Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 8, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Towards Popular Art
by Constance Schwartz
By the 1960s the heroic concerns of the Abstract Expressionists as well as their broad gestural styles were being supplanted by several new full-fledged art movements. Pop, Op, Hard Edge, Color Field and Minimal seemed to follow one another with breathless rapidity.
In an era marked by radical political movements, the visual arts remained largely insulated and indifferent. Pop Art was the first accessible style of international modernism; it was art about consumption and with incredible speed it entered into the domain of popular culture. From the vast industry of advertising promotion and mass production, a new generation of painters emerged who embraced the commonplace and commercial in a spirit of cool and rather detached irony.  Artists reflected this gargantuan industry which now defined American culture and the barrier between high and low art collapsed. The hitherto disparaged sea of mass media and commerce, the images on which Americans were fed for most of their waking lives -- ads, billboards, food and more food, newsprint, TV montage, the comic book and paper back, and all other sorts of kitsch -- became the stuff of high art.
Artists look to commercial imagery
Pop Art emerged between 1959 and 1961 in the studios of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, and others, in a style that became subordinate to the painted gesture favored by artists of the 50s. Instead, these emerging artists favored commercial techniques of hard edge design and pungent color. With exciting effect they re-envisioned a seemingly prosaic reality. They reinvented the chromatic scale and altered the natural world in terms of perspective, composition, scale, structure and flat color committed to the canvas with no physical nuance. The subject matter was isolated and presented in a different way in order to have the viewer respond to the commonplace by looking at it with "new eyes."
The inner turmoil of America in the 60s offered a final challenge to the artist in terms of eliciting an illusion based on what was, at that time, defined as "real." Critical discussion of realism became even more difficult when Pop Art advanced realist claims, while offering the more traditional satisfactions of a vernacular American subject matter. "Reality, what a concept!" exclaimed the comic Robin Williams in the mid-70s. "Reality," the French thinker Jean Baudrillard asserted, "has been subsumed by simulation which constitutes, the 'hyper real' as presented by television, films, and news media prevalent in the mid-twentieth century."
New art reflects mass culture
The bridge between the heroic Abstract Expressionists and the art of the '60s was spawned by two major artists of the 20th century: Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both of whom felt a compulsion to analyze this new Americanism, mass culture, and its icons. Both artists impressively revived ways of seeing and rethinking the nature and function of art, especially in relation to Abstract Expressionism which avoided reference to the specifics of contemporary American culture. The works of Johns and Rauschenberg represented an important step in shift away from pure abstraction towards emphasizing the objecthood of art. In 1974, Johns declared, "I like what I see to be real, or to be my idea of what is real. And I think I have a kind of resentment against illusion when I recognize it...a large part of my work has been involved with the painting as an object, as a real thing in itself."
Johns chose to work with icons, objects that were so familiar that they might normally have been visually passed over. His flags and targets, inherently cool objects, beautiful yet controversial, came into focus as his art subjects against the backdrop of the Cold War and domestic political unrest. Johns intimately considered both the methods of making art and the psychological image behind it, preoccupations exemplified by The Flag, at once an intensely familiar symbol of America, yet one which may arouse considerable agitation.
Rauschenberg, a poet of information, demonstrated that all of life, including the unstructured chaos of everyday life, could become subject matter. Thus his canvases accumulated a miscellany of images like flypaper: discarded materials, the shuttle, a stuffed goat, tires, as well as real news photographs blown up to the requisite size by the process of silk screening, producing the dynamic confrontation of images evoking past and present. The work, Musical Mollusk, challenges the traditional materials of art. Here, Rauschenberg plunged an umbrella virtually into the spectator's normal space, from the center of a canvas that represents a tableau of fragmented and perplexing aspects of mass culture -- silk-screened images found in newspapers and various other print media reflecting the media's dominion over man.
The art of Rauschenberg and Jim Dine comprise updated echoes of the Dadaists. This is seen in their use of assemblage, and their exaltation of the mundane and commonplace as inspiration for poetically-charged images. They were at the forefront of an 'anything goes' attitude toward materials and subject matter.
Painterly virtuosity, animated by ceaseless experimentalism in a vast array of materials, characterizes the work of Larry Rivers. Rivers' vision has particular significance to a critical moment in the '50s when traditions of figuration and the gestural impulse of Abstract Expressionism begin to split into clearly disparate paths. Not a typical Pop artist, he brought fundamental change to aesthetic attitudes by offering an alternative to Action Painting. He appropriated the Pop Art components of slick plastic, mechanically transferred images, machine lettering and stenciled labels, and object appendages which he integrated into a harmonious scheme of related painterly effects.
Business and celebrity collide in Warhol's art
The silver haired Andy Warhol's art celebrates business as a comment on American life's preoccupation with business. Warhol went after, and attracted, the money and power celebrity crowd. The star image lured Warhol who, like Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Wesselmann, responded to the large, direct close-ups common to the merchandised media of movies and magazines. Warhol became the promoter of such motifs as the Brillo box, the Campbell soup can and the instant photographic silk-screened portrait. He also produced voyeuristic movies featuring superstars, actually becoming the celebrity and culture hero. Warhol was the ultimate non-involved spectator in the repetition of stars' faces and packaged food, echoing image overload in a media-saturated culture.
A Warhol portrait is, in fact, a representation of a photograph of an individual. The subjects are celebrities and glamorized friends, but they are literally photographs transferred to canvas via silk screening. The impersonal attributes of the photograph are central to Warhol's work. Despite the mechanical, neutral characteristics of his work, Warhol's "hand" is often recognizable through a deliberate misalignment in the silk screen process of color and outline, which results in images that are smudged, broken, extended, distorted and doubled as if reflected, qualities that emphasize the artist's distinction between what he considers genuine and counterfeit or between the artificial and the real.
Lichtenstein looks to comics and mechanical techniques
Sharply observant of the sources of his work, Roy Lichtenstein had developed his Pop imagery by 1961, using concepts derived from ad illustrations, comic strip characters, commercial depiction of everyday objects, along with adaptation of works by artists of the past. His technique relied on light versus dark and simplification of the image sources into bold two-dimensional realities linked to commercial printing and color reproductions. His subject matter maintained an incidental relationship to its pictorial treatment. The mechanical process itself is recalled through the artist's frequent use of benday dots, a technique typical of the printing process.
In Lichtenstein's painting, Head, he parodies art history as it is derived from the Cubists and German Expressionists. This transformation is imposed by the artist's stylistic devices. The painting is neat and clean with no evidence of an expressionistic brushstroke while the heavy lines in the composition act as a device that diverges from color saturation and provides texture.
Wesselmann varies great American nude
The Pop artist who has most consistently portrayed the figure is Tom Wesselmann. His art evokes another popular contemporary mythical archetype -- the idealized imagery of the television commercial and of movie-magazine sex. He created a number of variations on the theme of the Great American Nude, depicting this All- American sex symbol in brilliant neon color. The texture of the paint is flat, as if on a billboard, which gives us the semblance of an extreme close-up, certainly a voyeur's view.
Billboard art goes upscale
James Rosenquist's background as a billboard painter enabled an exciting dialogue between the commercial and the artistic. The monumental billboard bombards people with its message, shattering the quiet of the landscape and becoming a fixture of highways and cities. In making art derived from the billboard, Rosenquist breaks large-scale commercial images into compartmentalized sections of smoothly painted, disembodied surfaces to represent common activities such as smoking, eating and driving, sometimes conjoined to create an icon of pleasure. These often unrelated images are imposing yet not tactile, big but oddly weightless, familiar looking though because of their cropping, they present a mysterious quality that borders on the unreal, a quality Rosenquist deliberately strives for. The artist refers to this: "...Why don't I try to make a mysterious painting by doing enlarged fragments as best I can, so that the largest fragment would be the hardest to see and therefore be mysterious."
Artists set apart from nation's turmoil
By the end of the 1960s, the American world of promise began to unravel. Leaders like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were all dead by the end of the decade, the war in Vietnam continued to rage, and society continued to be rent by race, gender and class. While there was pride in such accomplishments as landing on the moon, social inequities were unresolved and ideals unsatisfied. Yet with the riots in the ghettos, the paranoia of the Cold War, the problems of the 1960s seemed not to be fully reflected in American art as it flourished in the artist's studios. It is surprising, at least on the surface, how relatively little impact the political ferment of the times had on art. In fact, art continued to propagate and rephrase itself in the context of these societal conditions.
The Pop artists who emerged and became the art stars of the 1960s mostly continued into the '80s and in some instances into the '90s and beyond, to create works with their individual characteristics still offering a concise expression of the superabundance of the American consumerist society, free from apparent sentiment or emotion.
1 An intellectual framework for the development of Pop Art was provided by the composer John Cage who stressed in his teaching the lack of distinction between art and life and encouraged a willingness to appropriate, for use in art, the banal and commercial.
2 Jasper Johns quoted in David Sylvester, "Interview," in Jasper Johns Drawings, exh. Cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974,) pp. 15-16.
3 Charles F. Stuckey. "Andy Warhol's Painted Faces," Art in America, May 1980, pp. 104-11.
4 Robert Hughes. "American Visions." The Empire of Signs." (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1997), p. 535.
About the author:
Constance Schwartz is the Nassau County Museum of Art's Executive Director.
This essay was authored in conjunction with the exhibition Pop and Op, opening on February 17 and remaining on view through May 4, 2008 at the Nassau County Museum of Art. The exhibition is curated by Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell. For further texts concerning the exhibition please click here.
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