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.
One of three base colors (blue, red, or yellow) that can be combined to make a range of colors.
A stencil-based printmaking technique in which the first step is to stretch and attach a woven fabric (originally made of silk, but now more commonly of synthetic material) tightly over a wooden frame to create a screen. Areas of the screen that are not part of the image are blocked out with a variety of stencil-based methods. A squeegee is then used to press ink through the unblocked areas of the screen, directly onto paper. Screenprints typically feature bold, hard-edged areas of flat, unmodulated color. Also known as silkscreen and serigraphy.
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 intended use and elevated to the status of art by the artist choosing and designating them as such. The term “assisted Readymade” refers to works of this type whose components have been combined or modified by the artist.
A work of art on paper that usually exists in multiple copies. It is created not by drawing directly on paper, but through a transfer process. The artist begins by creating a composition on another surface, such as metal or wood, and the transfer occurs when that surface is inked and a sheet of paper, placed in contact with it, is run through a printing press. Four common printmaking techniques are woodcut, etching, lithography, and screenprint.
Cultural activities, ideas, or products that reflect or target the tastes of the general population of any society.
A movement comprising initially British, then American artists in the 1950s and 1960s. Pop artists borrowed imagery from popular culture—from sources including television, comic books, and print advertising—often to challenge conventional values propagated by the mass media, from notions of femininity and domesticity to consumerism and patriotism. Their often subversive and irreverent strategies of appropriation extended to their materials and methods of production, which were drawn from the commercial world.
A term referring to small-scale, three-dimensional works of art conceived and produced in relatively large editions, and often issued by the same individuals or organizations that publish prints.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
The dominant artistic movement in the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the first to place New York City at the forefront of international modern art. The associated artists developed greatly varying stylistic approaches, but shared a commitment to an abstract art that powerfully expresses personal convictions and profound human values. They championed bold, gestural abstraction in all mediums, particularly large painted canvases.
A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.