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From Warhol to Comics, A Guide through Pop Art

Pop art emerged during the 1950s and 1960s in the USA and Britain, drawing inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture. It all started with New York artists Andy WarholRoy LichtensteinJames Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, all of whom drew on popular imagery and were actually part of an international phenomenon.

Following the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists, Pop’s reintroduction of identifiable imagery (drawn from mass media and popular culture) was a major shift in the direction of modernism. The subject matter became far from traditional “high art” themes of morality, mythology, and classic history; rather, Pop artists celebrated commonplace objects and people of everyday life, in this way seeking to elevate popular culture to the level of fine art. Perhaps owing to the incorporation of commercial images, Pop art has become one of the most recognizable styles of modern art.

Pop art began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day. Instead, they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music and comic books for their imagery.

In 1957 pop artist Richard Hamilton listed the ‘characteristics of pop art’ in a letter to his friends the architects Peter and Alison Smithson:

Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business

Modernist critics were horrified by the pop artists’ use of such ‘low’ subject matter and by their apparently uncritical treatment of it. In fact, pop both took art into new areas of subject matter and developed new ways of presenting it in art and can be seen as one of the first manifestations of postmodernism.

AMERICAN POP VS. BRITISH POP

Early pop art in Britain was fuelled by American popular culture viewed from a distance, while the American artists were inspired by what they saw and experienced living within that culture.

In the United States, pop style was a return to representational art (art that depicted the visual world in a recognizable way) and the use of hard edges and distinct forms after the painterly looseness of abstract expressionism. By using impersonal, mundane imagery, pop artists also wanted to move away from the emphasis on personal feelings and personal symbolism that characterized abstract expressionism.

In Britain, the movement was more academic in its approach. While employing irony and parody, it focused more on what American popular imagery represented, and its power in manipulating people’s lifestyles. 

Roy Lichtenstein and Pulp Culture

 

Lichtenstein proved that he could fulfill demands for a “great” composition even though his subject matter derived from comic books. In addition to using the imagery from these mass-produced picture books, Lichtenstein appropriated the techniques used to create the images in comic books to create his paintings. He not only adopted the same bright colors and clear outlines as popular art, his most innovative contribution was his use of Ben-Day dots: small dots used to render color in mass-manufactured comics. Focusing on a single panel within a comic strip, Lichtenstein’s canvases are not an exact facsimile, but are rather the artist’s creative re-imaging of the composition in which elements may have been added or eliminated, scale could shift, and text might be edited. By hand-painting the usually machine-generated dots, and recreating comic book scenes, Lichtenstein blurred the distinction between mass reproduction and high art.

James Rosenquist and the Monumental Image

Rosenquist also directly appropriated images from popular culture for his paintings. However, rather than produce rote copies, Rosenquist exerted creative control through his surrealistic juxtapositions of products and celebrities, often inserting political messages. As part of his method, Rosenquist collaged magazine clippings from advertisements and photo spreads, and then used the results as studies for his final painting. Rosenquist’s training in billboard painting transitioned perfectly into his realistic renderings of those collages expanded onto a monumental scale. With works often much larger and wider than 20 feet, Rosenquist imbued the mundane with the same status previously reserved for high, sometimes royal, art subjects.

Andy Warhol and Repetition

 

Andy Warhol is most famous for his vividly colored portraits of celebrities, but his subject matter has varied widely throughout his career. The common theme amidst the different subjects is their inspiration in mass consumer culture. His earliest works depict objects like Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans, reproduced ad infinitum, as if the gallery wall were a shelf in a supermarket. Warhol transitioned from hand painting to screenprinting to further facilitate the large-scale replication of pop images. Warhol’s insistence on mechanical reproduction rejected notions of artistic authenticity and genius. Instead, he acknowledged the commodification of art, proving that paintings were no different from cans of Campbell’s soup; both have material worth and could be bought and sold like consumer goods. He further equated the mass-produced status of consumer goods with that of celebrities in portraits like Marilyn Diptych(1962).

Pop art would continue to influence artists in later decades, with artists like Warhol maintaining a larger-than-life presence within the New York art world into the 1980s. Pop fell out of favor during the 1970s as the art world shifted focus from art objects to installations, performances, and other less tangible art forms. However, with the revival of painting at the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, the art object came back into favor once again, and popular culture provided subject matter that was easy for viewers to identify and understand. One of the leading figures of the Neo-Pop movement was Jeff Koons, whose appropriation of pop culture icons such as Michael Jackson and mass-produced objects like Hoover vacuum cleaners further pushed the boundaries of high art. In Japan, the work of Takashi Murakamihas been cited as a more recent example of Neo-Pop, due to his use of popular anime imagery in his “Superflat” style and his successful partnering with fashion labels like Louis Vuitton. Such artists continue to break down the barrier between high and low art forms, while reevaluating the role of art as a commodity in and of itself.

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