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Pop art

Pop stands for popular art. The term Pop art first appeared in print in an article by the British critic Lawrence Alloway, “The Arts and the Mass Media,” which was published in the February 1958 issue of Architectural Design. Although Pop art is usually associated with the early 1960s (Time, Life, and Newsweek magazines all ran cover stories on it in 1962), its roots are buried in the 1950s. The first Pop work is thought to be Richard Hamilton’s witty collage of a house inhabited by fugitives from the ad pages called Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing? (1956). That work was first seen at “This Is Tomorrow,” an exhibition devoted to popular culture by the Independent Group of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The show that thrust Pop art into America’s consciousness was “The New Realists,” held at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery in November 1962. A German variant of Pop art known as Capitalist Realism (the term is attributed to Gerhard Richter) debuted in a show of the same name at the René Block Gallery in Berlin in 1964.

Precedents for Pop art include Dada, with its interest in consumer objects and urban debris, and the paintings and collages of Stuart Davis, an American modernist who used Lucky Strike cigarette packaging as a subject in the 1920s. Chronologically closer at hand, Jasper Johns’s Neo-Dada paintings of everyday symbols like the flag were crucially important to American Pop artists. Some observers regard Nouveau Réalisme as the precursor of Pop. In fact, the rapprochement with popular culture that was epitomized by Pop art seems to have been part of the zeitgeist of the 1950s in England, France, and the United States.

Popular culture—including advertising and the media—provided subjects for Pop artists. Andy Warhol mined the media for his iconic paintings and silkscreened prints of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, and Roy Lichtenstein borrowed the imagery and look of comic strips for his drawings and paintings. Claes Oldenburg transformed commonplace objects like clothespins and ice bags into subjects for his witty large-scale monuments.

Pop art was simultaneously a celebration of postwar consumerism and a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Rejecting the Abstract Expressionist artist’s heroic personal stance and the spiritual or psychological content of his work, Pop artists took a more playful and ironic approach to art and life. Pop painting did not, however, eschew the spatial flatness that had come to characterize twentieth-century avant-garde painting. Postmodernism, Neo-Geo, and Appropriation art—grounded in popular culture, the mass media, and semiotic interpretation—could never have happened without the precedent of Pop art.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.