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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?
| By Andrew Decker | From 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.

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).

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.

Now, of course, Pop is ancient history in the art world. By the early 1970s, Pop Art was out, Conceptualism and Minimalism were in. Warhol and his brethren continued to work, shifting their focus from time to time, but Pop's moment had passed. Yet it remains one of the major post-war movements. Given that and the fact that Warhol spent his life paying homage to consumerism, the rumored $10 million or more that the Museum of Modern Art paid for his 200 Soup Cans seems fair enough.

Andrew Decker is a freelance journalist based in New York and a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine.