Key Artists: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake.
Pop Art emerged in post war America in a climate of optimism, consumerism and hope. The advertising industry was flourishing, guiding people towards what they should now purchase and where they could go to get it. Abundance meant more food and more choice, and this meant more images, more packaging and more adverts. Huge billboards were plastered across the buildings and highways and flat, graphic images were repeated again and again and again all across the country.
The growth of the Movie industry had also paved the way for celebrity culture to sweep across the nation. Stars were seen and idolised everywhere, from the red carpets of film premieres, to the TV shows and adverts that they starred in. This was the cultural backdrop that Pop Art reflected. The Artists that made up the movement adopted consumer items and recognisable objects as such as flags, tyres, targets and soup cans as the motifs that would go on to characterise their work.
Jasper Johns had a sell out show when he exhibited his series of Flag paintings. These were slight variations on the American flag, and they were bold, unforgettable and edgy. Borrowing such a loaded image, Johns was able to reuse it for his own means, and he recycled it freely and with a kind of nonchalant bravado.
Robert Raushenberg had made great use of repetitive screen-printing, and combined a free and expressive way of working with everyday objects such as car tyres into paintings, sculptures and assemblages. His work looks crude but it is highly sophisticated and subtle in the way that it captures a throwaway, consumer society that was beginning to boom.
Warhol and Lichtenstein
It wasn’t until Andy Warhol, arguably one of the World’s most famous artists of all time, rose to fame and success that Pop Art found its true ‘King’ and established its own roots. Henry Geldzaher said ‘Andy’s going to feed a lot of artist’s for a long time.’ His screen-printed portraits of celebrities were striking and raw, yet they had a mechanical quality that made them highly reflective of the society that Warhol was a part of. His famous Campbell soup can has now become a symbol for an entire group of artists and condenses, culturally and visually, a period of world history into, well, a can.
Warhol repeated images until they became meaningless. Yet in that process, they gained cultural power and prestige. Mass production itself gave the work quality, and he used the methods that the industries around him employed in his own art to create cultural artefacts, instead of tin openers, fridges or cars.
Roy Lichtenstein did the same with Comics. In a similar method, he stole images from comics, a source that was traditionally seen as ‘low’ culture, and turned them into gigantic, graphic artworks. His artworks are flat and bold, and he celebrates the aesthetic that the printer produced. Lichtenstein embraced the technological element as an important part of determining the final image.
A reaction against the Art of the time
It is worth noting that Pop Art also emerged as a reaction to the dense, serious and highbrow artworks of the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko, De Kooning, Pollock and the other painters created highly individualised and deeply personal and emotional works. The Pop Artists turned that on its head. They rejected these principles in favour of championing the everyday and the mundane.
Pop Art and everyday culture
Pop Art had an interesting and productive relationship with lowly and ordinary items from normal American life. Many of its figurehead artists explored the idea that anything could be art. Andy Warhol himself declared that ‘ Everything is Art’ and there was an optimistic feel to Pop Art artworks that made them all-inclusive and easy for people to relate to. Many critics were baffled by the use of cans and flags as symbols, and rejected the concepts and aesthetic as base and trashy. Claes Oldenburg also talked of Pop Arts relation to American culture, and the way that it chooses the objects and characters that find their way onto its canvases. He said ‘I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all’.
Oldenburg is another important figure that created sculptures by resizing different, and often amusing, objects into new settings. He turned toilets into couches and tiny pairs of cherries into huge, monumental sculptures. His work is iconic and playful, yet it is serious and sensitive to the world around it that it both mirrors and represents. He said:
‘I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all’
In the UK, Richard Hamilton made collages from newspaper cutouts, and Peter Blake and David Hockeny also experimented with the flatness and graphic style that characterised Pop Art. There was an acceptance of the American aesthetic and ideas, but a quirky reworking that also poked fun at their American counterparts across the pond.
Pop Art was highly influential for the prestigious photorealist artists that emerged in the USA, and paved the way for the use of everyday paraphernalia as subject matter for paintings. Without Pop Art, art today would not be the same.
‘Pop Art’s legacy has transcended the Artworld’ Wayne Turncliffe