WHAT WAS POP ART?
Before it was anything else, Pop Art was American…and white…and urban….and male…and middle class…and straight. Pop Art was about affluence, about money and all the things that the middle class white male could afford to buy and everything the man of affluence wanted to look at. Mainstream art history has tended to present Pop Art as if it were ungendered and unclassed and uncolored, while at the same time, stressing the “American-ness” of a movement that eliminated color, exploited the images of women and ignored the plight of the poor. The exception that proved the rule of Pop’s machismo was the now-celebrated “queer” artist, Andy Warhol, who had to got to the Left Coast to get his first show of Pop Art, his now famous soup cans, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.
Pop Art as Reification
The so-called “Classic Pop Movement” from 1961 to 1964 were precisely the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, the years of highest violence against African-Americans. The “Freedom Riders” began their dangerous, life-threatening bus trips into the Deep South in 1961. In 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And four little girls died in a Birmingham basement when their church was bombed in 1963. Except for Andy Warhol’s powerful Race Riot series, few Pop artists took notice. The important invention of the 20th century that changed the social construction, the political make-up and economic power of the Western world—the Pill—passed without notice on the part of a group of artmakers who were largely male.
Fifty years ago, it was possible to gaze innocently upon art and declare it “not political,” because it was “art.” Today, we look at Pop Art in a far more critical fashion. No one is naïve enough to claim that images are innocent; images mean more than the makers intended. If Pop Art was anything, it was a movement of excess and surplus and a plentitude of meaning, exceeding any attempt to control the signifiers. Therefore one of the major characteristics of Pop Art is the linkages between the New York artists and New York Advertising and the post-war consumer culture fueled by a government policy that shifted resources from one group, women, to another: white males. In its studiously muscular assertions of conventional masculinity, Pop Art managed to elide the increasing pressure on an oppressed population of homosexuals, both male and female.
While the female nudes of the San Francisco artist, Mel Ramos, were more modest than those of the New York artist, Tom Wesselman, both artists are typical in their equation of women with consumer goods. Women were presented as objects to be consumed. Always nude, always stripped of power or agency, always preening and presenting their open mouths, bared breasts, and pubic areas to the voyeuristic gaze of the avid male viewer, the women were pink and pornographic. Claes Oldenburg’s vision of Pop Art also displays a fixation on oral pleasure. Much of his early art recreates food, mostly American food, mostly junk food and mostly fast food—giant furry popsicles and looming hamburgers. Oldenburg’s art vacillated between the hard and erect, the phallic lipstick mounted on top of a tank pedestal, and the dysfunctionally flaccid toilet.
The focus on male performance only reflected American bellicose foreign policy which feminized its foes. The Soviet Union, as George Kennan expressed it, must be contained in its “flow” by the potency of the United States which courted this misguided empire with the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Pop Art was inherently conservative, reinforcing the dominant culture of the well-paid white male who had unexamined privileges withheld from women and people of color. For Roy Lichtenstein, couples are always heterosexual. Men disappoint women, not men; women die for the love of men, not women. His parodies of Romance comics for girls are the mirror image of his reification of war and violence found in post-war comics for boys. In popular literature, women seek romance and men seek combat, thus reinforcing gender roles—a particularly urgent task given the presence of women in the workplace, newly empowered by the Pill. Thus, in returning to representation, Pop Art was an unmediated revelation of the values of an affluent culture dedicated to the preservation of the power of the heterosexual white male.
Pop Art as a Changing of the Guard
Fifty years ago, typical accounts of Pop Art excluded the art produced in Europe and in Los Angeles. It took years to include the so-called “Pop artists” of the overlooked centers of popular culture. The reason for this neglect of important art is two fold: first, Pop Art in Los Angeles and Berlin or Paris differs from locale to locale. Pop Art was always an art of the local, the popular culture of a particular society. Post-war Los Angeles was a very different place from Berlin which was a very different place from Paris and so on. (These cities and their popular culture will be discussed in more detail in subsequent posts.) The second issue has to do with those who produce the discourse on Pop Art—art writers in New York. Because of their place in the art world, these writers constructed what were actually quite fractured accounts of Pop Art. Hidden beneath the master narrative of an art of popular culture was an Oedipal sub-text of a new generation beginning to challenge the old gatekeepers of art, headed by Clement Greenberg.
When one re-reads the early writers on Pop, it quickly becomes clear that the defining characteristics of Pop Art in New York were understood through a filter of the kind of art that Clement Greenberg had excluded in his definition of “Modernism.” Greenberg’s theory of the evolution of art towards a material and moral purity demanded that figuration and representation be eliminated from “fine art.” Beginning with Neo-Dada, there was a dramatic change in art: a return to the object through a new kind of literalism, an appropriation of the image of a common object without change or alteration. The cool, detached acceptance of the low and the ordinary by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg signaled a new depersonalization in art, a rebuke to the stress on the artist’s personality seen in Abstract Expressionism.
Like the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists borrowed, quoted, and appropriated already available subject matter that was timely, topical, concerned with ordinary life. Unlike the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists were less inclined towards found objects and were more deliberatively selective of what they purloined. The artists sacrificed individuality creativity in favor of consuming advertising, mostly invented in the offices and studios of New York ad agencies. Pop Art reveled in banal imagery of commodification and consumerism and celebrated post-War affluence in America. Therefore, in contrast to Ab Ex’s European-based influences, Pop was a return to American art subject matter in America. Pop was cosmopolitan, especially concerned with the sophisticated urban environment of a New York culture of persuasion, and uses quotations, translations, imitations, visual double-takes in a witty and youthful fashion.
In 1957, the British artist, Richard Hamilton, defined Pop Art as “1. popular: designed for mass audience, 2. Transient: short-term solution, 3. Expendable: easily forgotten, 4. Low Cost, 5. Mass Produced, 6. Young: aimed at youth, 7. Witty 8. Sexy 9. Gimmacky 10. Glamorous and 11. Big Business.” In other words, Pop Art does not take itself seriously. American Pop Art in New York was concerned with reacting against gestural Abstract Expressionist painting and against Modernist spiritualization of art. Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating a once-disparaged low culture.
Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many observers were repelled by the vulgar sources favored by the artists. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers transformed 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. As early as 1939, Greenberg had campaigned against “kitsch,” the natural enemy of the avant-garde. Many subsequently linked Pop Art to kitsch, thinking popular culture, but kitsch, as Greenberg explained, is a debased form of high art: an Alexandre Cabanal reaction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That said, Pop Art in its built-in marketability was a form of temptation for artists who refused to risk their income or “stardom” in favor of difficult experimental art and the sheer popularity of Pop Art would draw the ire of Greenberg.
Reprinted in Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, Greenberg’s 1971 lecture, “Night Eight,” summed up his problems with Pop.
…Pop Art appealed to a lower, obvious order of literary of literary taste–making fun of advertising, making fun of pinup girls, making fun of labels on cans. and so forth—which is so easy to make fun of and we are all in on it anyhow…I think some of Pop Art is respectful academic art. It will probably last the same way the small pictures of Gérome or Bouguereau—and probably not was well as some of the small pictures of Meissonier—have lasted…(Pop Art) is nice small art and it is respectable, but it is not good enough to keep high art going…
Earlier in his remarks, Greenberg claimed that Pop Art was “academic” because it was from “the art school Cubist grid,” clearly defining Pop Art as “kitsch.” However, it is possible that because of his age—Greenberg was born in 1909—he could not see the sheer joy the artists took in popular culture. He assumed that the painters were making fun of the imagery. The conceptual basis of Pop was that the art was not serious, not intellectual, not a critique. By its very nature, Pop Art was an art of the status quo. On the other hand, Greenberg would have understood Pop Art within the structure of the dialectic. Pop Art was the linear answer to the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art was the figurative antithesis to the abstract thesis of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art, as originally written, was a discursive repudiation of Clement Greenberg, the Father of American Art Criticism.
Pop Art as Mass Culture
As a lived condition of real artists, Pop Art was a less Oedipal reaction, not to art, but to the real world as it was coming into being on the cusp of the early sixties. When one looks at the white plaster sculptures of George Segal, Pop Art seems an art of the ordinary, examining the colorless and uncelebrated lives of “real life.” But Segal is an outlier, lumped, perhaps inaccurately, within the Pop movement because of a coincidence of time and place. Segal, unlike many of the Pop artists, commented upon contemporary events—the Holocaust, Kent State, homosexual rights. From the perspective of hindsight, some artists, from Segal to Marisol, lie uneasily within the precincts of Pop. It is helpful to think of Pop Art, not as a revival of 19th century Realism but as a thoroughly modern movement, an art of mass media; and specifically an art of the kind of media that, for the first time in history, could be omnipotent in everyday life because of a technology that had never existed before. The Pop Art of mass media had two main themes: desire, the kind of desire that can never be fulfilled, the kind of desire that is endlessly displaced and projected onto another consumer object through advertising, the kind of advertising that is a fantasy swallowed whole, the kind of advertising that is capable of selling anything, as long as the jingles are jaunty and the colors are jumping, because the spectacle offers the second theme: fulfillment.
Unlike Realism of Courbet, Pop Art was noticeably passive: it observed and it seized and re-gifted the object of its desire without comment, like Manet. But unlike Manet, Pop Art did not attempt a new style to signify the salient characteristics of the new era—the transient nature of modernité, instead, it simply reified the nature of post-war life—the elevation of an artificial manufactured culture of desire into high art. To quote Jean Baudrillard on simulacra, Pop Art was an art of the simulated—it was a simulation of something that is simulated from something that never existed. As a simulacra of a simulacra—Warhol’s Evis paintings—Pop Art reiterated an image of an image, gleefully recapitulating to its glorified artificiality—Warhol’s Marilyn paintings.
James Rosenquist was a rarity among Pop artists, an artist who critiqued aspects of the American society that fed his art. Like Lichtenstein replicated the Ben-Day dots of four color printing, Rosenquist used the creamy sensuous appearance of mass advertising of the fifties as the starting point for his version of Pop Art. Working like an editor enamored of montage, the artist sliced and diced found images like a bricoleur on a rampage. President Elect, painted in 1961 with the smiling picture of Kennedy, a luscious piece of cake offered to the open mouth of the public and the yellow car, completely changed in its meaning after November of 1963. After that date, one could not see a car juxtaposed with Kennedy without shuddering. Such are the dangers of using contemporary images—they can go beyond fashionable banality and sink to irrelevancy or they can rise to the historical occasion and remain potent and powerful like Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. President Elect became tragic two years after it was painted, a morning wall for a grieving public.
F-111 was Rosenquist’s most eloquent statement against the official foreign policy of America, the doctrine called MAD and the Viet Nam War. Only Robert Heineken, his contemporary who was never included in Pop Art, was as fearless in his denunciation of a highly contentious war. A large multi-paneled installation, F-111 was painted in 1964, years before the nation rose up in anger against the latest manifestation of the Cold War. Although for decades art writers and curators would stoutly deny the political content of this painting, Rosenquist was very frank in his intentions. The mock billboard was, as the artist said, “…flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”
The painting was a consummate statement on mass culture, showing that mass advertising, mass popular art—advertising—can sell anything, even death through nuclear annihilation, even death in a remote rice paddy for purposes unknown. F-111 refers to a new and expensive fighter jet awaiting its Top Guns. Its tail and its tip are the beginning and end of the painting which is propelled along its four panels by tire tracks that roll past a little girl sheltered beneath the nose cone of a missile. Along the way, atomic blooms and an umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction are way stations on a deadly journey ending in a close up of gut-like spaghetti. With its sophisticated manipulation of propaganda, advertising, the raw material for Pop Art, was an art of all things urban, successfully wiping out folk art and sweeping humble craft to the margins. In its time, even when reinforcing an old and tired patriarchal system, Pop Art represented all things shiny and new.
Pop Art as Mass Media
Fifty years later, the dust of history has settled on Pop Art. Some of the artists are dead–Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, some are still alive and well and making art—Ruscha and Hockney, but the time of Pop Art has past. Some of the art has not worn well and exists only as a blue chip “example” of Pop Art, but the movement itself remains relevant. Pop Art in America presaged things to come: the fact that our social lives, our economic well-being, our very culture in the West would be based upon mass culture driven by mass advertising fueled by the technology of mass media that impels us to consume our way to happiness.
Many observers have linked Pop Art to the 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in an Age of Reproduction,” and indeed there is much merit in this correspondence. Pop Art replicated the style of mass reproduction as it existed in the sixties, slick and clean lines, strong and sharp colors, subliminal mash-ups to form connections among objects of abundance and signs of affluence and insatiable desire. Not only did Pop Art reject the painterly surfaces and the high seriousness of Abstract Expression, it also rejected the shared sacrifice of the Second World Two and its patriotic rationing. Pop Art is a art of cheerful greed, targeted like advertising, toward those whom society rewards and ignored those whom society punishes. Pop Art reproduced the reproducibility of advertising. It was an art to be looked at, an art to be seen, an art to be enjoyed. Like the consumer goods it advertised, Pop Art was consumed, first by avid viewers and be acquisitive collectors and then, at last, by history.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.