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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

(continued from page 1)

While Johns and his colleague Robert Rauschenberg were breaking barriers in America, a group of artists in England were falling in love with the idea of the big, bold, prepackaged America. In 1957, mesmerized (albeit, long-distance) by the wealth and the dazzling consumerism of the country, British artist Richard Hamilton listed the characteristics of what would be called Pop Art as: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business. The previous year, Hamilton had put together a small collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? Clipping images out of magazines, he wound up with a fantasy model home, complete with beefcake husband, stripper wife, canned ham, comic-strip background and a slew of other imagery relating to what became Pop Art. The man even had an oversized Tootsie Pop under one arm.

Also, at that time, two other British artists, Alison and Peter Smithson, wrote, "Advertising has caused a revolution in the popular art field. ["Pop Art" as a title didn't exist until 1958, and didn't come into vogue until a few years later.] Advertising has become respectable in its own right and is beating the fine arts at their old game...[and] making a bigger contribution to our visual climate that any of the traditional fine arts." The British, writes American critic Robert Hughes in his 1991 book, The Shock of the New, "saw the gross sign language of American cities with the kind of distant longing Gauguin felt for Tahiti--a mythical world of innocent plenty, far from the austerities of a victorious but pinched England....For them, the imagery of American capital was an equalizer, an escape from class."

The American artists who came to define Pop Art by 1962--Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann--weren't aware of what their counterparts in England were up to. They came to Pop Art differently, though they arrived at pretty much the same place: art that is representational, colorful, bold and a bit perverse, at least in terms of art history.

After the emotional indulgence of Abstract Expressionism, what could be more perverse than a painting of a cartoon? In fact, the cartoon tangent of Pop Art was one of those groovy, synchronistic developments--like Picasso's and Braque's Cubism--where different artists who didn't know of each other hit on the same idea at the same time. In 1958, a young Lichtenstein entertained his sons, ages four and two, by making loopy drawings of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny. Lichtenstein was a professor of art at the time, and within three years he'd realized that drawings like those, enlarged and with the expressionistic brushwork removed, was the kind of art he wanted to pursue. In 1961, he made his first painting from a comic strip. Also by 1961, California artist Ed Ruscha had incorporated a hand-drawn copy of a "Little Orphan Annie" strip in one of his paintings, and Warhol had done a couple of comic-strip style works. Another California artist, Mel Ramos, specialized in such cartoon heroes as Batman.

What was going on? No one really knows, but there was clearly something in the air. Years later, in 1969, Lichtenstein said that his work was "dealing with the images that have come about in the commercial world, because there are certain things about them which are impressive or bold."

Was Pop Art a crass, cynical statement about fine art, commercial art or people's tastes? No, said Lichtenstein: "It's not saying that commercial art is terrible, or 'look what we've come to'--that may be a sociological fact, but it is not what this art is about." On another occasion, he said, "In parody, the implication is the perversion [of the original source], and I feel that in my own work I don't mean it to be that. Because I don't dislike the work that I'm parodying.... The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire." Ever since Cézanne, Lichtenstein said, serious art "has had less and less to do with the world; it looks inward.... Pop art looks out into the world. It appears to accept its environment, which is not good or bad, but different, another state of mind."

In his own renderings of comic strips, Lichtenstein wasn't simply copying the illustrations that appeared in the comics. Although he started with a panel or a series of panels, he refined and transformed the images. According to Lichtenstein, comic-strip images have "shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified. The purpose is different; [the illustrator] intends to depict and I intend to unify."

Or, more plainly, turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. And Lichtenstein pulled it off. The comic panels, vastly enlarged, obviously have far more presence than a two-inch square on newsprint. Beyond that, Lichtenstein distills and edits, taking days to work over something that a graphic artist knocked out in minutes. His paintings have a presence, elegance and resonance (OK, part of that is the question "So what happens next?") that illustration art just doesn't have. By using hundreds of dots to make up his paintings, emulating the effect of newspaper photographs, Lichtenstein brought fine art closer to commercial art: it looked impersonal and mass-produced. He wanted his touch to seem neutral, with none of the expressive marks that come from mushing paint around on canvas.

Warhol quickly abandoned his version of comic-strip art--perhaps because he felt there was too much competition from Lichtenstein, who was already represented by Castelli, who, in turn, was whom Warhol wanted as his dealer. Warhol turned his attention to other facets of popular culture, such as newspaper advertisements that promised to make your life better (one painting, Before and After, shows a woman's nose pre- and post-nose job); food; and celebrities. "I adore America, and these are some comments on it," he said. "It is a projection of everything that can be bought and sold, the practical but impermanent symbols that sustain us."

Like Lichtenstein, and unlike Johns, who wasn't actually a Pop Artist (as he was not concerned with advertising and commercial images), the surface of Warhol's work doesn't show signs of brush strokes: it's as flat as a pancake, like a poster or an advertisement. "I want to be a machine," said Warhol (who also made a six-hour movie of a man sleeping and deemed sex "the biggest nothing" that ever was).

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