Gallery Highlights - Pop Art
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In the 1950s, the horror and angst that Americans associated with World War II was replaced with optimism, economic affluence and youthful exuberance. It was an era in which the mass media pushed slogan and commodities into homes of the expanding middle class with a command – Consume! The shift in social values of the American post-war consumer society was matched by revolutionary ideas in the arts. The heroic emotional language of the prevailing Abstract Expressionists was challenged by a new aesthetic that accepted the common and the trivial in movies, television, comic strips, newspapers, high fashion, billboards and consumer media.
By the mid-1950s, a young group of American artists began to appropriate images from popular culture and mass media. They realized that their daily environment contained endless possibilities for subject matter. Pop Art – a term coined in 1958 by British art critic Lawrence Alloway, consisted of slick, machine-produced art that celebrated post-war consumerism, defied the ideals of Abstract Expressionism, and worshipped materialism. It transformed common objects into popular icons. Influential British artist Richard Hamilton eloquently described the movement that took hold on the American shores in the late 1950s as popular (designed for a mass audience); transient (short-term solution); expendable (easily forgotten); low-cost; mass-produced; young (aimed at youth); witty; sexy; gimmicky; glamorous; and big business.
Rooted in everyday reality, Pop Art was a buzzword wrapped in the slogans and images of mass media. It represented everything that was cheerful, ironic, impersonal, cool and hip. Similar to the Dada movement of the early twentieth century, artists such as Melville Price, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, Edward Ruscha and James Rosenquist incorporated images and found objects into their works of art and mocked the established art world by taking common images from mass media and presenting them as fine art. In a contemporary society that relished readymade commodities and fleeting experiences, Pop Artists adapted their art to attract a mass audience. They adopted the mantra “Everything is Pop” and “Pop is Everything.” By using images from popular culture that were considered outside the boundaries of fine art, Pop artists bridged the gap between high and low art, “good” and “bad” taste, fine art and commercial art techniques.
A Native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Andy Warhol (1928-1987) became synonymous with Pop Art. His early work revolved around comic strip imagery, but his interest eventually shifted toward advertising design, as seen in products such as Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and Brillo soap pads. Warhol was also fascinated with celebrities and pop icons, particularly those with a cult-like following, such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, who he captured in multiple series of silk screened portraits. His compositions use recognizable consumer imagery reflecting the monotony and repetitiveness of the consumer environment. The use of repetition within his compositions reflected the concepts of assembly line mass production and the plentiful arrangement of items on supermarket shelves. Warhol embraced the mass consumer aesthetic as inspiration for his imagery and incorporated it into the process of creating his works of art. His art work was mass-produced by teams of assistants and associates in his studio, which was called “The Factory.”
Warhol was a dispassionate observer. He appropriated imagery to enlighten the masses with facts and ideas that to him seemed so obvious it was a wonder no one else saw them. He had an entrepreneurial spirit in creating his art. He believed in giving people what they wanted and commented, “I don’t think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of American people.” Based on the simple equation of supply and demand, Warhol developed an extensive lexicon of images with widespread appeal that crossed socio-economic barriers. He made a career out of appropriating famous images into his art and became the prototype of the celebrity artist, successful businessman, and mass producer. Warhol once observed, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” This fascinating combination of business and art would forever alter the view of the relationship between the artist and society.
Although Warhol’s subject matter was directly related to the experience of growing up in a consumer driven environment, he was also influenced by the history of the visual arts. His interest in Renaissance art was revealed in a series of acrylic paintings and silkscreen prints called Details of Renaissance Paintings (1984). The series included details from paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Paolo Uccello and Sandro Botticelli. Details of Renaissance Paintings: The Birth of Venus (1984) is a silkscreen print, in which Warhol appropriated the image of Venus, cropping it and altering the color. Warhol used the printmaking method of silkscreen to create this and other series of works which were generally entrusted to his assistants. The bold areas of flat color and the commercial look of the silkscreen appealed to Warhol’s aesthetics. For works like the Birth of Venus, Warhol used a photographic transfer to place the image on a fabric screen. Color was then pushed through the screen with a squeegee. This quick and inexpensive process allowed multiple prints of each image to be produced within The Factory. Other Pop artists like Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist followed Warhol’s lead by incorporating silkscreen into their aesthetic exploration of popular culture. Pop artists transformed the silkscreen process into a metaphor for America’s capitalism, material abundance, industry, and its contradictory desire for innovation and uniformity.
Pop Artist, James Rosenquist (1933 - ), spent most of his childhood moving from place to place around the Midwest with his family. This itinerant existence allowed him to soak up various aspects of America culture. He developed a particular interest in airplanes and machines, which later surfaced as some of his most influential imagery. In 1954, after studying art at the University of Minnesota, Rosenquist painted his first billboard advertisement for General Outdoor Advertising in Minneapolis. Working with massive billboards and signs greatly influenced Rosenquist’s painting techniques.
Rosenquist’s use of scale in his paintings and prints reflected his interest in the colors, textures and materials found in mass produced objects and images. His large scale imagery incorporated everyday objects that he carefully cropped to create a billboard-like effect. The color lithograph Sheer Line (1979) is a clear example of Rosenquist’s compositional style. A boat, lips, a glass lid, and a pen are arranged in a free association in this composition that is characteristic of Rosenquist’s work. His use of lithography, in conjunction with photographic transfers and collage bears some similarity to the work of the noted artist, Robert Rauschenberg.
Challenging the notion of what constituted “appropriate” fine art work, Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - ) was an important force in the development of new forms of representation. Born in Texas, Rauschenberg began his studies at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, headed by painter colorist Josef Albers. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg encountered diverse methods of making art and worked in collaboration with musicians, dancers, and other performers. Rauschenberg’s first collaboration was with choreographer Merce Cunningham who was noted for his use of chance “happenings” in live performance. Rauschenberg also incorporated found objects in his works of art, similar to the “ready-mades” created by Marcel Duchamp during the first decade of the twentieth century. Duchamp asserted that the found objects he used were chosen by the artist and were therefore worthy of the status of fine art. During the 1950’s, Rauschenberg began experimenting with the idea of mixing media. His desire to create a work that was a cross between a painting and a sculpture resulted in the Combine paintings in which he incorporated discarded objects. In keeping with the tenants of the Pop Art movement as a whole, Rauschenberg sought to redefine the way we look at objects in everyday life and blur the distinction between fine art and the realities of daily life.
As Pop Art emerged, Rauschenberg turned away from his three-dimensional Combines and focused on two-dimensional artwork. He used magazine pictures of current events to create silkscreen print. In Untitled, Rauschenberg transferred prints of familiar images to paper in a composition that captures the way we process snippet of information in our society. The image relates to each other in an ambiguous way and fuses the inventiveness of his earlier Combines with his love of printmaking.
Jim Dine (1935 - ) another artist associated with the Pop Art movement, is known for imagery that focuses on more personal themes and objects – tools, clothing, animals and other ordinary objects reflecting his personal experiences. Dine’s paintings, prints, drawings, and multi-media assemblages are laden with anthropomorphic imagery, using objects as substitutes for the body itself. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dine moved to New York in 1959 after receiving his B.F.A., joining a group of artists working in a performance art form known as “Happenings.” Dine created ephemeral performances with artists such as Alan Kaprow, Claes Oldenberg and George Segal. His relationship with Pop Art has generally been viewed in terms of the material he used as opposed to the expressive qualities found in his work. Unlike most Pop artists, Dine consistently chose objects and images that were intensely personal, favoring the touch of the artist’s hand and the act of expressing emotion over the more common cool and detached manner associated with Pop Art.
Dine’s Tools and Dreams (1985), an etching and dry point print, combines two of Dine’s favored subjects – tools and hearts. Tools appear frequently in his work, influenced by childhood memories of the family hardware store in Cincinnati. The heart not only represents Dine’s wife, but also the warmth of his childhood memories. Like Rauschenberg, Dine was also interested in mixing media and looking at the arts through an interdisciplinary lens. Tools and Dreams is indicative of Dine’s drawing and printmaking style. His style combines the early influences of Abstract Expressionism in his gestural marks with the use of graphic images and found objects more closely associated with Pop Art.
Like Jim Dine, Melville Price’s (1920 – 1970) mixed media paintings incorporate Abstract Expressionism and found objects. In his work Smile (1967), Price used oil paint and objects such as Styrofoam cups to create an assemblage reminiscent of both Jim Dine and Robert Rauschenberg’s work. The figurative aspects of the painting, including the large abstracted smile and portions of the female anatomy, reflect the gestural concerns of the Abstract Expressionist movement, as well as its influence on Price. One can also see his relationship to the Dadaists particularly the 1920 Merz Compositions of the German artist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters pioneered the concept of adding materials that otherwise would have been discarded into his painted compositions. Creating the term “merz” to define these types of works, Schwitters was referring to all forms of art and the goal of this term was to alleviate the distinctions traditionally made between arts and crafts, as well as distinctions between media.
Pop Art shook the foundations of Modernism and offered commentary about a throwaway, ephemeral society while altering the notion of fine art as precious and sacred. It undermined the ideals of Modernism – individuality, originality, and authorship – while blurring the distinction between “high” and “low” art with a new definition of fine art. Initially, Pop Art was not embraced by everyone. Proponents of abstract painting decried it as rampant vulgarity and a youthful attack on high culture. By using imagery and ready-made material from newspapers, magazines, television, comic strips and advertising, Pop Art undermined the elitist tenet that art was superior to popular culture. It disrupted the natural progression of Modernism’s doctrine of “art – for art’s sake” that emphasized reducing subject matter to basic physical and conceptual elements.
The common perception of the “misunderstood loner” artist changed dramatically during the reign of Pop Art when artists were viewed as celebrities. Pop Art debunked the Modernist ideal that an artist had to work alone in order to express his individuality. Pop artists freely collaborated with other artists and embraced a multitude of media in their work – photography mechanical printmaking processes, television, video and even sound. Pop Art forced the Post-modern art world to reconsider the definition of an artwork and the artist’s role in producing it.