Saturday, January 20, 2018

Pop Art explained in two sentences

.... and dismissed utterly (but not by me!) as a big part of what's wrong with the art world.

Claes Oldenburg, “French Fries and Ketchup” (1963), vinyl and kapok on wood base
What is Pop Art and why would someone pay millions of dollars for a reproduction of something from a magazine that's not even made by the artist himself but by assistants working in assembly-line fashion at the artist's "factory?"

Andy Warhol's "Cow Wallpaper" from the 1960s, installed with five silkscreens from his electric chair series.

Well, because art history has enshrined the work. But why is that? Because as Shakespeare said, art holds the mirror up to nature. Stay with me. In the very same way that exquisitely detailed Dutch still life painting reflected the urbane cultural values of Northern Europe in the 17th century, the Pop Artists showed us how commercialized American culture had become, all the while riffing on and exploiting the rich colors, bold contrasts, and "of the moment" energy of commercial graphic design. Here's an excellent two-sentence definition of why art historians (and those who "get" Pop Art) care:

"(The Pop Artists') rise in the 1960s perfectly echoed the banal consumer society that exploded as the post-war economy prospered. They typically represented everyday objects and the signs of popular mass culture through representational techniques used by advertisers and comic strip commercial artists." Bam! There you have it. 

Roy Lichtenstein, BAM! - 1960s

Look, art imitates life. If you don't like what you see, blame life! Blame the 1960s: consumer products, sexual liberation, rock music, drug use, tragic death, and a heavy dose of shopping—the cultural phenomena that defined the decade. Above all, Pop art is a reflection of the American cult of consumerism. It confuses those who like a high-brow, refined definition of art as "high art" because it blurs the lines between fine art and popular culture.

The writer of those two sentences above, Joseph Nechvatal (writing as a correspondent for the excellent online art mag Hyperallergic), was reviewing a Pop Art show currently in Paris and ruefully reflecting on the "Ugly American" stereotypes this brand of art exposes (or "celebrates," depending on whether you like Pop Art or not - Nechvatal decidedly does not).

The writer notes that the Paris show, Pop Art: Icons that Matter, regrettably reinforces the "Ugly American" stereotypes which, he says, are being reinvigorated in France by the behavior of Donald Trump, whom he describes as "a loud, arrogant, white, sexist, racist American president who reportedly never reads or works on a computer, but watches hours of television a day, drinks around 12 Diet Cokes and chows down Big Mac cheeseburgers for dinner while endlessly talking on the telephone with friends (all activities conspicuously right in line, he notes, with the self-confessed personal habits of Andy Warhol).

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola 3 Bottles, 1962
He chides Pop (which extends from the Warhol/Lichtenstein/Rauschenberg 1960s through the 1970s,  '80s, and '90s to the contemporary neo-pop that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are producing and selling for millions today) because it does nothing to resist what he sees as consumer culture's oppressive failings. 

Jeff Koons, Ballon Dog (Orange) 1994-2000 mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent coating. Auctioned at Christies in 2013 for $58 million.
Instead, he argues, pop art is complicit in consumer culture and doubly damnable for denying us, its audience, art's ability to engage human subjectivity - Pop Art is just "there" ("I like boring things," Andy said. "I am a deeply superficial person"). He blames Pop for the rise of the bloated prices and over-commercialization and hollowness of much contemporary art on display at celebrity-studded art fairs and stratospheric auctions. Pop, he says, "greased the chute for the price-porn piggies and their abuse of art as a luxury/lifestyle/investment device that has lately been deforming culture as never before." Dude has an axe to grind - but when a single painting sells for $450 million (more than the GDP of the world's smallest seven countries) he does have a point.

Andy Warhol, Flowers from the1960s
In condemning Pop Art on numerous levels (or rather dismissing it as something that "doesn't matter"), he argues for a "darker, more indeterminate" and "enigmatic" art that forces us to to interpret it and in so doing empowers us to "re-appropriate (our) capacity to see on a personal basis." In saying that, he is a theorist after my own heart.

I don't think that in order to "matter" a work of art has to be "a site of cultural resistance," as Nechvatal seems to believe, but I do want to create art that does exactly what he describes: "It invites the viewer into the position of an active visualizing participant" and "rewards the inner (private) human condition or resists the social/political/commercial spectacle that tries to consume it." That's the aesthetic of my Loomings series in a nutshell.  

Andy Warhol, Jackie, 1964
Actually, a good deal of Warhol's lesser-known work is gritty, darkly ironic, and legitimately full of meaning and at times touched by actual emotional pathos, personal reflection, and the twinning of beauty and sadness, IMHO, Mr. Nechvatal.

The whole article is a very stimulating read and I recommend you check it out if you have a few extra minutes of web time. 

Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair,” (1971), silkscreen


  1. Each one has a personal experience of life, I like to think art is big enough for all experiences, even if the experiences are not ours. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for this clever and well-balanced post.