Pop Art was an art movement characterized by imagery of popular culture and consumerism. The word “Pop” was coined in 1955 by British curator Lawrence Alloway to describe a new form of “popular” art. Emerging in New York and London during the mid-1950s, it became the dominant style until the late 1960s. By using simple, everyday imagery, and bold blocks of color, Pop Art was a visually attractive style that was able to appeal to a large audience. The common focus of Pop Art was to confront the new trends of mass-production, mass-media, and mass-culture, reflecting the newfound power of film and television by using imagery of consumerism and popular culture such as advertisements, celebrities, and comic strips. Over the years, Pop Art has evolved but remains a relevant style and attitude with which artists today continue to embrace.
After World War II, there was a strong sense of optimism in both Western Europe and the United States, and through successful developments in the economy, societies embraced a consumeristic culture, which is commonly referred to as the “post-war consumer boom.” At the same time, with the help of the Beatles in the UK and Elvis in the US creating a globalization of pop music, a type of cultural revolution began against dominant traditional culture. These new attitudes helped introduce a space for Pop Art to challenge the traditions of fine art by using imagery and materials from popular culture and consumerism, while also rejecting the popular art trends of the day.
During this cultural revolution, while the television was replacing radio as the dominant media outlet, the ideas of the Abstract Expressionists was dominating the contemporary art world, becoming the first American art movement to gain global popularity. Therefore, in both the UK and the US, the emergence of Pop Art is understood as a reaction against Abstract Expressionist painting.
British Pop Art
As the pioneers to British Pop Art, London artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi joined with Lawrence Alloway to found the Independent Group, a group of creative individuals who got together between the years of 1952 and 1955 to explore radical approaches to visual art. At their first meeting, Paolozzi presented a series of collages created from American magazines that he got from GI’s in Paris in the late 1940s. This series was entitled ‘Bunk’ (short for ‘bunkum’ meaning nonsense), taking an ironic perspective towards the all-American lifestyle. The first artwork to include the word ‘POP’ appeared in one of these collages, entitled I was a Rich Man’s Plaything.
In the 1950’s, many British artists viewed the American lifestyle as a more inclusive, youthful culture that embraced the social influence of mass media and mass production. Pop Art was their way of expressing a desire for change. They looked to the ideas of the Dadaists, who used found objects and nonsensical combinations of random images to incite a reaction from the establishment. Similarly, British Pop artists adopted the language of using collages and assemblages, but instead focused on producing mass imagery of mass popular culture to challenge definitions.
Richard Hamilton’s collage from 1956, entitled Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? is the perfect example of pop imagery: comics, newspapers, advertising, cars, food, packaging, appliances, celebrity, sex, the space age, television and the movies. A black and white version was used as the cover for the catalogue of the exhibition “This Is Tomorrow” held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1956. This show was pivotal in inspiring a new generation of young British artists, such as Peter Blake, Allen Jones, David Hockney, Richard Smith, and Derek Boshier.
American Pop Art
Pop Art in America emerged in the late 1950s and evolved differently than in in the UK. American Pop Art simultaneously expanded from and reacted against the basic ideas of Abstract Expressionism. Many felt that Abstract Expressionist painting had become too elitist and introspective and sought to reverse the trend and pull art away from the obscurity of abstraction and towards the real world again. To do so, they reintroduced the image as a structural tool in painting. By completely blurring the lines between high and low art, they made art using everyday, ordinary items, consumer goods, and mass media.
The Pop Art movement in America developed most prominently in two main cities: New York and Los Angeles. The New York art scene differed from the one in L.A., so the development of Pop Art in these two cities evolved quite distinctly from one another, with different groups of artists interpreting their own views on popular culture.
New York Pop Art
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns
In New York, it was Neo-Dadaists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns who are recognized as having bridged the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Although the two movements of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art seem to share very little in common, they both questioned the expressive possibilities of paint and whether its sensuous nature can ever truly sustain an authentic expression during such a mechanized time. Artists such as Rauschenberg and Johns decided that the only option was to confront the inauthentic, the mechanic, and the mediated.
Both Rauschenberg and Johns were heavily influenced by Dada ideas and challenging the definitions of art, such as using readymades (found objects) to question the value of the art object. Instead of using found objects, Johns introduced ’found images’ as his primary subject matter, incorporating flags, targets, letters, and numbers. His interest in using familiar signs and iconography contributed to the later ideas of Pop Art. By using subject matter that was recognizable yet ordinary and depersonalized, Johns was able to explore the visual characteristics of his medium, and therefore struck a balance between abstraction and representation.
Rauschenberg is most well-known for his “Combines,” where he used aspects of both painting and sculpture by combining non-traditional materials and found objects to eliminate the distinctions between painting and sculpture. By placing these works in the context of art, he gave new meaning to the ordinary objects he found. Rauschenberg became very interested in our changing perception and interpretation of images, using collage as his way to experiment with popular images from newspapers and magazines. By combining oil painting with silkscreen printing, he reproduced images onto canvas or print to mimic our personal experience of being bombarded by images every day.
Robert Rauschenberg | Sling-Shots Lit #5, 1985 | 11-color lithograph and assemblage with a sailcloth, Mylar, a wooden lightbox, a fluorescent light fixture, aluminum, a moveable window shade system, and Plexiglas bars | Sold for: $38,837.50
Andy Warhol, the most famous and iconic Pop Artist, expanded on this idea of capturing a type of visual ‘noise,’ using repetition of familiar images to represent a de-sensitization to the images we see in the media. Originally a commercial artist, his subject matter came from mass-culture imagery: advertisements, newspapers, comic strips, television, and celebrities of all types. By using second-hand images of consumer products and famous people, Warhol was fascinated by the ordinary and used his art to make the ordinary interesting. Through his most famous series, Campbell’s Soup Cans, where he paints each individual type of Campbell’s soup can, Warhol presents the aesthetic of mass-production as a reflection of contemporary American culture.
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good.” – Andy Warhol
To Warhol, images are like products that are consumed over and over again, and that images can only represent other images – there is no such thing as originality. To push this idea further, his images of celebrities reveal that such images are carefully structured illusions. For instance, in his Gold Marilyn, he takes a black and white movie still of Marilyn Monroe, crops it, and fills the background in gold to recall Christian iconography. Warhol also emphasized the idea of repetition through his large use of silk screen printing. Not only was he reproducing images, but using a medium whose inherent nature is that of reproducing. The artist’s own studio became known as The Factory, which became full of assistants and people as a means to produce such large amounts of Warhol’s prints and artwork.
Another New York artist who became a leading figure of Pop Art was Roy Lichtenstein. Inspired by the basic idea behind the Pop art movement in creating a type of art with instant meaning, he sought out subject matter that was easily recognizable: comic strips.
Lichtenstein’s dot-style of painting has become iconic in today’s American culture, although he initially received much criticism for what people saw as mere copying and lack of originality. Lichtenstein’s famous paintings, such as Whaam! and Drowning Girl, involved heavy black outlines and primary-colored dots (which were painted through stencils given their large size), magnifying the details of the images. The difference with Lichtenstein’s work, in comparison to other artists who were incorporating similar kitschy material, was that he made the cartoon the artwork itself. His paintings emphasized the unrefined printing processes and mechanical reproduction, most blatantly that of newspapers, and therefore stressed a main lesson of Pop art, which was that all messages and methods of communication are filtered through codes or languages.
James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg
Other artists in New York who were part of the Pop Art movement included James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg. Rosenquist began as a billboard painter before joining the craze of Pop Art. To address his own views on mass-media and popular culture, he enlarged his images to create overwhelming grandiose works of seemingly unrelated images. Oftentimes, these works would fill entire gallery walls. The sense of overwhelm was the artist’s unique way of expressing society’s numbness to its unhealthy obsession with not only material consumption, but also with political and celebrity stardom.
Rosenquist’s most famous work is the massive F-111, which received critical acclaim. Created in 1964 and 1965, it was made in part as a type of protest against militarism in America. Across an eighty-six foot work containing fifty-one panels, the work features an image of a fighter plane interjected with images, including a beach umbrella, a mushroom cloud, spaghetti, and a young girl under a hair dryer that looks very much like a warhead.
Oldenburg was one of the main sculptors of Pop Art, as well as a performance artist. He wanted to represent the vulgarity of American culture, specifically that of New York. Simply, his work focused on turning the familiar into something strange. To do so, he would enlarge ordinary, commonplace objects and place them in public spaces, thus encouraging the viewer to examine their environment differently. Oldenburg’s subject matter in his so-called ‘soft-sculptures,’ whether it’s a soggy hamburger or a clothespin, serves to highlight the absurdity of American consumerism (as well as the art world, where he sees the viewer as the consumer) through a more light-hearted and humorous view than his contemporaries.
Los Angeles Pop Art
The art scene of Los Angeles, was far less stiff than in New York and the east coast, and this openness was apparent through the styles of the artists who lived and worked there. The Pasadena Art Museum was the first museum to showcase Pop Art in their exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects,” with art by Warhol and Lichtenstein, as well as many L.A. artists like Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud, and Joe Goode. These L.A. artists moved the focus of Pop Art away from specific consumer products and beyond repetition in order to involve personal experience. They also found a way to express certain feelings, emotions, and attitudes, while at the same time still pushing definitions between popular culture and high art.
Ed Ruscha was one of the leading Los Angeles Pop artists. Working in various media, mainly painting or printing, Ruscha used words and phrases as subject matter to stress the omnipresence of signage in Los Angeles. His first reference to popular culture was the painting Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962), where he appropriated the logo of 20th Century Fox in a simplified composition with the hard edges and basic palette of a cartoon, reflecting that of similar billboards. Ruscha’s use of words in painting continued to blur the lines between signage in advertising, painting, and even abstraction. In doing so, he weakened the separation between the commercial and aesthetic worlds.
Ruscha’s work in Pop Art influenced the Conceptual art that emerged in the late 1960s, which focused on the idea behind the work instead of the particular image. His work went further than simply reproducing images and themes present in mass-media and mass-culture – his work explored the interchangeability of image, text, place, and experience.
David Hockney was a British Pop artist who became a part of the Los Angeles art scene after moving there and making it his home for many years. After a visit to the sunny city around 1963, he was inspired to create a series of paintings that featured swimming pools. In using the new medium of acrylic paint, Hockney created flat but realistic images with bright vibrant colors. Hockney also revived the art of figurative painting through a style that reflected the visual language of advertising. One main difference in Hockney’s work from the other Pop artists is the influence Cubism as well as personal subject matter in his work. In many of his works, Hockney combines several scenes into a single view, often using scenes from his own life experiences.
Keith Haring and Street Art
Later on into the 1970s and 1980s, artists such as Keith Haring emerged and progressed the important role Pop Art had on not only the art world but in the social atmosphere. Known also for his activism, he used his art to promote awareness of AIDS, which he himself died from at the early age of 31. Haring created a unique style of graffiti drawings on the subways and sidewalks of New York City. By combining a cartoonish style with raw energy, he developed a very specific pop-graffiti style focused on bold yet fluid outlines against a crowded yet rhythmic background of imagery and symbols. His subjects often included fun figures, such as dancing people, barking dogs, flying saucers, and people with TVs as heads.
Bringing art out into the busy public spaces of commuters, Haring, along with with fellow artist friends like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, truly bridged the gap between the art world and street art. They influenced an entire generation, including today’s artists Banksy and Shepard Fairey.
Neo-Pop and Present Day
Pop artists like Warhol continued to hold a larger-than-life presence in the New York art world into the 1980s, but the popularity of pop began declining in the 1970s when the art world started focusing on installation and performance art. However, the art object came back into favor with the revival of painting in the early 1980s, with popular culture providing viewers with subject matter easy to understand and identify.
This movement is known as Neo-Pop, with Jeff Koons as one of the most prominent artists. By appropriating icons of pop culture like Michael Jackson and mass-produced objects like vacuum cleaners, Koons increasingly pushes the boundaries of high art. He is inspired by items not typically considered as fine art, and by stripping industrial-made objects of their practical purposes, he re-presents them as art. Koons’ most famous works are his Balloon Dogs, which are shiny, oversized sculptures of what look like the twisted balloon figures of dogs that clowns make at birthday parties. These colorful sculptures, however, are made with the finest of materials: mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating.
Although his work appears cheap, it is expensive, which challenges the public and important art collectors to reevaluate their idea of what fine art looks like. Viewed as a type of genius, Koons is the top earning living artist today.
Other Neo-Pop artists include Alex Katz, Yayoi Kusama, Julian Opie, and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Murakami uses popular anime imagery in his “Superflat” style and has recently partnered with fashion labels like Louis Vuitton. By eliminating boundaries between high and low art forms, Murakami continues to redefine the role of art as a commodity.
The Pop Art movement is still relevant and influential in today’s art and culture, with the political posters of Shepard Fairey, who gained popular attention with his Barack Obama’s “Hope” campaign posters in 2008, and the famously anonymous Banksy who continues his satirical graffiti art commenting on social issues oftentimes through dark humor. Today, Pop Art continues to thrive as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists.