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A Pop-Eye on Art: apart from Warhol

Yes. It's true. Andy Warhol made pop images and icons reach their climax. Exploring the boundaries between product, production, and reproduction, Warhol was a master when it comes to put the viewer in front of the pure image of advertisements

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Yes. It’s true. Andy Warhol made pop images and icons reach their climax. Exploring the boundaries between product, production, and reproduction, Warhol was a master when it comes to put the viewer in front of the pure image of advertisements and media culture. Warhol not only imitated the mass production, but also made the icon’s uniqueness and essence disappear (like how mass production acted).

However, other artists contributed and – actually – started off the pop art game within the artworld. In the Fifties, Abstract Expressionism reached the highest climax of success, thereby being on people’s lips and in collectors’ houses. Nonetheless, a  group of artists opposed the fact that modern art, as representative of visual-cultured mass, could not come from the unconscious.

Fifties and Sixties society was a paradoxical one. Wealthy and prosperity hid racism, wars, and an always-more-empty culture.

Not a much-known fact, pop art had its origin in London, with parallel movements in France and Germany. Let’s go through some of the most influental pop artists.

1) Richard Hamilton

What was so special about fifties’ bourgeois houses of the fifties? Stars, stuff, and brand new fridges. That is what the artist, yet teacher of industrial design, Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) shows us in his small yet dense 1956 collage titled “Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?”. It is a faithful portrait of fifties British society, as a surrogated of its contemporary American one. A Pollock’s drip painting is here merchandized as a rug. A man’s Tootsie-Pop-penis points toward the sequined breasts of the sensually posed girl. Surrealism has never been so real. It is probably the piece of art that mostly symbolizes that popular subculture fed by medias industry’s images and the newest technologies that so well infested Fifties houses.

 

Just what was it that made yesterday's homes so different, so appealing? (1992), Richard Hamilton © Richard Hamilton 2005. All rights reserved, DACS

Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing? (1992), Richard Hamilton © Richard Hamilton 2005. All rights reserved, DACS

 

2) Jasper Johns

In the United States, the impulse for this kind of art production came from Americanism itself. United States’ (as well as European’s) fifties and sixties witnessed a huge economical boom; still, they also felt the threat of a devastating nuclear war with the Soviet Union and the omen of the Vietnam War. American culture and opinion was increasingly depending on media culture and mass production. The father of American Pop art was doubtlessly Jasper Johns (1930), whose first approach to pop art was very intellectualistic. His first Flag (1954-1955) question the concept of image. What Magritte stated in Ceci n’est pas une pipe is here re-proposed and Americanized. Flag’s several reproductions in different conditions show the mutability of perception. Jasper Johns’ flags aimed at actualizing the border between material and immaterial, imitating what advertisements did with their sponsored commodities.

 

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-5

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-5

 

3) Roy Lichtenstein

Lichtenstein’s ironic commentaries stem from the modern man’s plight, in which mass media shaped everything, emotions included. What was Sixties mass visual culture made of? Magazines, advertisements, and television; and as long as comics were part of the American culture, they had to be also part of its art. “I Know How You must feel Brad” (1963) reveals how form and content of comics were used to trivialize and generalize emotions, facts, and characters, in order for them to match popular reality.

Artists of the sixties had to look at art through a “pop eye.” Not a case that this pun was one of theirs. Popeye was one of the cartoons characters often depicted by Liechtenstein. Popeye’s blow to Bluto (from his 1961 work) is the blow that pop art had to the viewer’s eye and to the abstraction of expressionist artists (Pop-eye), whose art was becoming a commodity. Society itself had become a cartoon stripe.

 

Roy Lichtenstein, Popeye, 1961 - UberAura

 

4) Claes Oldemburg

Figurative art was not the only protagonist. Besides the exhibitions, “happenings” were organized. Claes Oldemburg (1929) was one of these performance artists (together with Kaprow), and the first to open an art-commodities store. His Store (1961) was an actual shop in which the artist sold commodities that resembled three-dimensional Expressionist paintings: clothes and food were pregnant of polish, paint, and glue. He thought that galleries and museums were not the right place for art. At this point, art was nothing but a commodity. His gloomy Store showed the tragicomic reality of mass production.

 

Claes Oldemburg, Store, 1961

Claes Oldemburg, Store, 1961

 

Even if it could not seem so, Pop Art is one of the most paradoxical and controversial art movements in art history. Was Pop Art trying to elevate pop images into art or did it aim at reducing art to empty images? I guess both, as long as it made fun of contemporary society. In the first case it was the spokesman and the authentic representative of pop culture. At the same time, by doing so, it didn’t but turning commodities into the only possible art that mass audience deserved and understood. And yes, they bought it (in all senses of the word).

 

 

 

After earning a BA in Art History (with concentration on modern and contemporary art) she realized her deep interest in museum studies while attending the MA in Visual Arts and Curatorial studies in Milan. Her research is focused on the cultural dynamics of museums and public collections and on their capacity of creating critical spirit within different audiences.

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