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Pop art

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

International movement in painting, sculpture and printmaking. The term originated in the mid-1950s at the ICA, London, in the discussions held by the Independent group concerning the artefacts of popular culture. This small group included the artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi as well as architects and critics. Lawrence Alloway (1926–1990), the critic who first used the term in print in 1958, conceived of Pop art as the lower end of a popular-art to fine-art continuum, encompassing such forms as advertising, science-fiction illustration and automobile styling. Hamilton defined Pop in 1957 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’. Hamilton set out, in paintings such as £he (1958–61; London, Tate), to explore the hidden connotations of imagery taken directly from advertising and popular culture, making reference in the same work to pin-ups and domestic appliances as a means of commenting on the covert eroticism of much advertising presentation (for illustration see Hamilton, Richard).

Paolozzi was a latter-day Surrealist, and his proto-Pop collages of the late 1940s, which served as the basis of his ‘Bunk!’ lecture at the ICA in 1952, were made as private scrapbook images. They were first shown at his retrospective exhibition at the Tate in 1971 and published in facsimile in 1972. His metamorphosis into a true Pop artist came about only in 1962 in brightly painted, robot-like aluminium sculptures such as City of the Circle and the Square (1963; London, Tate) and in his portfolio of screenprints of 1965, As Is When.

Peter Blake, Richard Smith and Joe Tilson, who studied together in the mid-1950s at the Royal College of Art, London, took separate paths into Pop art. Blake could rightly claim to have been the first British Pop artist, in that his student works directly reflected his love of folk art and popular culture, for example Litter (1955; Sheffield, Graves A.G.). In the late 1950s he made constructions and collage-based paintings that incorporated postcards, magazine photographs and mass-produced objects. Smith was essentially an abstract painter, but during his stay in New York from 1959 to 1961 he began, in works such as Penny (1960; Belfast, Ulster Mus.), to make reference to the packaging of consumer products, to the film of colour in glossy magazines and to the expansive scale of the cinema screen. This shift was more the result of a sensibility nurtured by the mass media than of a direct use of Pop imagery. Tilson, meanwhile, applied his skills as a carpenter to brightly painted wooden constructions appealing in their simplicity, such as Space Trophy (1961–2; AC Eng).

The most cohesive group of British Pop artists, and those to whom the label was first consistently applied, emerged at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962. It included the American-born R. B. Kitaj as well as younger students such as David Hockney, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier and Patrick Caulfield. Although Kitaj and Hockney in particular were quick to shun the Pop label, they all shared a detached and ironic attitude towards style and imagery, regarding both as elements that could be appropriated from other sources and quoted at will. Other British artists associated with Pop art later in the 1960s included Clive Barker (b 1940), Anthony Donaldson (b 1939), Gerald Laing (b 1936), Nicholas Monro (b 1936), Colin Self (b 1941) and the American-born Jann Haworth (b 1942).

In the mid-1950s in America, independently of the activities in England, the terms for certain aspects of Pop art were established by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The irony and anti-art gestures of their work initially attracted the term ‘neo-Dada’. Johns took as his imagery ‘things the mind already knows’, such as the American flag, maps, targets , arabic numerals and the alphabet. By changing the format, colour and medium, he demonstrated the formal and philosophical possibilities of an austere and direct presentation of blandly familiar images. Rauschenberg’s self-styled ‘combines’ such as Monogram (1955–9; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.) were roughly made paintings and sculptures that incorporated photographs, newspapers and disparate objects collected in the street. Like Johns, Rauschenberg applied techniques from Abstract Expressionist painting to recognizable imagery and inspired many artists to dwell on subject-matter drawn from their immediate urban environment.

Another American artist, Larry Rivers, also provided a transition to Pop art in paintings such as Dougherty Ace of Spades (1960; Provincetown, MA, Chrysler A. Mus.), basing both format and imagery on ordinary objects such as playing cards, cigarette packets and restaurant menus. Themes from contemporary life were similarly introduced in the Happenings devised in the late 1950s by performance artists such as Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine and Red Grooms (b 1937).

American Pop art emerged suddenly in the early 1960s and was in general characterized by a stark and emblematic presentation that contrasted with the narrative and analytical tendencies of its British counterpart. At its most rigorous, American Pop art insisted on a direct relationship between its use of the imagery of mass production and its adoption of modern technological procedures. Whereas British Pop art often celebrated or satirized consumer culture, American Pop artists tended to have a more ambiguous attitude towards their subject-matter, nowhere more so than in the mixture of glamour and pathos that characterized Andy Warhol’s silkscreened icons of Hollywood film stars, as in The Marilyn Diptych (1962; London, Tate).

Compared to the disparate nature of British Pop art, from the early 1960s American Pop art appeared to be a unified movement. Its shared formal characteristics included aggressively contemporary imagery, anonymity of surface, strong, flatly applied colours and a stylistic unity often associated with centralized compositions. Each of the American artists was quick to establish his or her identity, often with the ironic suggestion that the art was like any consumer product or brand name to be marketed. Foremost among them were Warhol’s testaments to machine-line production and to capitalism, such as 80 Two-dollar bills (1962; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), and Roy Lichtenstein’s formalized enlargements of the frames of comic strips, often violent or melodramatic, for example Drowning Girl (1963; New York, MOMA; for further illustration see Lichtenstein, Roy). Oldenburg produced sculptural paraphrases of ordinary objects, often on a huge scale, as in Floor-burger (Giant Hamburger) (1962; Toronto, A.G. Ont.), while James Rosenquist favoured dream-like combinations of grossly enlarged familiar images, which he painted in the manner of billboard advertisements, such as I Love you with my Ford (1962; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.). Tom Wesselmann specialized in provocatively posed female nudes and in domestic still-lifes of consumer products, for example Still-life #30 (1963; New York, MOMA).

Other painters working in the USA associated with Pop art included Jim Dine, who consistently rejected the term, Richard Artschwager, Billy Al Bengston (b 1934), Allan D’Arcangelo, Öyvind Fahlström, Joe Goode (b 1937), Robert Indiana, Ray Johnson, Mel Ramos (b 1935), Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud and John Wesley (b 1928), as well as the sculptors Marisol and George Segal. Notable among related developments that took place in other countries was Nouveau réalisme in France.

Marco Livingstone
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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