One of the most famous art movements of all time, Pop Art defined the consumerist youth culture of the 1950s and 60s, making art “Pop!” like never before. Pop artists looked to the realms of “popular” culture for inspiration, taking playful, colorful and irreverent imagery from advertising, comic books, magazines, and movies and incorporating it into exciting new forms of art.
Experimenting with the cut-and-paste language of Dada and Surrealism, many artists explored collaging in fresh new ways. They make reference to the industrialized world of capitalism and consumerism with mock-seriousness. Others embraced the rising technology of new techniques including printmaking, photography, and filmmaking, which allowed artists to produce multiples and repeat patterns, removing the pretensions surrounding the individual, isolated work of art. Some continued with traditional mediums of painting and sculpture but found ways of incorporating photographic or printed elements, or styles that mimicked digital effects.
Predominantly a British and American phenomenon throughout the 1950s and 60s, Pop Art had widespread influence in the decades that followed, inspiring millions of worldwide copycats. In fact, Pop married art so successfully with commerce that their union still stands strong today. It continues to inspire and inform countless creative thinkers.
Did You Know Pop Art Began In London, England?
New York’s Andy Warhol is Pop’s most famous icon, but many might not know that the movement actually began in 1940s London. The Independent Group was a band of likeminded artists who met regularly in London’s Institute for Contemporary Art to share ideas. They were united in their fascination with American movies, advertising, and branding that had made their way into British culture. Members included Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, now recognised as the first ever Pop artists. In a cheeky collage by Paolozzi, titled I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947, the word “Pop!” comes firing out of a toy gun, a nod towards the creative text of comic books. Many now see this artwork as the origins of the term “Pop Art”, which Paolozzi used as an abbreviation of the word popular, referencing the group’s fascination with popular culture.
Richard Hamilton’s famous collage Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing? 1956, made fun of the new, idealised American life that was infiltrating Western society. It was a ridiculously exaggerated image of the perfect man and woman are displayed with all the latest gadgets. However they are hollow, superficial emblems of consumerism. Unlike its later American counterpart, British Pop Art was typified by this biting satirical edge which observed American culture from a distance. Hamilton jokingly called their new style, “Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass produced, young gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.”
Neo-Dada And Pop In New York
In 1950s New York, a Neo-Dada culture emerged, exploring the wildly experimental, cut-and-paste absurdism of early 20th century Dada movement. Prominent artists began to appear on the scene, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. In the landmark exhibition at Sydney Janis Gallery in 1962 titled New Realists, artworks were grouped into several recurring themes, including “the daily object,” “mass media” and “repetition.” The British America-based curator Lawrence Alloway spotted a link between British and American art. He was the first to use the term “Pop Art” to define the dawn of a new era. In contrast with the British style of Pop, American artists were living amongst the realms of mass-communication and advertising by observing it from an insider perspective with a less critical eye.
Many art critics in both the United States and Europe were appalled by the use of ‘low’ subject matter in the realms of ‘high’ art, and artists faced harsh criticism while the movement was in its early days. But by the mid-1960s, many more galleries, artists, and buyers had picked up on the rising trend and it was clear that a new style was here to stay.
Warhol And Lichtenstein’s Americana
In 1960s New York, Andy Warhol was the poster boy for American Pop Art. He tapped into popular, famous images from American culture, including Coca Cola, Campbell’s Soup, and iconic celebrities including Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor. His favorite medium was screen-printing, which allowed him to produce striking, boldly-colored images as multiples and repeat patterns, but he also experimented with a wide range of other mediums including painting, photography, and film-making. Establishing his world-famous, New York workshop known as The Factory, he employed a team of assistants to help him take over the New York art scene. Although Warhol is often seen as a glossy symbol of America’s superficial glamour, there was also a sinister edge lurking under many of his artworks, highlighting the darker side of celebrity and fame, particularly when skulls began appearing in his artworks.
American painter Roy Lichtenstein also tapped into the commercial world for subject matter. Initially inspired by his children’s Mickey Mouse bubble-gum wrappers, as seen in his early painting Look Mickey, 1961, he began making large painted versions of single comic-book frames, which he added to and exaggerated to emphasize an even greater dramatic effect. Some works emphasized the theatrical impact of onomatopoeic comic book text, including words such as “Blam”, “Pop”, “Whaam”, and “Varoom.” They were all drawn in exaggerated lettering and surrounded by wildly billowing smoke, fire, and flames, or lines suggesting rapid movement. Instantaneously powerful, these paintings had a long-lasting influence on text art in the 1970s.
But Lichtenstein truly made history with his series of scenes based on the teen-drama comic book Girls’ Romances, capturing angst-ridden young women being swept away by dastardly young men, or falling into pools of despair like the scene in Drowning Girl, 1963. Lichtenstein emphasized and exaggerated the emotional drama of these young women to such a degree that they become laughable by highlighting the superficial nature of the printed image. Replicating the ink-saving Ben-day dot printing technique used for comics served the same purpose and draws our attention to the flattened image. Lichtenstein painted with flat, acrylic Magna paint through a perforated grill to create this synthetic depersonalized aesthetic, with an end result that looks entirely machine-made.
Other Kinds of Pop Art
Arman, Long Term Parking, 1982
In other parts of Europe, variations on American and British Pop Art emerged under different names. In France, a group of artists came together, calling themselves the Nouveau Realistes (New Realists), with members including Arman, Cesar, Christo, Jean Tinguely and Yves Klein. Inspired by American and British Pop Art, they brought elements of popular culture into their art, but they also explored the less glamorous detritus of daily life, lending their art a dirtier, less polished edge. Sculptor Arman brought crushed or abandoned cars into his huge, monumental assemblages, as seen in the totemic Long Term Parking, 1982, while Tinguely made junk-shop machines from old wheels, nuts and bolts, injecting into them a clunky, clanging new lease of life.
A group of artists in Germany also responded to the Pop Art phenomenon in the 1960s, including Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner. Jokingly advertising themselves as “German Pop Artists” to grab attention, in reality their work was more complex and critical. Merging elements of Socialist Realism from East Germany with the Americanised Capitalism of West Germany, they invented the amalgamated term “Capitalist Realism” to describe their in-between stance. Lifting imagery from news reports, advertisements, and celebrity culture, their imagery often had a biting, satirical edge. In Richter’s Party, 1963, for example, a group of celebrities are turned into haunting ghouls who ooze blood into their wine glasses, while in Sigmar Polke’s Bunnies, 1966, Playboy’s “Bunny Girls” are reduced to a pixelated, blur of patterned and smudged dots, echoing the polka-dot language of Roy Lichtenstein.
Postmodernism, Neo-Pop and the Superflat
Since the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, artists have continued to respond in ever more adventurous ways to the expanding world of mass media, often with a critical stance. Throughout the 1970s Postmodern artists played with or reworked imagery from the public eye, sometimes creating inflated versions of reality to emphasize the destructive qualities of consumerism.
American photographer Cindy Sherman’s Feminist stance made cutting observations about society’s superficial, idealized archetypes aimed at women through movies and magazines. Dressing up as a range of caricatures with wigs, fake tans, heightened make-up and false noses, she critiques the ridiculousness of feminine ideals by exposing the dark underbelly of plastic surgery and cosmetic enhancement.
American artist Jeff Koons responded to capitalist culture in the 1980s with mock magazine advertisements and overblown sculptures, enlarging kitsch, cute memorabilia into frighteningly oversized replicas. His series of huge ‘Easyfun-Ethereal’ paintings are mash-ups of advertising snippets. They feature glossy women’s lips and juicy wet fruit floating over tropical landscapes that highlight the indulgent, sexualized nature of advertising. This slick photoreal language is a style that is now known as Neo-Pop. Like Warhol, he runs a vast workshop employing teams of assistants who make his work for him. Mike Kelley’s grossly oversized assemblages are even more grotesque, lumping together luridly colored soft toys into suspended balls of fur that speak of mass consumption, waste, and excess.
If Postmodern and Neo-Pop artists took a critical stance towards popular culture, Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami has injected fun back in. Art critics even call him “Japan’s answer to Andy Warhol.” His ridiculously optimistic world is filled with heady floral prints and smiling faces in candy-sweet pastel tones. Adopting the term “Superflat” to define his synthetic, decorative language, he draws parallels between ancient Japanese woodblocks and contemporary anime or manga cartoons. He states that flat, decorative, and floral designs have been in Japanese society for centuries. Bringing the language of Pop Art full circle, he combines his gaudy, smiling flowers and cheeky, friendly creatures into commercial objects. From sneakers and handbags to phone cases and skateboards he proves how closely intertwined the languages of art and commerce continue to be.