Art Dictionary

Pop Art

Ed Ruscha,

Ed Ruscha, "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas", 1963, detail
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire

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Whether it´s Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, or Robert Rauschenberg, no other conceptual movement in modern twentieth-century art history has been such a crucial influence on our ideas of aesthetics, design, and the American way of life as Pop Art.

»Pop is love, for it accepts everything . . .Pop is dropping the 'bomb.' It is the 'American Dream,' optimistic, generous and naïve . . ." (Robert Indiana)

No other current of 20th-century art has had such a decisive impact on our ideas about aesthetics, design and the American Way of Life as Pop Art, largely because no other form of artistic expression has become as deeply involved in the everyday life of an entire generation and its successors. Just as the world of media and consumer goods in the industrialized society suddenly became a subject for art in the late 1950s, art became focus of attention in society.

The effects of these mechanisms are still felt today. They are evident in the positions of many contemporary artists who, like Jeff Koons and Keith Haring, see themselves as the successors to the great Pop Artists. And the public continues to show strong interest in exhibitions devoted to such prominent exponents of Pop Art as Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Indiana - to name only a few. The movement's currency is also underscored by observable tendencies in the field of design. In interior architecture, fashion, fabric design or packaging, our sense of style is still influenced by Pop Art today.

Yet it is not as easy as it might seem to identify a uniform style within the category of Pop Art. When the movement later referred to as Pop Art began to emerge in London and then in New York in the early 1960s, the artists in question were primarily concerned with overcoming conventional cultural barriers, with eliminating the boundaries between high and popular culture, between the trivial and the intellectual. Visual art, music, literature and even fashion, advertising, design, photography and film all reflected an attitude toward life that was characteristic of a younger generation in the major cities of Western industrialized societies. As the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were to music and Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor to the world of the movie screen, so were figures such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to art.

Their works of art spoke of a life in which everyone can become a star, regardless of his or her social class. What counted was performance, looks, and talent. The U.S. became a model for the whole world in those years - as a nation of industry and culture. New York on the East Coast and San Francisco on the West Coast set the pace of a pulse whose beat was heard as far away as Europe.

The term "Pop Art" was discovered more or less accidentally in London when the letters "P-o-p" appeared in a collage by painter Richard Hamilton. "Pop" describes the sound of a shot or small explosion, and it is also an abbreviation for "popular." And "popular," in the sense of "in tune with the tastes of the masses and the laws of the media and the market," was what these artists wanted to be. The motifs they selected for their paintings, prints and sculptures could not have been more banal: Coca-Cola bottles, swimming pools, red hearts, street intersections, blondes, cars, ice-cream, cigarettes, flags, dollar bills - nothing was so insignificant that it wasn't worth painting, drawing, printing or photographing. Artists wanted to respond to mass fashion trends just as quickly as newspapers and magazines, and they wanted their art to be just as much fun, yet ironic and subversive at the same time.

To beat the market with its own weapons - that was the goal. This particular aspect of Pop Art is often overlooked today, however. Nearly everyone is familiar with the face of Marilyn Monroe in the vivid colors of Andy Warhol's portrait and with his images of Liz Taylor and Elvis Presley. His Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell's soup cans are well known, but only few people have taken a closer look as his electric chair. "It will be hard to believe," he wrote, "how many people will hang a picture showing an electric chair in their living rooms - especially when the color of the picture matches the curtains."

Yet the artists' fascination with clichés and stars, with mass media and department-store charm, with comics and nightlife was also tinged with melancholy and irony. They recognized that the American Dream of becoming more beautiful, faster and richer would become turn into a nightmare for many people, that some would be left behind because they could not withstand the power of the laws of the media and the market, that there was no place for weakness and idiosyncrasy. Thus faith in progress and enjoyment of illusory beauty also went hand in hand with loneliness and fear of the future. It is no mere coincidence that most of the movie heroes Andy Warhol painted were stars destroyed by their own success. And even the blonde girlish faces in Roy Lichtenstein's comic-style pictures often have a desperate and anxious look despite their prettiness.

Very little of the lifestyle that emerged during the 1960s has changed in the meantime. On the contrary, after the collapse of the East Block, the American capitalist model has emerged from the Cold War period as the ultimate winner. Perhaps that is why the images of Pop Art still speak to us so directly. Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol died long ago, the laws of the industrial society have remained the same. Even Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones continue to sing of their yearning for "satisfaction."

 

15.08.2002 Petra von Olschowski

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