmosphere of modernization and industrialization propelled new cultural projects like The Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITCT), led by critic Jorge Romero Brest and funded by the Siam-DiTella family as well as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation. From 1958 to 1970 the ITCT became the centre of Argentinian Pop, also known as Pop-lunfardo (the term for slang in Buenos Aires). Artists associated with the movement were Alberto Greco, Delia Cancela (b 1942), Marta Minujín, León Ferrari (1920–2013), Edgardo Giménez (b 1942), and Rubén Santantonín (1919–69). Minujín and Santantonín collaborated on an experimental Pop Happening, La Menesunda (Buenos Aires slang for ‘the mix up’) installed at ITCT in 1965, which unfolded throughout sixteen rooms, one outfitted with ten TV screens. The installation was visited by an estimated 30,000 visitors and inspired other micro-sucesos, or micro-events, such as a billboard rented by artists Dalia Puzzovio (b 1942), Carlos Squirru (b 1943), and Edgardo Giménez as a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for their art. The artistic interest in mass communication, semiotics, and contemporary media was theorized by art critic Oscar Masotta, who had visited New York in 1966 and wrote about Pop in his 1966 article ‘Art of the Mass Media’. The artists he championed, Eduardo Costa (b 1940), Raúl Escari (b 1944), and Roberto Jacoby (b 1944), also created Pop/Happenings that quickly verged into conceptual art.

4. Interpretation and reception.

Pop art has challenged critical reception from its very beginnings. Its method of appropriating, imitating, and recombining elements of mass culture leaves the art open to interpretation. On the one hand, Pop was seen as an ironic and sly parody of the mass media, exaggerating its forms and gestures to ridiculous lengths. On the other, it was seen as simply copying, and therefore celebrating or reaffirming mass culture. The ambivalence in interpretation can be traced to even the earliest reviews of Pop. For instance, in the January 1963 Art International issue, critic Barbara Rose stated: ‘Rosenquist’s billboard fantasies, Lichtenstein’s cartoons, Robert Indiana’s pinball machines …. This generation is in love with the American dream they see commercialized, exploited and fading before their very eyes.’ As momentum for the movement built, some artists encouraged ambiguity of meaning and tone (as in Andy Warhol’s famous dead-pan statement, ‘What’s great about this country is that America started a tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drink Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too...’). Others anchored the meaning of their images with interviews and texts that offered explicitly critical messages (as did James Rosenquist with F-111). The wide international application of its content, style and processes for different cultural and political contexts further complicates any single interpretation of Pop art.


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