Chapter 16: Pop Art

“Pop is everything art hasn’t been for the last two decades . . . It springs newborn out of a boredom with the finality and oversaturation of abstract expressionism . . . Stifled by this rarefied atmosphere, some young painters turn back to some less exalted things like Coca-Cola . . .The self-conscious brush stroke and the even more self conscious drip are not central to its generation.  Impasto is visual indigestion.”
Robert Indiana

Post-war America was a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. The explosive growth of multi-national corporations and the emergence of new media technologies created a new “mass media” culture focused on consumerism.  While the Abstract Expressionists and their descendants disdained the vulgar world of “popular culture,” Pop artists embraced it wholeheartedly.  They took their subject matter from the popular media, and they adopted the mass production methods and media strategies of modern industrial society.  As Lisa Phillips writes:

“The Pop artists . . . . were responding to the new American visual landscape, a vista of advertising, billboards, commercial products, automobiles, strip malls, fast food, television, and comic strips.  They therefore took print, film, and television images from media-based reality and transformed them into art, often through various mechanical means.  Their pictures were often images of images, copies of copies, a twice-removed effect that echoed the techniques of mass production, the media and marketing.”
Lisa Phillips, The American Century:  Art & Culture 1950-2000, Whitney Museum/W.W. Norton, 1999, p. 114. 

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 1956

Widely regarded as the founding work of the Pop art movement, this collage was made for an exhibition of the British Independent Group at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956 titled “This is Tomorrow.” Described by the artist as “instant art,” the work was made entirely from advertisements in magazines, and reflects the way modern forms of commercial advertising and mass production have completely invaded everyday life, blurring the distinction between “reality” and the “virtual reality” of modern media and advertising.

Roy Lichtenstein, Hopeless, 1963

Roy Lichtenstein made large-scale paintings based on popular comics, probably one of the “lowest” forms of “popular” culture.  The stories treated in these comics were often melodramatic scenes of unrequited love and war, yet they are strangely drained of any emotional affect.  Lichtenstein’s approach to copying the pictures was equally devoid of personality or emotion.  He copied his source material using an overhead projector, and he used the mechanical printing process of ben-day dots to create halftones.  His mechanical, impersonal approach was the complete opposite of “action painting:”

“Lichtenstein . . . rebelled into impersonality . . .  he put the copy into a projector and traced the magnified image onto a canvas for the outline of his painting. His trademark Ben Day dots (the tiny dots used by printers and cartoonists for shading) made his canvases look printed, not painted. “I wanted to look programmed,” he told an interviewer. The hand, bearer of individuality, was fetishized by abstract expressionism. Pop slapped it away.”
Tony Sherman, “When Pop Turned the Artworld Upside Down”

Andy Warhol, 32 Campbell Soups Cans, 1961-2
Museum of Modern Art

Andy Warhol began his career in New York as an award winning illustrator and designer before becoming an artist.  In 1960 he began painting pictures based on banal subjects such as advertisements and newspaper tabloids.  The early works were loosely painted, with drippy paint that made them look like “art,” but he later explored more impersonal methods that internalized the mechanical style of commercial imagery.  He said:  “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.”  This emphasis on impersonality was the exact opposite of Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on personal expression.  To the new generation of artists, the emotional bombast of Abstract Expressionism began to look “fake,” “and as unreal as the melodramas seen in comics and on TV.

In 1963 Warhol began painting consumer products like Campbell’s Soup and Coca Cola.  This work consists of 32 canvases representing the familiar Campbell’s soup can (the number 32 refers to the number of varieties of soup flavors).   The canvases are arranged in a grid to evoke the idea of mass-production, and to suggest a supermarket display.  By equating “art” with “consumer products,” Warhol challenged the widespread belief that art could be separated from everyday life.   Warhol once said “When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.”

Andy Warhol, Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962
Museum of Modern Art

In addition to commonplace “products,” Warhol also did portraits of celebrities, who could also be seen as “products” that the media “packages” for mass consumption.  Importantly, Warhol’s celebrity portraits were not paintings of “people,” but copies of their mass-produced publicity photos.  Warhol began his series of Marilyn portraits shortly after her tragic death by suicide.  The works were all based on one of her best-known publicity photos.  In Gold Marilyn, he treats the media star like a religious icon, as if to suggest that media stars (whom we know only through “packaging” generated by the Hollywood movie industry) have replaced the religious saints of previous ages. 

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962
Tate Gallery

In his Marilyn Diptych Warhol mimics the mass-production process by which the girl, Norma Jean Baker, was transformed into media icon:

“Warhol selected a publicity photo that provides no insight into the woman herself.  Rather, the viewer sees only a mask – the persona the Hollywood myth machine generated.  The garish colors and the flat application of paint contribute to the image’s masklike quality.  The repetition of Monroe’s face reinforces her status as consumer product, her glamorous, haunting visage seemingly confronting the viewer endlessly, as it did the American public in the aftermath of her death.  The right half of the work, with its poor registration of pigment, suggests a sequence of film stills, a reference to the realm from which Monroe derived her fame.”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 428

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