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Pop Goes The Easel: Pop Art

From Andy Warhol's Soup Cans to Roy Lichtenstein's Comic Strips, Pop Art Gave New Life to the Question: What Is Art?
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

In the mid-1960s, Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann made one painting after another of a woman's painted lips. In each one, a cigarette was wedged in the corner of the mouth, with smoke trailing upward. Aside from the cigarette, the smoke, her teeth and a sliver of her gums, there was nothing else in the paintings. No nose, cheeks, chin, eyes.

And that was art?

Absolutely, as were Roy Lichtenstein's elegant reformulations of comic strips, Andy Warhol's paintings of Campbell soup cans and Coke bottles, and James Rosenquist's fragmentary slices of modern life. Who says it's art? A year ago, the Museum of Modern Art put its money where its mouth is--a rumored $10 million to $15 million for Warhol's 200 Soup Cans and $5 million for Rosenquist's F-111. Lichtenstein's death in September of last year, at age 73, underscored that the movement, as fresh as it is even today, has been with us for decades. The paintings may be colorful and popular, but Pop Art is unquestionably Blue Chip.

When the movement began, in the late 1950s and early '60s, critics didn't think much of it. Pop Art was about images--barrages of everyday images--that cropped up repeatedly in ads, billboards, movies, newspapers. It's hard to imagine today, but back then the idea was radical. Grafting the kitschy banalities of popular culture onto the rarefied world of high art was akin to, well, a president who plays the sax on TV.

What's the point of a smoking mouth? Neal Meltzer, director of Christie's contemporary art department, nails it on the head: "Sex sells." So do paintings of Coke bottles. Marilyn. Comic-strip melodramas. Deflated, oversized light switches. Within a brief 30 years, they have all become part of our culture and an overriding influence in end-of-the-millennium art. Name a hot, big-deal artist of today (Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney come to mind), and their artistic lineage can be traced to Andy Warhol or one of his colleagues. Just how did it happen, and why do these works cost so bloody much?

A slew of important questions have come up in the past century or so: Should women vote? Is God dead? Is there life on Mars? What is art? During the nineteenth century, the answer to the last question was pretty simple: landscapes, allegorical and often Biblical scenes (David holding the head of Goliath, say), genre paintings of jolly peasants, or portraits of some high-minded, or at least wealthy and powerful, person. But then artists started leaving their personal mark on what they were creating, rendering their impressions of things, not presenting some supposedly true-to-life record. In 1874, James Abbott McNeill Whistler turned out a painting that was highly abstract, at least at the time: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. A prominent critic charged Whistler with "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

At the turn of the century, various streams of modern art were ridiculed for departing too far from reality. Henri Matisse painted landscapes with striking but unnatural colors (red for a beach, and so on) and was deemed a fauvre, or wild beast. Cubism seemed to smash all barriers, breaking vases and even people down into a bunch of disjointed, overlapping planes. Marcel Duchamp took store-bought items--he called them ready-mades--and exhibited them as art, including a urinal laid on its back that he titled Fountain and signed R. Mutt. Duchamp's message was that anything could be art, and he became a star. Late in life, he said, "When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics.... I threw the bottle rack and urinal in their faces and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty."

By the mid-1950s, the avant-garde included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Not many people liked their paintings, or abstraction in general. Pollock's drip paintings had the look of addled splatterings to all but the cognoscenti. To many, de Kooning's thick slatherings resembled nothing in particular, or maybe the viscera of an oversized mollusk left flattened on a road. (Someday, some curator will put together an exhibition of Pollock's and de Kooning's work, along with a bunch of fakes, just so that people will realize that their kids couldn't do that.) Before long, artists' studios around the world were choked by oversized canvases covered with torrents of paint. Most of it was abstract, and although all of it may have been art, not much was worth looking at.

In the twentieth century's art world, there's a response to every movement. In the telescoped version of the story, the answer to Pollock's and de Kooning's heroic, nearly unconscious grapplings with paint, canvas and their own personal demons was a flag. In 1955, Jasper Johns--an artist making a living doing store-window designs--dreamed that he'd painted a flag, and then did it. Just a flag, flat and stretched out, with feathery, rich brush strokes of encaustic--a bee's wax- and resin-based paint--covering the surface of the painting. Within the art world, the act was a genius stroke of heresy. Johns had gone from the primal howlings of Abstract Expressionism back to cool representation in one painting. The image didn't mean much to the artist himself, though he said, "Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it."

When Johns exhibited his painting at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1958, the Museum of Modern Art bought it immediately. A few years later, de Kooning--unimpressed with Johns' work and grouchy at his success and at Castelli's ability to move art--said, "Give Castelli a couple of beer cans and he'll sell them." The deadpan Johns promptly made a hand-painted bronze of two Ballantine's ale cans, and Castelli promptly sold them.

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