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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 2)

One of Warhol's most striking touches was the repetition of the same image within a painting, as seen in 192 One-Dollar Bills, 200 Soup Cans, 210 Coca-Cola Bottles and additional works that feature endless images of the creature comforts in a consumer society. He also repeated Marilyn Monroe 50 times, to be consumed in other ways. By the mid-1960s, he had moved on to his "Death and Disaster" series, which included Suicide, a newsroom photo of a suicide repeated 12 times; Race Riot, in which police dogs go after a black man; and A Big Electric Chair, a stark photograph of an electric chair, in various hues, including a bilious yellow-green. The repeated image in each of the paintings varies, albeit slightly. There is no real comment on any of it, just a blank gaze. "Warhol's autistic stare was the same for heroes and heroines as for death and disaster," Hughes writes in The Shock of the New. "As extremity promotes indifference, so that one accident is all accidents, so celebrity breeds clones."

James Rosenquist, whose day job early on was painting billboards, blew up and overlaid contrasting, jarring images from various sources. One painting contained three bands of images with a car at the top, a couple making love in the middle, and a plate of spaghetti at the bottom: wheels, love and food--what else could anyone want?

Wesselmann, when he wasn't focusing on mouths, did still lifes. He featured not plates of grapes and pomegranates, as in eighteenth-century Netherlands paintings, but commonplace objects of his day: a pack of Tareyton cigarettes, a can of Del Monte asparagus, and an ear of corn with chunks of butter melting across the kernels. A number of the paintings featuring a woman (his wife) were part of a series The Great American Nude. In addition to paintings, Wesselmann did wall reliefs--a wall, with a real radiator, a real door and a painting of a bedroom with a sardonically idealized reclining wife: topless, no facial features except the mouth, lips parted.

While Pop Artists were fixating on name-brand products, melodrama and desire, Claes Oldenburg was bringing food and objects to Godzilla-sized life: a seven-foot hamburger, topped with a pickle; a 20-foot clothespin, commissioned for a public square. These were basic objects of life created to serve us, but in their overgrown state they dominated and reshaped the space around them.

On a smaller scale, Oldenburg's Pastry Case I--all sundaes, pies, cakes--tempted and repulsed. The suggestion of the food was itself enticing. But the painted plaster sculpture suggested rot.

Initially, critics didn't buy any of this as art. Harold Rosenberg, one of the leading contemporary art critics and a champion of the Abstract Expressionists, said of Pop: "Its congenital superficiality... resulted in a qualitative monotony that could cause interest in still another gag of this kind to vanish overnight." Others were more blunt. Warhol was dismissed as "the Campbell's soup guy"; Rosenquist, "the billboard painter"; Lichtenstein, the "comic-strip man" and, according to Life, "the worst artist in the U.S."

Maybe, but people didn't care. The art was bold, colorful, easy to look at, and perhaps funny or ironic. Collectors gobbled the stuff up, though they were not necessarily the old-money literati. Robert and Ethel Scull, who owned a taxi fleet in New York, put together what was then probably the largest, strongest collection of Pop Art. There was a lot of new money in America, and Pop Art was fun.

Warhol loved the attention, but others felt that people just weren't getting it. Early in his career, Lichtenstein recalled, "It was hard to get a painting which was despicable enough so no one would hang it--everyone was hanging everything." As early as 1963, Wesselmann complained that Pop Art's fans "begin to sound like some nostalgia cult--they really worship Marilyn Monroe or Coca-Cola. The importance people attach to things an artist uses is irrelevant."

Today, prices for Pop can be pretty steep. Warhol's work has sold at auction for as much as $4.07 million, and maybe more, but lesser works sell for well under $100,000 (including a portrait of O.J. Simpson from the late '70s that went for around $60,000 before he went to trial). Lichtenstein's paintings have sold for a little more than $6 million, Rosenquist's for a little more than $2 million but far more commonly for less than $100,000. Wesselmann's creations have brought as much as $625,000 at auction, but again, they often bring less than $100,000, as do Oldenburg's. Warhol is particularly hot at the moment, notes Neal Meltzer, but he adds, "The drawings market for Lichtenstein is a great place to collect. You can get a small Lichtenstein painting for $60,000, or a great comic-strip drawing for the same amount."

Another arena is prints. All of these artists were prolific printmakers (or, in Oldenburg's case, objects made in editions). According to Nina del Rio of Sotheby's, Warhol prints at $5,000 aren't that hard to come by, and many prints by other Pop artists sell for even less.

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