As soon as pop art appeared at the start of the 60s, it was derided as frivolous, superficial and trite. Aficionados of contemporary art had grown accustomed to the grand, serious heroics of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock.
So the brash new paintings of cartoon characters and commonplace consumer goods that were suddenly being produced by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and their peers seemed not only tongue-in-cheek but also downright sacrilegious. “Art galleries are being invaded by the pin-headed and contemptible style of gumchewers, bobby-soxers and, worse, delinquents,” thundered one art critic after seeing Lichtenstein’s first solo show in New York in 1962.
Yet, as I discovered while filming Soup Cans and Superstars, a new 90-minute history of the movement for BBC4, pop was always about something more than simply reacting with impish glee against the solemn, lofty ideals of the abstract expressionists. Warhol and the pop pioneers realised that their abstract style had become tired and hackneyed.
But they also felt it was out of touch with the neon-bright realities of everyday life. As Warhol once wrote: “The pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognise in a split second: comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles – all the great modern things that the abstract expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.”
This, ultimately, is why pop art was so important – because it appealed directly to the man in the street. It was democratic, not elitist, bringing modernism to the masses. It also commented, often with acerbic wit, upon the inequalities and paradoxes of capitalist society. In other words, pop wasn’t as dumb as it first appeared. Indeed, regarding it from the vantage point of our own era of selfies and social networking, it now looks more prescient than any other movement of modern art.
A pretty young woman clamps a telephone receiver anxiously to one ear. The royal blue background, as well as the black strap of a negligee visible on her left shoulder, suggests that it is late, while her knitted brow implies that whatever her lover is telling her is causing her dismay.
This exemplary masterpiece by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), who is often described as the architect of pop art, ranks among his best-known paintings from the mid- 60s, when he explicitly imitated the bold, graphic style of popular comic books. It belongs to a particular series known as his romance paintings, which drew upon DC Comics’ Girls’ Romances and Secret Hearts, and foregrounded cute young women, often seen in close-up, and frequently disappointed in love.
Unlike the decisive heroes of his related war paintings, such as Whaam!, Lichtenstein’s girls are fretful. In other words, like most of Lichtenstein’s 60s cartoon paintings, Oh Jeff… interrogates stereotypes – in this case, old-fashioned, chauvinistic assumptions about how women should behave – which he believed were perpetuated by everyday popular culture.
No discussion of pop art would be complete without mentioning its most famous practitioner: the American Andy Warhol, that sangfroid genius in a silvery toupee, who immortalised soup cans and superstars and chronicled America at the peak of its powers during the 20th century. At the start of the 60s, Warhol was one of a hard core of six or so young artists in New York who reacted against the prevailing taste for abstract expressionism and pioneered the new pop mode – for the most part independently of one another.
Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, an acrylic silkscreen that now hangs in London’s Tate Modern, is a magnificent example of his classic pop style. Produced shortly after Monroe’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills in August 1962, this meditative tearjerker about the demise of a celebrity is divided across two canvases, each containing 25 images of the star’s head arranged in five rows. It reflects Warhol’s fascination with serial imagery and repetition, which he skilfully used as a device to mimic the scatter-shot relentlessness of the mass media.
The imagery we most readily associate with pop art evokes American celebrities and products: Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, hamburgers and hotdogs, Ford automobiles and tins of Campbell’s soup. But the movement was actually invented in Britain, not in America. The cerebral British artist Richard Hamilton, who was associated with an artistic movement known as the Independent Group during the 50s, was one of its chief progenitors.
In 1956, several years before pop art even had a name, he designed this remarkable collage as a poster for the landmark This Is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. Made mostly using material culled from glossy American magazines, it foretold pop art’s central characteristics and motifs, featuring pin-up girls, comic books and advertisements for vacuum cleaners, televisions and other household goods.
The pop art movement had run its course by the end of the 60s. Yet pop, as a mode, lingered on for a surprisingly long time, providing a powerful option for artists eager to express what it’s like to be alive in our modern media age. One of the biggest names in contemporary art to be influenced by pop is the American Jeff Koons, who rose to prominence in the 80s and is often considered the pre-eminent artist associated with the so-called Age of Money.
From the get-go, Koons operated in pop’s shadow – encasing everyday vacuum cleaners in Perspex, for instance, in the early 80s. Even his highly reflective, monumental sculptures in stainless steel such as Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold at auction in 2013 for £36.8 million, relentlessly foreground an obsession with surface appearance – something that Warhol, too, was keen to emphasise. As Warhol once said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface – of my paintings and films and me – and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
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