Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pop Art
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

When I began this blog, I was committed to penning ca. 50 posts per year. As this is the beginning of the festive season, this will be the last post for 2011. The next post will appear on the 14th of January 2012 (or three weeks from now).

This post is a lengthy dissertation that I wrote sometime ago for a seminar I gave to an art group and it is primarily concerned with an art movement - Pop Art - that refashioned the way we think of art. I am continually foraging for techniques and ideas from any art movement. Pop Art unleashed so many different art avenues. For example, because of it Grafitti and Post Grafitti ArtCloth would emerge many decades later as art forms in their own right.

I hope that you have a very enjoyable festive season and a rewarding new year - whatever your belief system and whenever your new year begins. The festive season is always a time for retrospection, introspection, and prognostication - with or without family and friends. No matter what your situation, have a good one!

Pop Art
By embracing popular culture stimuli, Pop Art broke with "High Art" traditions of the past and impacted on later art movements.

“Collaged, layered, torn, worn graffiti poster creating exciting compositions and juxtapositions of colors and fragments that have the power of carefully crafted collages”. David Robinson, Soho Walls, Beyond Graffiti, Artist Unknown.

The mood throughout the sixties was expansive. The turnover in artistic modes and motifs accelerated. A proliferation of targets in art and processes abounded. Nothing was sacred - from the shape of canvases to splashing, rolling and staining of paints. Within a decade all of these features would be digested and become the “norm”. That these processes were not just randomly accentuated events is evidenced in the appearance, within the 1960s, of such movements as Minimalism, full-blown Color Field painting and Pop Art[1].

What is Pop Art? Richard Hamilton in 1957 listed the qualities of existing mass-media imagery as (to which he was attributed to give the name “Pop”)[2]: popular (designed for mass audience), transient (short-term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low-cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business. He was concerned with the nature of style and glamour and the processes of creating and projecting consumer imagery. The phrase - Pop Art - was attributed to Lawrence Alloway, the British art critic, who helped organize a Pop Art exhibition for the Guggenheim Museum in 1963[3].

Richard Hamilton – Study for “Portrait of Hugh Gaitskellas a Famous Monster of Filmland” (1964).

In an interview with Gene Swensen in 1963 one of the founding fathers of Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein, explained more succinctly its pervasive and subversive nature[4]:
“I don’t know – the use of commercial art as a subject matter I suppose. It was hard to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one could hang it – everybody was hanging everything. It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag - everybody was accustomed to this. The one thing everybody hated was commercial art; apparently they didn’t hate that enough either”.

Roy Lichtenstein – Hopeless (1963).

What Lichtenstein succinctly captures is the mood of the sixties and moreover, the intent to subvert the accepted sources of art. It is clear to him that sources drawn from popular culture such as from film, cartoons, magazine strips and commercial images were as valid a source for art as was religion, landscapes and portraits. Pop Art - as he envisions it - is a reaction to modern society in terms of its depiction of the urban technology.

There is a tendency to attribute the poster work of Jules Cheret (1836-1933) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) as the fore runners of Pop Art. After all, both designed mass produced posters advertising places and events (see Les Girard (1879)[5] and Reine de Joie (1892)[6]). Cheret and Lautrec designs are not masterpieces of the art of advertising, but rather are significant works of art in themselves. Instead of interpreting events of their day by creating large salon canvases they found a new place for their work – the street. These posters contain elements of caricature, humor and satire - all attributes suited for instant digestion in the street when on the move.

Jules Cheret - Les Girard (1879).

Jules Cheret - Reine de Joie (1892).

Toulose-Lautrec - Divan-Japonais.

They also contained a decorative line and simple flat shapes. All of these elements could be employed in a poster, but could not be expressed so simply and directly within the conventions of a painting. It is these elements, which are often reproduced in the Pop Art of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine and Rosenquist. That is, the breaking with High Art traditions in the interpretation of solid form and the illusion of depth as well as a need to connect with the street or the urban society by encapsulating everyday objects (e.g. soup cans etc.) and emotions (such as humor, satire or irony). The depiction of these objects and emotions were not previously evident in High Art traditions.

Since the 19th century, there have been many roots associated with Pop Art (e.g. from the Bauhaus movement to the influence of the Beats and even to the influence of Zen Buddhism). Generally, there has been a tendency to think that Pop Art emerged out of an abrupt break with Abstract Expressionism[7]. The first wave and second wave of Abstract Expressionists considered the reality of the painting as its only subject (see Jackson Pollack’s (1912-1956) Untitled 1950 & 1951[8]). On the other hand, for Pop Artists (e.g. Lichtenstein, Warhol, Dine, Rosenquist and Oldenburg) the environment (i.e. popular culture) is in fact the world outside the picture frame. High Art traditions, as thought by these latter artists, were trying to distance themselves from popular culture by transcending it, thereby becoming exclusive and so laying a veil of mystical pretentiousness between them and the populace[9].

Jackson Pollack’s - Untitled (1950).

Jackson Pollack’s - Untitled (1951).

The real relationship between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art is in fact far more complex. In 1993 the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles entitled: “Hand-Painted Pop American Art in Transition 1955-62”[10] examined the historical and complex relationships of American Pop Art. At some point in time in the 1950s there was a conviction among several painters that painting was an “act” that existed in time; that is, paintings themselves became viable when their real subject was their own making. The choice of 1955 was made in deference to the year Jasper Johns produced his first flag and target paintings (see Flag 1954-55[11]) and in which Robert Rauschenberg shifted from his nostalgic collage work to his proto-Pop pieces (see Untitled 1955[12]), which fully engaged the material of popular culture. These artists were initially confused as Pop Artists, since they introduced mundane objects into their work (see Johns', Fool’s House 1962[13] and Rauschenberg’s Octave 1960[14]). However, both artists retained the Abstract Expressionist's characteristic concern for surface textures[15].

It is bracketed by 1962 since this was the year in which Pop Art became an internationally recognized and acceptable cultural phenomenon with exhibitions such as - “Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance” - becoming more commonplace.

Book Cover Of Hand-Painted Pop American Art in Transition (1955-62).

Jasper Johns - Flag (1954-55).

Robert Rauschenberg - Untitled (1955).

Jasper Johns - Fool’s House (1962).

Robert Rauschenberg - Octave (1960).

Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance.

By 1962 the phenomenon that was packaged and labeled as Pop Art had emerged. It was largely centered in New York. In Europe, Pop Art lacked the glamour, drama and market impact of the American varieties. For example, the imagery of Pop as practised by Oyvind Fahlstrom in Sweden, Martial Rayesse in France and Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Phillips in England tended to be more obtuse and oblique [16]. It was no wonder that Lawrence Alloway, the British art critic, who helped organize a Pop Art exhibition for the Guggenheim Museum in 1963, exclusively focused on the American artists [3]. This perhaps recognizes the vast differences in approaches and maturity - see Richard Hamilton’s Epiphany (1964)[17] and compare it with James Rosenquist’s Marilyn Monroe I (1962)[18].

Richard Hamilton - Epiphany (1964).

James Rosenquist - Marilyn Monroe I (1962).

In America Pop Art was dominated by such artists as Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rosenquist, Oldenburg and Dine. The need to invigorate the connection between themselves, their art and the populace required unashamed self-promotion. No other art movement in history so openly and consciously touted themselves and their works in the public eye. Warhol and Oldenburg epitomized the Pop Artist’s creed to demand fame because they were “cool”. It was Warhol who claimed: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

So what does their art expose? The basic materials used by the Pop Artists involved enamel and acrylic paints, plastics and vinyls. These were imparted as two-dimensional images in a glossy smooth form, yielding a perception not too dissimilar to the images from a television screen or on the pages of a glossy magazine. Most Pop Artists labored to smooth away any traces of brush strokes. Commercial techniques permeated all phases of Pop Art. Roy Lichtenstein simulated Benday dots in his paintings (see Girl with Ball (1961) and Drowning Girl (1963)[19]). In commercial printing, tiny dots of primary colors are spaced closely together so that when these are viewed at a distance, the dots merge to form additional hues and shadings. Lichtenstein prepared metal stencils that were perforated with holes in order to clearly highlight these painted, regularly spaced dots of considerable size on his canvas. On the other hand, Warhol tried to achieve the texture of commerciality by turning to such mechanical processes as silk-screening (see Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)[18]). Here an image is transferred to a silk-screen stencil and then varied colored inks are forced through the screen to yield halftone dots which give an appearance of a visual roughness. Unlike Lichtenstein and Warhol, James Rosenquist utterly abandoned any Abstract Expressionistic ideas. His works completely impart a glossy smoothness in which he has labored to smooth away any traces of brush strokes. He employed his sign painter’s techniques. He painted President Elect (1960-61)[20] on a Masonite board with commercial paint and scaled up small magazine illustrations. This painting is done in flat areas and his images mimic advertising styles. Nevertheless, it is clear from these three diverse approaches that the Pop Art movement intensified a feeling of slickness in order to further move away from High Art traditional concerns with paint and canvas textures (as distinct from the purpose of mimicking commercial processes).

Roy Lichtenstein - Girl with Ball (1961).

Roy Lichtenstein - Drowning Girl (1963).

Andy Warhol - Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962).

James Rosenquist - President Elect (1960-61).

The subject matter was also designed to move away from High Art traditions. Roy Lichtenstein took an image from comics and transformed it into an icon of Pop Art. The tone of the paintings, such as Girl with Ball (1961) and Drowning Girl (1963)[19], engages our sympathy whilst at the same time gives us an underlying expression of irony and even social criticism. Moreover, the subject matter is no longer the property of the publisher, but now becomes the property of Lichtenstein. The cartoon-like images are now his and so becomes part of his signature.

Similarly, Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)[18] also shows that the reproduction process is an important part of the subject matter. Since his presentation of the image is literal we are purposely being directed to the surface marks, blotchy paint, and imperfect color registration. Our directed gaze is designed to more enliven and artistically assimilate this otherwise banal and disturbing subject matter. Furthermore, Warhol’s objects also became his property. The stacked soup cans (see Four Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)[21]), which initially belonged to Campbell became “a Warhol”. These products were of negligible value unless they adorned his signature.

Rosenquist also throws back to us billboard/commercial images or product art (see Zone (1960)[22]). Once again without his signature these commercial images are valueless. This is a feature of Pop Art: the highly personalized visions based largely on subject matter was the real signature of the Pop Artists. Hence, it is a movement generally more united by themes than by styles and so even this aspect is a large deviation from High Art traditions.

Andy Warhol - Four Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962).

James Rosenquist - Zone (1960).

Pop Art seeks the references that it needs to project its expression, rather than being restricted in a projected cone of previous art movements. This is clearly shown here by Drowning Girl[19] and Gold Marilyn Monroe[18]. The former is a highly ornamental drawing that recalls Japanese prints, notably Hokusai’s The Great Wave [23], whilst the latter is almost Byzantine in style insofar that Marilyn Monroe is set against an ethereal, other worldly gold background. Thus, despite the extremely mechanistic look of both art pieces, the work of Lichtenstein and Warhol is a sophisticated irony of art and in fact, of art style.

Hokusai’s The Great Wave.

Pop artists also went beyond painting; that is, they strove into performance as a strategy to make their art more immediate. Warhol churned out eight-hour films on stationary subjects such as a sleeping man and the Empire State building between dusk and midnight. Painters like Jim Dine staged elaborate live tableaux: his Car Crash was a stylized slice of life featuring remnants of mangled limousines and crash victims[24]. Claes Oldenburg, the master of soft sculpture, was one of the first practitioners of so called “Happenings”. These were zany mixtures of theatre, dance, kinetic sculpture and vaudeville. For example, in a scene from Stars (an event Oldenburg staged at the Gallery of Modern Art in Washington D.C. in 1963) an awkward waiter carries a huge tray of food (realistically presented but in the form of bits of chopped plastic) which he is about to spill over the unsuspecting audience [25]. In another, Store Days, theatrical events and real sales transactions were mingled[24]. “Happenings”, events staged by artists, became so well established that a decade later one of the principal exponents, Allan Kaprow, was appointed to an academic chair in “Happenings” in California[26].

Jim Dine - Car Crash.

These “Happenings” generated a wave of new ideas in the form of Performance Art, Participatory Art or Action Art[27-28]. Perhaps one of the most famous exponents of these concepts was an American-Japanese artist called Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono’s open-air “be-ins” established the role of the artist's as a catalyst for the purpose of focusing on the creation of art rather than just on the output of art[27]. These “Happenings” and “be-ins” were aimed to challenge the notion that the “best” form of art was produced by individuals in studios. Furthermore, the acceptance of Pop Art greatly accelerated acceptance of the work of Christo, who was instrumental in developing a reflexive, and participatory mode of art[28].

By the mid-1960s Pop Art ran out of steam. Op and Minimal Art had appeared to challenge it. Both swung back again to abstraction and yet both appeared in certain circles as continuations of Pop Art. Like Pop Art, Op and Minimal Art also emphasized a detached anonymity, employed the colors of commercial paints and featured hard edges and surface brightness. An excellent example of Op Art is Victor Vasarely's Feny (1969)[29] and that of Minimal Art is Al Held, Mao (1967)[29].

Victor Vasarely's Feny (1969)

Al Held - Mao (1967).

Did Pop Art feedback into commercial art? It did so by ushering in a new renaissance in the comic strip to the television generation. Notably the work of such artists as R. Crumb came to the fore. His work also reached into the “Pop” musical industry being used to adorn the Cheap Thrills album cover of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Furthermore, in legitimizing two-dimensional, flat cartoonlike images as fine Art, Pop Art enabled the later development of un-Disney like cartoon television series such as the Simpsons and South Park. Previously, Disney had established that cartoon characters had to be in solid form with an illusion of depth[30].

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Pop Art is the emergence of Graffiti Art as an art form. Here the connection with Pop Art is that it brings art by the youth to the youth without any form of mystical pretentiousness, using the streets as its forum. It relies heavily on themes rather than on styles. It is glamorous in that it seeks fame since it is outside of the law; that is, it is “cool”. Like Cave or Rock Art, which was constantly replenished, Graffiti Art also recognizes its temporal, kinetic and expendable nature. It is low cost, witty, sometimes sexy and gimmicky. It usually attacks the premises of big business. It seeks fame by enlivening a city of concrete and bare flat surfaces. Unlike Rapp music, which replaced a melody with a river of words, some Graffiti Art uses cartoon images and typography as more than just words; that is, it uses them as images in an art form. This art then matches the criteria as defined by Richard Hamilton (see second paragraph of this dissertation); that is, Graffiti Art has the qualities of existing mass-media imagery to which he attributed the name “Pop”.

Relm, New York (2009).

The commitment to painting on canvas as a self-contained activity was over. The idea that art can be made of any material is a recurrent theme in the twentieth-century. Pop Art legitimized that art could now be made by the action of a person using any medium on any surface and exploiting any subject (no matter how despicable). The emphasis shifted to the activity of the making of artwork so that the work itself became a witness and an on-going memory of the energy and thought that was put into it. A further conceptual shift would emphasise the idea rather than the end result. And a still further shift would phase out the artwork (that is the studio work) in favor of the discussion of art in theoretical terms. In conclusion, Pop Art accelerated these processes that enabled each of these stages of conceptual development to be more easily and quickly reached.

[1] Read, H. “A Concise History of Modern Painting”, Thames and Hudson, London,1968, p 293.

[2] ibid. p 299.

[3] The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62”, Publications Inc., New York, 1993, p17.

[4] Barnicoat, John, “A Concise History of Posters”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1972, p203.

[5] ibid. p21.

[6] ibid. p14.

[7] Read, H. “A Concise History of Modern Painting”, Thames and Hudson, London,1968, p286.

[8] Museum of Modern Art New York, “The Museum of Modern Art New York”, Harry N. Abrams, New York,1990, p315.

[9] Gombrich, E.H. “The Story of Art”, Phaidon, New York, 1968, p462.

[10] The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62”, Publications Inc., New York, 1993.

[11] ibid. p120.

[12] ibid. p31.

[13] ibid. p138.

[14] ibid. p39.

[15] Time-Life Books, “Modern American Painting”, Time-Life Books Inc., 1970, p163.

[16] Read, H. “A Concise History of Modern Painting”, Thames and Hudson, London,1968, p302.

[17] Thompson, P. and Davenport, P., “The Dictionary of Visual Language”, Bergstrom and Boyle Books Ltd, London, 1980, p13.

[18] Museum of Modern Art New York, “The Museum of Modern Art New York”, Harry N. Abrams, New York,1990, p235.

[19] ibid. p234.

[20] The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62”, Publications Inc., New York, 1993, p53.

[21] Time-Life Books, “Modern American Painting”, Time-Life Books Inc., 1970, p175.

[22] The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62”, Publications Inc., New York, 1993, p50.

[23] Museum of Modern Art New York, “The Museum of Modern Art New York”, Harry N. Abrams, New York,1990, p234.

[24] Read, Herbert. “A Concise History of Modern Painting”, Thames and Hudson, London,1968, p303.

[25] Time-Life Books, “Modern American Painting”, Time-Life Books Inc., 1970, p166.

[26] Read, Herbert. “A Concise History of Modern Painting”, Thames and Hudson, London,1968, p302.

[27] Carmichael, Rodick. “Actuality and Artifice”, Deakin University, 1984, p103.

[28] Carmichael, Rodick. “The Art Structures Reader”, Deakin University, 1984, p165.

[29] Time-Life Books, “Modern American Painting”, Time-Life Books Inc., 1970, p183.

[30] Carmichael, Rodick. “Actuality and Artifice”, Deakin University, 1984, p206.

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