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Pop Art - Art History 101 Basics

Mid-1950s to Early 1970s

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© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein; used with permission

Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997). Live Ammo (Blang!), 1962. Oil and Magna acrylic on canvas. 68 x 80 in. (172.7 x 203.2 cm). Photo © Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles.

The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles / © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In the Beginning:

Pop Art was born in Britain in the mid 1950s. It was the brain-child of several young subversive artists - as most modern art tends to be. The first application of the term Pop Art occurred during discussions among artists who called themselves the Independent Group (IG), which was part of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, begun around 1952-53.

Pop Art appreciates popular culture, or what we also call “material culture.” It does not critique the consequences of materialism and consumerism; it simply recognizes its pervasive presence as a natural fact.

Acquiring consumer goods, responding to clever advertisements and building more effective forms of mass communication (back then: movies, television, newspapers and magazines) galvanized energy among young people born during the Post-World War II generation. Rebelling against the esoteric vocabulary of abstract art, they wanted to express their optimism after so much hardship and privation in a youthful visual language. Pop Art celebrated the United Generation of Shopping.

How Long Was the Movement?

The movement was officially christened by Lawrence Alloway in his article "The Arts and Mass Media," Architectural Record (February 1958). Art history text books tend to claim that Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It that Makes Today's Home So Different and So Appealing? (1956) signaled that Pop Art had arrived on the scene. The collage appeared in This Is Tomorrow at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, so we might say that this work of art and this exhibition mark the official beginning of the movement, even though the artists worked on Pop Art themes earlier in their careers.

Pop Art, for the most part, completed the Modernist movement in the early 1970s, with its optimistic investment in contemporary subject matter. It also ended the Modernism movement by holding up a mirror to contemporary society. Once the Postmodernist generation looked hard and long into the mirror, self-doubt took over and the party atmosphere of Pop Art faded away.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art?

  • Recognizable imagery, drawn from popular media and products.
  • Usually very bright colors.
  • Flat imagery influenced by comic books and newspaper photographs.
  • Images of celebrities or fictional characters in comic books, advertisements and fan magazines.
  • In sculpture, an innovative use of media.

Historic Precedent:

The integration of fine art and popular culture (such as billboards, packaging and print advertisements) began way before the 1950s. Gustave Courbet's Bonjour, Mr. Courbet (1855) symbolically pandered to popular taste by including a pose taken from the inexpensive print series called Imagerie d’Épinal which featured moralizing scenes invented by Jean-Charles Pellerin. Every schoolboy knew these pictures about of street life, the military and legendary characters. Did the middle class get Courbet's drift? Maybe not, but Courbet did not care. He knew he had invaded "high art" with a "low" art form.

Picasso used the same strategy. He joked about our love affair with shopping by creating a woman out of a label and ad from the department Bon Marché Au Bon Marché (1914) may not be considered the first Pop Art collage, but it certainly planted the seeds for the movement.

Roots in Dada

Marcel Duchamp pushed Picasso's consumerist ploy further by introducing the actual mass-produced object into the exhibition: a bottle-rack, a snow shovel, a urinal (upside down). He called these objects Ready-Mades, an anti-art expression that belonged to the Dada movement.

Neo-Dada, or Early Pop Art:

Early Pop artists followed Duchamps' lead in the 1950s by returning to imagery during the height of Abstract Expressionism and purposely selecting "low-brow" popular imagery. They also incorporated or reproduced 3-dimension objects. Jasper Johns' Beer Cans (1960) and Robert Rauschenburg's Bed (1955) are two cases in point. This work was called "Neo-Dada" during its formative years. Today, we might call it Pre-Pop Art or Early Pop Art.

British Pop Art:

Independent Group (Institute of Contemporary Art)

  • Richard Hamilton
  • Edouardo Paolozzi
  • Peter Blake
  • John McHale
  • Lawrence Alloway
  • Peter Reyner Banham
  • Richard Smith
  • Jon Thompson

Young Contemporaries (Royal College of Art):

  • R. B. Kitaj
  • Peter Philips
  • Billy Apple (Barrie Bates)
  • Derek Boshier
  • Patrick Canfield
  • David Hockney
  • Allen Jones
  • Norman Toynton

American Pop Art:

Andy Warhol understood shopping and he also understood the allure of celebrity. Together these Post-World War II obsessions drove the economy. From malls and to People Magazine, Warhol captured an authentic American aesthetic: packaging products and people. It was an insightful observation. Public display ruled and everyone wanted his/her own fifteen minutes of fame.

New York Pop Art:

  • Roy Lichtenstein
  • Andy Warhol
  • Robert Indiana
  • George Brecht
  • Marisol (Escobar)
  • Tom Wesselmann
  • Marjorie Strider
  • Allan D'Arcangelo
  • Ida Weber
  • Claes Oldenberg - common products made out of odd materials
  • George Segal - white plaster casts of bodies in everyday settings
  • James Rosenquist - painting that looked like collages of advertisements
  • Rosalyn Drexler - pop stars and contemporary issues.

California Pop Art:

  • Billy Al Bengston
  • Edward Kienholz
  • Wallace Berman
  • John Wesley
  • Jess Collins
  • Richard Pettibone
  • Mel Remos
  • Edward Ruscha
  • Wayne Thiebaud
  • Joe GoodeVon Dutch Holland
  • Jim Eller
  • Anthony Berlant
  • Victor Debreuil
  • Phillip Hefferton
  • Robert O’Dowd
  • James Gill
  • Robert Kuntz

Sources:

Lippard, Lucy with Lawrence Alloway, Nicolas Cala and Nancy Marmer. Pop Art.
London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Osterwald, Tilman. Pop Art.
Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2007.

Francis, Mark and Hal Foster. Pop.
London and New York: Phaidon, 2010.

Madoff, Steven Henry, ed. Pop Art: A Critical History.
Berkeley: University of California, 1997.

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