In 1996 the New York Times art critic happily claimed that the renovated and glittering Times Square was indistinguishable from an art installation. American Pop Art, whose most celebrated artists had emerged from the commercial advertising sector, seemed to have reached its inherent telos in the gigantic billboards featuring models without affect, corporate signs in screaming colors, larger-than-life television screens, and the three-tier electronic stock ticker tape display towering over Broadway and Forty-second Street.
Confusion between art and advertising, image and object in our media-saturated culture is indeed a real possibility. But rather than collapse the difference, Pop Art first sharpened the senses for discerning this constellation by exploring the boundary between images and objects of art and images and objects of commerce. Pop was attacked by cultural conservatives in Europe, for whom all American culture was "catastrophic" (Martin Heidegger), by American formalists, who saw the canon of high modernism challenged by Pop's mass cultural contents (Clement Greenberg), and by leftists of all shades who saw only commodification and consumerist triumphalism in Pop's promiscuous imagery.
Pop Art celebrated something not easily compatible with notions of high art—a look at objects of everyday life or, more precisely, a look at media representations of objects of everyday life. But those objects were not the urban or domestic detritus recycled in Dada collages, in Robert Rauschenberg's Combines, or in French décollage art of the 1950s, which worked with anonymously defaced billboard advertising found in urban space. They were rather images of mass-marketed consumer goods at a time, the early 1960s, when consumerism, marketing, and advertising in the United States had reached a heretofore unknown state of frenzy. In Roland Barthes's words, Pop staged an object that was neither the thing nor its meaning, but its signifier. But this staging did not take on an existentialist, angst-ridden, or moralizing accusatory cast. American Pop did not rebel against middle-class society. It lacked the aggressive, often doctrinaire assault on aesthetic convention that had characterized an earlier European avant-garde and that resurfaced in the factional fights of the post-1945 neo-avant-gardes, culminating with the Situationist International (1957–1972), a Paris-based group of avant-garde artists who waged a political attack on the culture of spectacle in the 1960s. American Pop refused any pedagogical mission, that of debunking the media cliché as the product and producer of false consciousness, for example. Its preferred look at consumer objects was cool and aloof, self-conscious deadpan tinged with parody. The images were banal, taken from advertising, newspapers, comics, and other forms of mass culture, but often so garish, so magnified beyond natural proportions and "in your face" that they inevitably intensified and altered perception. Pop images were neither pure representation (referring the spectator to the consumer object) nor pure simulacra (referring merely to other images). In their apparent celebration of Americana as both at once, they coolly registered a dimension of anxiety, melancholy, and loss that has perhaps become more visible with the passing of time.
Important for an overall assessment of Pop as a critically innovative project is the broader cultural and artistic context of the 1960s. Pop Art contributed significantly to a cultural transformation that was later designated by the name postmodern. Central to this transformation was a shift in emphasis from production to consumption, from artist as producer to artist as agent (Andy Warhol's Factory), from creator to spectator, from artwork to text, from meaning to signifying, from originality to repetition, from high culture to mass culture. Pop Art crucially articulated many of the major terms of this transformation. It eradicated the boundaries between art and the everyday, not by reversing the hierarchy of high and popular, but by offering new ways of imaging their relationship.
The cultural politics of Pop is not exhausted by such formal and conceptual considerations. The notion that Pop Art harbored a hidden social critique of consumer culture behind its bland facade was always more prevalent in some European countries than in the United States, where Pop remained a more isolated phenomenon of the New York art culture and its galleries. In West Germany, by contrast, a wave of Pop enthusiasm swept the country after its first introduction at the 1964 documenta, an exhibition of modern and contemporary art. The conservative cultural critics, who were peddling Christian values, pastoralism, and, at best, the latest vintage of worn-out abstraction, denounced Pop Art as nonart, supermarket art, and kitsch, lamenting the Coca-Colonization of western Europe in apocalyptic tones. Between 1964 and 1968, the notion of Pop that almost magically attracted people did not refer only to the new art by Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, and Claes Oldenburg. It also stood for beat and rock music, poster art, the flower child cult, and an emerging youth culture, indeed for any manifestation of what was then mistakenly called "the underground." In short, Pop became the synonym for the new lifestyles of a younger generation in rebellion against their parents and the conservative and repressive culture of the 1950s. Against the politically apologetic uses of the German high cultural tradition, this whole grab bag of Americana supported the new rebellious attitude and satisfied a generational desire for lifting the dead weight of a tradition whose collusion with Nazism had become all too obvious. Pop combined the cool detached look with a new intensity in perception, which resonated with a certain sensibility among the young. It challenged the European privilege given to indigenous high culture, with its traditions of anti-Americanism. Pop, American to the core, accelerated the decline of cultural nationalism in Germany—and not only there.
With the rise of the international protest movement against the Vietnam War and the radicalization of the student movement in 1968, however, the initial enthusiasm about things American turned sour. The battle cry against American cultural imperialism was now heard more often from the Left than from the Right. The Vietnam War, considered the logical outcome of Cold War ideology, complicated "America" for liberals and leftists. The rediscovery of Western Marxism (György Lukács, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin) merged with a very German tradition of Kulturkritik and its ingrained cultural anti-Americanism to reveal Pop Art as the logical outcome of advertising and the culture industry: art as commodity and spectacle through and through. Thus the 1968 protest movements' call for the end of traditional art, for the merging of art and life, and for cultural revolution: l'imagination au pouvoir (power to the imagination). Pop Art had fallen from grace. Adorno in Germany, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, and the situationists in France, provided the death knell.
The year 1968 marked a leftist cultural Europeanism combined with legitimate outrage at American military imperialism in Vietnam. That outrage blocked a more appropriate assessment of the ambiguity of Pop Art in critical terms: Pop as an art that did not just reproduce commodities, thus contributing to what Debord indicted as the culture of the spectacle, but that practiced an American version of situationist détournement (i.e., diversion or critical estrangement, defamiliarization) by reproducing reproducibility and thus getting to the very heart of capitalist commodity culture in the age of visual media. But it reproduced reproducibility with a difference. This difference remains a bone of contention. Umberto Eco once suggested that it is no longer clear whether we are listening to a criticism of consumer language, whether we are consuming consumer language, or whether we are consuming critical languages as consumer languages. Indeed, it is not clear. And perhaps we are doing all at the same time. But would we know that without Pop?
Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. "Villeglé: From Fragment to Detail." In his Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, 443–460. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.
Crow, Thomas E. The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent. New York, 1996.
Hermand, Jost. Pop International. Eine kritische Analyse. Frankfurt am Main, 1971.
Huyssen, Andreas. "The Cultural Politics of Pop." In his After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, 141–159. Bloomington, Ind., 1986.
Kimmelman, Michael. "That Flashing Crazy Quilt of Signs? It's Art." New York Times, 31 December 1996, A1.
Knabb, Ken, ed. and trans. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley, Calif., 1981.
Madoff, Steven Henry, ed. Pop Art: A Critical History. Berkeley, Calif., 1997.
Mamiya, Christin J. Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market. Austin, Tex., 1992.
Wollen, Peter. "The Situationist International: On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Passage of Time." In his Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, 120–157. Bloomington, Ind., 1993.
Pop art developed in the turbulent cultural milieu of the early 1960s as a response to the brooding intellectual and emotional aspects of abstract expressionism. Originally a British movement of the mid-1950s, in American hands pop art became commentary on the mass production culture and the banality of everyday life. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenberg utilized the images and production techniques of daily American life in a consumer society, transforming them into objects that were neither wholly real nor wholly art; in the process, they strove to make viewers aware of the extent to which advertising and the production/consumption cycle had come to dominate their lives.
The phrase "Pop Art" seems to have originated from two sources: from British artist Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage picture Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes so Different, so Appealing?, which featured a bodybuilder holding a gigantic "Tootsie Pop" sucker; and as a descriptor of an art which highlighted "popular" everyday objects. The latter definition is more relevant. Pop Art was filled with images of consumer products, rendered in styles derived from advertisements or familiar images. The subject matter, as an early critic described it, was "the twentieth century communications network of which we are all a part." Pop artists borrowed heavily from the slick, flashy, cliché-ridden advertising industry to depict the objects that were a part of American consumerism. Subjects were rendered in a simple, flat manner that emphasized the thinness of the canvas. Strong, bright colors were favored, and the image was centralized within the pictorial space. All of this was in direct contrast to the work of the abstract expressionists, who created formless, nonobjective art that grappled with existential questions of meaning.
The most successful pop artists adopted these techniques in different ways. Roy Lichtenstein used the style of comic strips—bright colors, single scenes, Ben Day dots, and dialogue balloons. He depicted a world of prepackaged emotions (parallel to consumer products) and gender stereotypes. The women in Lichtenstein's paintings were concerned with love and marriage, as in the romance comics; the men inhabited the war comic world of violence and death. In the mid-1960s, Lichtenstein also drew from art history within his comic strip style, integrating such genres as cubism and abstract expressionism. His work thus shifted from a critique of the banal world of everyday America to a commentary on the secularization of high culture.
James Rosenquist's referent was the billboard. A former sign painter, Rosenquist painted on huge canvases a succession of seemingly random fragmented images. For example, his most famous painting, F-111 (1965), features a military jet, a young girl beneath a missile-shaped hair dryer, and close-ups of spaghetti and an automobile tire. Rosenquist described his work in these words: "I treat the billboard image as it is. I paint it as a reproduction of other things. I try to get as far away from it as possible."
This retreat from the thing itself into the image of the thing was most evident in the work of pop art's most famous practitioner, Andy Warhol. His Campbell's Soup cans, Brillo pad boxes, and Coca Cola bottles epitomized the tension between high art and popular culture. Rather than stacking actual Brillo boxes, he made his own—at a studio appropriately called The Factory—thus demonstrating a preference for the representation over the original. Perhaps this was most cogently demonstrated in Warhol's The Marilyn Diptych (1962), which reduced the late actress to a single repeated image that exemplified Hollywood's commodification of the individual. This detachment from the real thing became a desensitization or anesthetization in Warhol's images of automobile crashes and electric chairs. The banality of the every day had spilled over into our emotional lives, numbing us to the real feeling that should naturally arise in the face of violence or tragedy. Warhol, like other pop artists, used the mass production techniques of advertising. His particular favorite was the silkscreen, which he used to repeat identical images across a canvas.
Claes Oldenberg transformed common consumer products into sculptures. In 1961, he turned his New York studio, which occupied a converted shop front that he called The Store. He lined the space with his plaster recreations of food items and consumer goods. Visitors who purchased his work, such as a plaster soda can, were thus recreating the activity of a traditional store. Oldenberg succeeded in treating the gallery as a pseudo marketplace, underscoring the producer/consumer aspect of the artist/patron relationship. Later, he created huge soft sculptures—foam-filled images of everyday items which sagged and drooped, like the human body, under the effects of gravity.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of pop art was the union of art and popular culture. Pop art expressed the idea that the American common stock of shared cultural knowledge no longer came from "high culture" sources like literature or mythology, or from religion, but rather from television, movies, and advertisements. While increasingly fewer Americans in the late twentieth century were familiar with great poetic works, for example, nearly all could recite a good line from a popular movie a cliched phrase from a television advertisement. Pop artists sought to reflect this increasing banality by blurring the distinction between art and consumption. After the heyday of pop art, the public no longer could be sure whether a Coca Cola bottle was an object, a work of art, or both. In pop art and commercial advertising the image became more important than the thing. Pop art begged the question: What is more important, the thing or its image? In the end, pop art may have been, as the poet and critic Frank O'Hara called it, merely a "put on." Nevertheless, it was important in that it facilitated the examination of the effects of consumerism on human thought, emotion, and creativity.
—Dale Allen Gyure
Alloway, Lawrence. American Pop Art. New York, Collier Books, 1974.
Lippard, Lucy R. Pop Art. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1970.
Livingstone, Mario, editor. Pop Art. London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1991.
Mamiya, Christin J. Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1992.
Mahsun, Carol Anne Runyon, editor. Pop Art: The Critical Dialogue. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1989.
POP ART refers to the paintings, sculpture, assemblages, and collages of a small, yet influential, group of artists from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Unlike abstract expressionism, pop art incorporated a wide range of media, imagery, and subject matter hitherto excluded from the realm of fine art. Pop artists cared little about creating unique art objects; they preferred to borrow their subject matter and techniques from the mass media, often transforming widely familiar photographs, icons, and styles into ironic visual artifacts. Such is the case in two of the most recognizable works of American pop art: Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Can (1964), a gigantic silkscreen of the iconic red-and-white can, and Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam! (1963), one of his many paintings rendered in the style of a comic book image.
American pop art emerged from a number of converging interests both in the United States and abroad. As early as 1913, Marcel Duchamp introduced "ready made" objects into a fine-art context. Similarly Robert Rauschenberg's "combine-paintings" and Jasper John's flag paintings of the mid-1950s are frequently cited as examples of proto-pop. However, the term "pop art" originated in Britain, where it had reached print by 1957. In the strictest sense, pop art was born in a series of discussions at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts by the Independent Group, a loose coalition of artists and critics fascinated with postwar American popular culture. The 1956 "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery introduced many of the conventions of pop art. Its most famous work, Richard Hamilton's collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956), uses consumerist imagery from magazines, advertisements, and comic books to parody media representations of the American dream.
By the early 1960s, American pop artists were drawing upon many of the same sources as their British counterparts. Between 1960 and 1961, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mel Ramos each produced a series of paintings based on comic book characters. James Rosenquist's early work juxtaposed billboard images in an attempt to reproduce the sensual overload characteristic of American culture. As the decade progressed, and a sense of group identity took hold, pop artists strove even further to challenge long-held beliefs within the art community. The work of such artists as Tom Wesselmann, Ed Ruscha, Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Dine introduced even greater levels of depersonalization, irony, even vulgarity, into American fine art.
Not surprisingly, older critics were often hostile toward pop art. Despite the social critique found in much pop art, it quickly found a home in many of America's premiere collections and galleries. Several pop artists willingly indulged the media's appetite for bright, attention-grabbing art. Andy Warhol's sales skyrocketed in the late-1960s as he churned out highly recognizable silk screens of celebrities and consumer products. By the decade's end, however, the movement itself was becoming obsolete. Although pop art was rapidly succeeded by other artistic trends, its emphasis on literalism, familiar imagery, and mechanical methods of production would have a tremendous influence on the art of the following three decades.
Alloway, Lawrence. American Pop Art. New York: Collier Books, 1974.
Crow, Thomas E. The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent 1955–1969. London: George Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1996.
Livingstone, Marco. Pop Art: A Continuing History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.