Pop Art: A Brief History
In the years following World War II, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic and political growth. Many middle class Americans moved to the suburbs, spurred by the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced homes. Elvis Presley led the emergence of rock and roll, Marilyn Monroe was a reigning film star, and television replaced radio as the dominant media outlet.
Yet by the late 1950s and early 1960s, a “cultural revolution” was underway, led by activists, thinkers, and artists who sought to rethink and even overturn what was, in their eyes, a stifling social order ruled by conformity. The Vietnam War incited mass protests, the Civil Rights Movement sought equality for African Americans, and the women’s liberation movement gained momentum.
Inspired by the Everyday
It was in this climate of turbulence, experimentation, and consumerism that a new generation of artists emerged in Britain and America in the mid- to late-1950s. Pop artists began to look for inspiration in the world around them, representing—and, at times, making art directly from—everyday items, consumer goods, and mass media. They did this in a straightforward manner, using bold swaths of primary colors, often straight from the can or tube of paint. They adopted commercial methods like silkscreening, or produced multiples of works, downplaying the artist’s hand and subverting the idea of originality—in marked contrast with the highly expressive, large-scaled abstract works of the Abstract Expressionists, whose work had dominated postwar American art. Pop artists favored realism, everyday (and even mundane) imagery, and heavy doses of irony and wit.
Yet Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were very aware of the past. They sought to connect fine art traditions with pop culture elements from television, advertisements, films, and cartoons. At the same time, their work challenged traditional boundaries between media, combining painted gestures with photography and printmaking; combining handmade and readymade or mass-produced elements; and combining objects, images, and sometimes text to make new meanings.
A protracted military conflict (1954–1975) between South Vietnam, supported by United States forces, and Communist North Vietnam, with fighting also occurring in Laos and Cambodia. The war resulted in a North Vietnamese victory and unification of Vietnam under Communist rule.
A group of people considered as a unit according to economic, occupational, or social status, esp., a social rank or caste: “the working class,” “the middle class.”
A global war, one of the most widespread in human history, fought between 1939 and 1945, and resulting in the wholesale reshaping of nations, populations, and worldwide balances of power.
A mass movement in America, lasting from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, through which African Americans used nonviolent protest and legal action to secure social equality and educational and voting rights.
One of three base colors (blue, red, or yellow) that can be combined to make a range of colors.
Relating to or characteristic of an area, usually residential, on the outskirts of a city.
A printing technique in which areas of a silkscreen, comprised of woven mesh stretched on a frame, are selectively blocked off with a non-permeable material (typically a photo-emulsion, paper, or plastic film) to form a stencil, which is a negative of the image to be printed. Ink is forced through the mesh onto the printing surface with a squeegee, creating a positive image.
The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.
A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.
A term describing a wide variety of techniques used to produce multiple copies of an original design. Also, the resulting text or image made by applying inked characters, plates, blocks, or stamps to a support such as paper or fabric.
Cultural activities, ideas, or products that reflect or target the tastes of the general population of any society.
A movement composed of initially British, then American artists in the 1950s and 1960s, which was characterized by references to imagery and products from popular culture, media, and advertising.
A term for small-scale, three-dimensional works conceived by artists, and often produced commercially, in relatively large editions.
An expression or statement in language or imagery that signifies its own opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
A preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of manufactured goods.
A person who acquires goods or services for direct use or ownership.
An artistic movement made up of American artists in the 1940s and 1950s, also known as the New York School, or more narrowly, action painting. Abstract Expressionism is usually characterized by large abstract painted canvases, although the movement also includes sculpture and other media.
A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.