How Did Pop Art Get Its Name?

Pop Art was the quintessential art movement of the 1960s, celebrating mass media and advertising. But where did the name come from?

Aug 1, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
how did pop art get its name


Pop Art is one of the most celebrated art movements of all time, and its influence is still widely felt across contemporary art practices today. Many of us know and associate the term Pop Art with Andy Warhol and his famed New York Factory, or the widespread use of popular, or pop culture within the realms of fine art throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, the origins of the term ‘Pop’ are a subject of widespread debate, with several different artists, curators and writers associated with its earliest use. We take a look through some of the first uses of the term Pop Art’ to find out more about its possible birthplace.


Many Agree That Pop Art Was Named by British Curator Lawrence Alloway

lawrence alloway installing systemic painting
Lawrence Alloway Installing Systemic Painting, 1966, via The Guggenheim Museum, New York


The most popular and accepted theory is that Pop Art was first named by the British curator and art critic Lawrence Alloway, who observed a rising trend for art which incorporated elements of mass manufacturing, advertising, consumerism and printed imagery, through various experimental media. He first made use of the term in an article titled The Arts and the Mass Media, although technically he used the phrase ‘popular mass culture’ instead of ‘Pop Art.’ Alloway was a leading member of the Independent Group in the UK, a visual arts society made up of artists, designers, writers and curators which is widely accepted as the birthplace for British Pop Art.


In the following decades Alloway moved to the United States, where he became a widely influential writer and curator, working for the Guggenheim Museum. Alloway helped to popularize Pop Art while living in the US. 


The Term Has Also Been Attributed to Alison and Peter Smithson

British architectural duo Alison and Peter Smithson, who were among the first to name Pop Art
British architectural duo Alison and Peter Smithson, who were among the first to name Pop Art


Another early use of the term Pop Art has been attributed to the husband-and-wife team Alison and Peter Smithson, who were both also active members of the Independent Group. They first used the moniker ‘Pop Art’ in the article But Today We Collect Ads, published in Ark Magazine in 1956, which argued that the world of mass media and advertising was becoming more enticing and engaging than fine art. They wrote, “Advertising has become respectable in its own right and is beating the fine arts at their old game,” adding, “The pop art of today, the equivalent of the Dutch fruit and flower arrangement, the pictures of second rank of all Renaissance schools, and the plates that first presented to the public the Wonder of the machine Age and the New Territories, is to be found in today’s glossies bound up with the throwaway object.”

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British Artist Richard Hamilton Used the Term

just what is it that makes homes appealing richard hamilton
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? by Richard Hamilton, 1956, Kunsthalle Tübingen


British artist Richard Hamilton was another member of the Independent Group, and his photomontage collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing, 1956 is widely accepted as the first ‘Pop’ artwork. In 1957, Hamilton wrote a latter to the Smithsons describing Pop Art as “Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten).” All these traits flew in the face of traditional fine arts, and came to be the ideal description for Pop Art as it took hold in the United States.


Eduardo Paolozzi Was the First to Incorporate the Word ‘Pop’ in Art

Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947
Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947


While the various curators, designers and artists we have discussed here wrote about and discussed the conception of ‘Pop’, it was the British artist Eduardo Paolozzi who first incorporated the word into a work of art. In his collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947, he incorporated a pinup girl with the Coca-Cola logo and a man’s hand holding a pistol, from where the word ‘POP! Jumped out in a comic-book style puff of white smoke. 


The Term Is Most Commonly Associated with American Pop Art

warhol self portrait
Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol, 1966, via MoMA


While British artists made the first use of the term Pop Art, artists in the United States are more famously associated with Pop, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Warhol wrote, “The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second – comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles – all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.