Pop Art was the art of popular culture. It was the visual art movement that characterized a sense of optimism during the post-war consumer boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
It included different styles of painting and sculpture from various countries, but what they all had in common was an interest in mass-media, mass-production, and mass-culture.
British Pop Art
The word ‘POP‘ was first coined in 1954, by the British art critic Lawrence Alloway, to describe a new type of art that was inspired by the imagery of popular culture.
Alloway, alongside the artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, was among the founding members of the Independent Group, a collective of artists, architects, and writers who explored radical approaches to contemporary visual culture during their meetings at ICA in London between 1952 and 1955.
They became the forerunners to British Pop art. At their first meeting, Paolozzi gave a visual lecture entitled ‘Bunk‘ (short for ‘bunkum’ meaning nonsense) which took an ironic look at the all-American lifestyle.
This was illustrated by a series collages created from American magazines that he received from GI’s still resident in Paris in the late 1940s. ‘I was a Rich Man’s Plaything‘, one of the ‘Bunk’ series, was the first visual artwork to include the word ‘POP’.
Some young British artists in the 1950’s, who grew up with the wartime austerity of ration books and utility design, viewed the seductive imagery of American popular culture and its consumerist lifestyle with a romantic sense of irony and a little bit of envy.
They saw America as being the land of the free – free from the crippling conventions of a class-ridden establishment that could suffocate the culture they envisaged: a more inclusive, youthful culture that embraced the social influence of mass media and mass production.
Pop Art became their mode of expression in this search for change and its language was adapted from Dada collages and assemblages.
The Dadaists had created irrational combinations of random images to provoke a reaction from the establishment of their day
British Pop artists adopted a similar visual technique but focused their attention on the mass imagery of popular culture which they waved as a challenge in the face of the establishment.
Richard Hamilton’s collage of 1956, ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ is the ultimate catalog of pop art imagery: comics, newspapers, advertising, cars, food, packaging, appliances, celebrity, sex, the space age, television and the movies.
A black and white version of this collage was used as the cover for the catalog of the ‘This Is Tomorrow‘ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956.
This show heralded a widening of our understanding of what culture is and inspired a new generation of young British artists that included Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Allen Jones, Joe Tilson, Derek Boshier, Richard Smith and R.B Kitaj.
American Pop Art
Pop art in America evolved in a slightly different way to its British counterpart. American Pop Art was both a development of and a reaction against Abstract Expressionist painting.
Abstract Expressionism was the first American art movement to achieve global acclaim but, by the mid-1950’s, many felt it had become too introspective and elitist.
American Pop Art evolved as an attempt to reverse this trend by reintroducing the image as a structural device in painting, to pull art back from the obscurity of abstraction into the real world again. This was a model that had been tried and tested before.
Picasso had done something similar forty years previously when he collaged ‘real world‘ printed images onto his still lifes, as he feared that his painting was becoming too abstract.
Around 1955, two remarkable artists emerged who would lay the foundations of a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
They were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the forerunners of American Pop Art.
Jasper Johns’ early artworks question how we look at, perceive and make art.
He does not distinguish between subject and object in his work or art and life for that matter. In his eyes, they are both the same thing. Johns believes that we should not look upon a painting as a representation or illusion but as an object with its own reality.
Like the forerunners of British Pop Art, Johns was influenced by Dada ideas, in particular, the ‘readymades‘ (found objects) of Marcel Duchamp, whose bottle racks and bicycle wheels challenged the definition of the art object.
However, it was not ‘found objects’ that Johns introduced as a subject for his paintings, but ‘found images’ – flags, targets, letters, and numbers – and it was this iconography of familiar signs that appealed to Pop.
He saw them as “pre-formed, conventional, depersonalized, factual, exterior elements.”
Johns’ depersonalized images provided an antidote to the obscure personal abstraction of late Abstract Expressionism.
His use of such neutral icons offered him a subject that was immediately recognizable but so ordinary that it left him free to work on other levels.
His subjects provided him with a structure upon which he could explore the visual and physical qualities of his medium. The results were a careful balance between representation and abstraction.
Johns painted in encaustic, an archaic medium that dates from the first century which fuses pigment in hot wax. He combined encaustic with newspaper collage to create a seductive expanse of paint where his sensitive mark-making articulates the surface of the work.
His fascination with the overall unity of the surface plane in a picture places him in a tradition that stretches back through Cubism and Cézanne to Chardin.
Johns’ art plays with visual ideas that have layers of meaning and communicate on various levels. It is both sensual and cerebral – an art about art and the way we relate to it.
Pop Collage and Multi-Media
Robert Rauschenberg also used ‘found images‘ in his art but, unlike Johns’ images, they are combined in a relationship with one another or with real objects.
The work of both these artists is often referred to as Neo-Dada as it draws on ‘found elements’, first explored by Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters.
Inspired by Schwitters who created collages from the refuse he picked up on the street, Rauschenberg combined real objects that he found in his New York neighborhood with collage and painting techniques.
He said, “I actually had a house rule. If I walked completely round the block and didn’t have enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction – but that was it.”
He called these multi-media assemblages ‘combines’, which “had to look at least as interesting as anything that was going on outside the window”. Rauschenberg believed that “painting is more like the real world if it’s made out the real world”.
Collage was Rauschenberg’s natural language and he added to its vocabulary by developing a method of combining oil painting with photographic silkscreen.
This allowed him to experiment with contemporary images gathered from newspapers, magazines, television, and film which he could reproduce in any size and color as a compositional element on a canvas or print. He used these elements in a way that mirrors our experience of mass-media.
Every day we are bombarded with images from television, newspapers, and magazines, disregarding most but retaining a few that relate, either consciously or subconsciously, to our individual experience and understanding.
Rauschenberg’s paintings capture this visual ‘noise’ in a framework of images whose narratives suggest some kind of ironic allegory.
Rauschenberg was interested in our changing perception and interpretation of images: “I’m sure we don’t read old paintings the way they were intended.” In ‘Retroactive 1‘, Rauschenberg plays with the way we have read paintings since the early Renaissance.
The composition recalls early religious icons where the central figure of Christ or a saint would have been surrounded by some smaller narrative panels.
An iconic image of the venerated President Kennedy, the most powerful man in the world who was assassinated in the previous year, holds the central position as he forcefully issues a warning.
He points to the red image on his right which looks deceptively like Masaccio’s ‘Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden‘ c.1432 from the Brancacci Chapel in Florence.
With the symbolic association of ‘red‘ and the mushroom-shaped cloud hovering above the president’s head, this could easily be interpreted as a cold war reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, ironically using a creation allegory to represent the Doomsday scenario.
However, Rauschenberg is not that simple. If you look more closely you discover that the red image is not a section of Masaccio’s fresco, but a stroboscopic flash photograph (Life Magazine, 10/10/1952 by Gjon Mili) of a real-life reconstruction of the painting ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2‘ (1912) by Rauschenberg’s mentor Marcel Duchamp.
While a single apple is a metaphor for Original Sin in Renaissance paintings of Adam and Eve, in ‘Retroactive 1‘ an astronaut parachutes back to earth only to land in an upturned box of the ‘forbidden fruit‘ – a symbol of how man’s potential for evil has multiplied in the modern world (in Latin, the words for ‘apple’ and ‘evil’ are identical in their plural form: ‘mala’).
Rauschenberg extends his metaphor by illustrating in the top right of the painting what the astronaut is returning to Eden after the Fall – a world polluted by industrialization.
‘Retroactive 1‘ is a very appropriate title for the work as it relates to a canon of images, events, and ideas across time.