According to art historian Sam Hunter, Pop Art is an “original and irreverent parody of the imagery and artifacts of commercial culture.”
The germ of Pop Art lay in the work of one of Abstract Expressionism’s finest painters, Willem de Kooning. His use of women as points of departure for painting triggered work by other artists which brought back “subject matter” into painting.
San Francisco artist Richard Diebenkorn produced paintings in the 50s which resembled Abstract Expressionism with a geometric division of the picture within a portrayal of interior scenes and landscapes. You could see it as scene but you were constantly reminded that you were looking at paint by the way it was painted – a heavy impasto and loose, painterly application.
Larry Rivers introduced meticulous drawing, of Washington crossing the Delaware and other North American folklore – this embedded in a loosely-painted style. Robert Raushenberg added to that style rags, fragments of comic strips and other discarded materials. His first “assemblage” was his own bedding, a sheet and quilt that he nailed to the wall and painted on. Despite the earlier Dada movement this work shocked the public. A later assemblage included a stuffed goat with a tire around its waist.
Jasper Johns, a contemporary and friend of Raushenberg, took as his subject two-dimensional objects such as flags, numbers and targets. To these he added shelves on which he placed real objects – spoons, cast plaster faces, beer cans. The consistent quality of Johns’ work is its elegant craft. Johns and Raushenberg tied together the strands of Abstract Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism as a bridge to Pop Art.
True Pop burst forth in 1962 in exhibitions in New York City, primarily at Sidney Janis Gallery. James Rosenquist was a billboard painter and his huge paintings look like close-ups of advertisements. Roy Lictenstein painted single frames from comic strips, an “Oh Brad” from a syrupy love story. Later he was to use the comic book style, with its ben day printing process, to parody famous modern paintings.
Jim Dine continued the Abstract Expressionist style but used it to present commonplace objects, like pliers, a hatchet, palette, coat hanger, valentine heart, bathrobe. What stands out with Dine is his mastery of drawing.
Claus Oldenberg gave us soft sculpture. He would render a telephone, a hamburger, hot water bottle or other everyday objects in materials that made them look like they were melting or had collapsed. He has done commissions for many major cities. In downtown Philadelphia there is a huge clothespin, this one in steel.
Andy Warhol is the Pop Artist’s Pop Artist and the most famous, and outrageous, of the group. His debut exhibit featured sculpture; wooden rectangular forms with silk-screened images of Brillo Pad boxes, stacked up as if in the grocery. Even more well known were his Campbell’s Soup paintings which simply depict rows of the stacked soup cans. Warhol went on to bring images of movie stars (notably Marilyn Monroe, Elvis), politicians (Mao), car accidents, the electric chair and money. He called his studio The Factory and hired assistants to help produce his art. He also began making films, just as controversial as his paintings. Setting up a camera facing the Empire State building he produced an eight hour “documentary”. This he titled “Empire”. He put actors nude in a restaurant scene, pointed the camera and directed them to improvise. “The Nude Restaurant” was then whatever happened on camera.
Warhol sought publicity, doing things the art world tended to shun, like endorse commercial products. But even these were transformed by his presence, as with the soup cans. Him just sitting there, blankly and blandly staring at the camera, forced a thoughtful response to what otherwise would be commonplace. His presence may not have increased product sales but it served to amplify his fame, not to mention wealth.
The artist also authored books, did speaking engagements (once creating an uproar by sending someone in his place, posing as him) and publishing Interview Magazine, an oversized collection of interviews with celebrities which pre-dated the supermarket celebrity mags like People.
While Warhol was making endorsements, movies, paintings, portraits of the rich and famous, he was also accumulating a tremendous collection of art himself. He frequented the auction houses and antique shops, buying a bewildering variety of objects from an equally diverse range of history. After his death in 1988 his collection was auctioned off and a foundation set up to provide grants to artists to further their careers. An Andy Warhol museum was sited in his hometown, Pittsburg.
The Pop artists took a look at and commented on the popular and commercial culture. The gullibility of the “consumer” to Madison Avenue marketing techniques which promote an obsessive material acquisitiveness were held up to parody. It is interesting that the essential Pop artist himself succumbed to the obsession. Perhaps he wasn’t as “ironic” as was supposed. Or maybe this was just more irony.