Introduction to Pop Art

DEFINING ART AS POPULAR CULTURE

DEFINING POPULAR CULTURE AS ART

Introduction

“A walk down 14th street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art,” commented Allan Kaprow, a Pop artist in New York. This statement sums up what Pop Art was reacting to and what this movement was against—the “artiness” of “art,” the “masterpiece,” the “artist as genius,” creating art out of the personality and out of the history of “art.” Pop Art emerged out of an American post-War materialism and its ranks were swelled by young and irreverent artists who had not known the deprivation of the Depression and had been too young to be concerned with the moral questions raised Second World War. They had grown up in a world so new that the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, referred to the social space between these children and their parents as “The Generation Gap.” These artists were children of the material age of rock ‘n’ roll, sock hops, drive-in movies, comic books, mass media advertising and the mass-produced omnipresent culture called “popular.”

Reaching their maturity, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these artists faced an art world increasingly commercialized and internationalized and could clearly see the bankruptcy of an Abstract Expressionism which had become academic and absorbed by the commodity machine called the “avant-garde.” The Pop artists had little patience with their predecessors’ seriousness and repudiated their concepts of High Art. Instead they looked to the streets, to Low Culture, to the vernacular, to Popular Culture, and incorporated this previously disparaged and intellectually degraded material into the sacred precincts of the gallery and museum. The magic metamorphosis was achieved by translating a style purloined from commercial art transferred onto an “art signal,” a canvas, upon which an image was made by an art world approved medium, oil or acrylic paint; and then the object would be placed in a gallery or museum. Any element of popular culture could be elevated into high art by changing the materials and by changing the location of the image. The delighted public was pleased to see, at long last, art they could recognize and understand.

This change from high to low in cultural perspective can be seen in the photographic work of Robert Frank, whose major body of photographs, The Americans, was completed in 1955, the same year as Jasper Johns’s Targets and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. The Americans was nothing less than a deadpan, dead-eyed social critique of the overlooked “America,” famously seen through the curious eyes of a Holocaust survivor. In “looking at the overlooked,” as Norman Bryson would say, the Swiss photographer photographed, seemingly at random, but Frank ultimately selected which of the 7,000 works to publish with the ruthless perspective of a non-believer. In borrowing and quoting the already ready, the already seen, and the already known, Jasper Johns assaulted the citadel of Originality, and in pinning his paint spattered bed to the wall, Robert Rauschenberg mocked the vaunted ideal of Creativity. These works of art herald the shift from an art of feeling, such as De Kooning’s slashes of paint on women, to an art of detachment. It was now hip to be cool.

Some art historians have selected certain precursors to Pop Art—Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy—American artists of the 1920s who utilized advertising in their art. Like the American artists, Italian Futurism, in its concern with technology and modern life, used the stylistics of Cubism to celebrate the dynamic modernité of everyday life. Other historians might also include Purism in Paris between the wars and its interest in objects produced via mass technology or Francis Picabia’s hybrid machine-human forms resembling mass produced products. However, the best precedent would be Dada, particularly the (anti)art of Marcel Duchamp, and his discovery of every day objects: the Readymades, the ordinary mass-produced objects the artist “found” by chance and dubbed with a “new thought.” It took decades for the ideas of Duchamp and everyday life to be assimilated by the art world and, in the twilight of his long life, the underground artist began, at long last, to be understood by the Neo-Dada artists.

After the death of Pollock, the art world of New York had its first martyr and Abstract Expressionism was consecrated. With the rise in the prices of American art, it was clear that, the center of gravity of the art world had shifted from Paris to an American scene, and once-quiet neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, became thriving areas for ateliers and galleries and a new generation of dealers. Buoyed on a wave of prosperity and rising expectations, the art market boomed and art became a commodity, like stocks and bonds, and artists became stars, receiving instant glory, fame, and fortune.

The struggle for the acceptance of “modern” art was over and the struggle for commercial success had begun. But this new situation was not as favorable to the generation of Jackson Pollock. The new generation of dealers were looking for something “new” and Abstract Expressionism was not new, hence the swift success of Rauschenberg and Johns. No sooner than had Abstract Expressionism become accepted (if not loved) by the art audience than a new group of artists arose in an Oedipal rejection. Pop Art was a leading indicator of changing times and new attitudes. Although Neo-Dada may have been a precursor to Pop Art, it would not be the beginning of Pop Art.

British Pop Art

In the 1950s Europe lay prostrated and in ruins; and, during the next two decades could do little more than respond weakly to American innovations in art. But Pop Art was a notable exception. True Pop Art came from American sources, but Pop Art would be inaugurated and would be christened in a most unlikely place, England, in its “austerity” season, following a war it supposedly won. Although “Pop” art is a phrase coined in response to a certain strain of British art, Pop Art was specifically and uniquely American in content and style, for it was America which had taken the lead in creating kitsch–the lowering of high art–the raw material of the Pop artists. The American culture that reached the British people, who were still on rationing, was a culture of abundance. The English consumers leafed through magazines from America and encountered a visual feast of advertising products for the post-war Paradise that was America. The only message was “buy” and the only moral was to “enjoy.”

The post-war artists in England were, like most artists after the Second World War, casting about for a new way to make new art, were dazzled by American products and American graphic design. A group of artists from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London who were interested in American culture began to come together to discuss the barrage of American popular culture. Their leader, Lawrence Alloway, was an art critic and an organizer who was enamored with all things American and absorbed the snappy patter of advertising. It was he who used the phrase “pop art,” it was he who explained how “the aesthetics of plenty” had created a “continuum” between fine art and mass culture, and it was Alloway who rejected the traditional boundaries between high and low culture.

The ICA artists preceded the Pop artists in New York by almost a decade in their experiments with popular culture. Unencumbered by the weight of Abstract Expressionism, unburdened by a mission to supplant Paris as the capital of the art world, these young artists laid the groundwork for the project of how to make art out of life. Many of the most famous British Pop “icons,” were made, not as works of art, however, but as occasions for discussions. As early as 1947 Edouardo Palozzi pasted together American tabloids and advertising in I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The small collage made in 1956 by Richard Hamilton raised the question, What is it about Today’s Homes that make them so Different, so Appealing? and featured a new Garden of Eden full of American personalities and American products from television to canned ham. The works of Hamilton and Palozzi were small in scale and hand made. Their collages, careful cutouts from American magazines, were extensions of pre-war Photomontages. Totally lacking in social critique, their exuberant exaltation of the vernacular and their innocent pleasure in visual stimulation would characterize Pop Art.

Formally titled the Independent Group, these artists mounted as series of important exhibitions in the early fifties, before Johns or Rauschenberg had become recognized artists. The exhibitions included Parallels of Life and Art, 1953, Man, Machine, and Motion, 1955, and This is Tomorrow, 1956—all were derived from the world of commerce. In a uniquely British approach, these exhibitions of things that existed in the now for America were cast in the future, something that England would aspire to. As Alloway said, “movies, science fiction, advertising, Pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically.” Indeed soon the city of London would begin to “swing” in the Sixties and the Beatles would conquer the world.

French Pop Art

In Paris Pop Art was called Le Nouveau Réalisme (“New Realism”), a term coined by Pierre Restany in 1960. Sidney Janis used this title for his 1962 exhibition in New York which introduced the then-scattered American Pop artists to the art world. However, besides the title, Pop Art in France was quite different from Pop Art in New York. In Paris, Restany issued manifestos and these statements of purpose were signed by artists–like in Dada or Surrealism—in a nostalgic replay of art before the war. Indeed when art critic Lucy Lippard viewed the works of these Parisian Pop artists in 1962, she saw the traces of Surrealism. Indeed the so-called “Pop” artists had little in common with American or British artists beyond making art in the same time period. The French group was so disparate that they had to justify their affiliation under the concept of “collective singularity.”

It is difficult to think of an American or British counterpart to artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Mimmo Rotella or Niki de Saint Phalle. It seems apparent that New Realism in Paris is closer to Neo-Dada in New York, for these artists also merged art and life, a key goal of the Neo-Dada artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg. In fact, Rauschenberg was well acquainted with some of the artists, such as Niki de Saint Phalle. All of these Parisian artists were better grouped within Fluxus where their “recycling of industrial and advertising reality,” as Restany described it, would be channeled into “events” the equivalent to “Happenings” and installations and performances.

New Realism in New York and Paris introduced new issues in art, concerned with an aspect of the real, or realism without transcription or interpretation. “New Realism” and earlier terms, such as “Neo-Dada,” and “New American Sign Painters,” were quickly replaced by the more upbeat and less formal sounding British term—Pop Art. However, the term New Realism had an important story to tell: Pop Art or New Realism was a return to representation, a return to realism, a return to figuration. By the 1950s, in the wake of European modernism, it was impossible to bring back an academic way of making art—traditional realism—but a new form of popular realism could be smuggled into art through the appropriation of “life” and its preexisting detritus.

Pop Art in New York

In New York, Pop Art was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism and all its high art pretensions and a celebration of all that had been banished from Fine Art. It was a rebel movement of art outlaws that celebrated the commercial consumerist aspects of post-war art. Although it was thought of as “American,” Pop Art was also a regional art, born and bred in the advertising agencies of New York City. Only Andy Warhol referred to the pop culture of Hollywood; the rest of the artists were embedded in the world of New York commercialism. They used, abused and denied the crass origins and adopted the look of advertising, the bright attention-getting colors and the sharp legible lines and the simple centered designs.

In contrast to the angst of creation suffered so dramatically by the Abstract Expressionist artists, Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was cheekily un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating low culture. Pop Art insisted on leveling the playing field and made the point that all things from life were suitable materials for artists. But it would be to facile to insist that Pop Art was a juvenile rebellion of an adolescent. Pop Art was cobbled together from the raw materials of that way the artists grew up and lived. Pop culture was their culture and the artists merely reflected their own times.

Pop Art signaled a “Return to the Object” and a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism. In contrast to the un-readability and transcendence of Ab Ex, Pop Art was easily identifiable, using specific and recognizable images, from low art mass media sources. Andy Warhol did copies of diagrams of dance steps. George Segal cast his friends and neighbors in their everyday lives. In 1961 Claes Oldenburg sold his papier maché Pop Art objects in his own establishment, The Store. The curators of these earlier exhibitions pulled together this new generation of artists, many of whom were working with popular culture without knowledge of each other. Only when they saw each other’s work in shows, such as New Realism, did they realize a “new” “ movement” had begun and that they were part of “Pop Art.”

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many art writers were repelled by the vulgar sources. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers made Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. The art audiences who had never really embraced Abstract Expressionism loved Pop Art; it was art of their own time. Pop Art in America was the first really popular movement in Avant-Garde art.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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