The Many Moods of Pop: Denial, Negation
President Elect, 1960 (oil on fiberboard, 84 x 146")
It has long been tempting to see
the art of the late 50s into the 60s and after as being a rejection of
the introspective emotionality of abstract expressionism-- to see pop art,
minimalism and conceptual art as art which seeks to remove the signs of
the artist’s hand and personality. But as I think we’ve begun to
see, there is probably no artist who can succeed in removing all vestiges
of him or herself from the work of art. Whether we choose to interpret
the artwork in terms of the artist’s persona may be a choice we make as
the viewer and interpreter of the artwork, but the choice which the artist
makes seems to revolve around this: not whether we see the artist but how
much of the artist we are privileged to see. So let’s set aside our
preconceptions about pop art and encounter it as something unfamiliar and
What is it? What is its subject?
Its style? Its significance for later 20th century art? Is
pop about the female domain of consumerism? The domestic domain?
Is pop art about the world of popular culture, made into an object for
the museum? Is it a statement of support for the social status quo
of the 60s, or is it a subversive challenge not only to the political and
social status quo but to the boundaries between expression, formalism,
and representation which seemed to have emerged by the end of the 50s?
Rosenquist's painting gives us a preliminary sense of what some of the
answers will be: in terms of style, this is an art which looks to the billboard
as a model for the exaggerated scale and almost irrational juxtaposition
of objects which belong together only in that they are all indicative of
popular culture in the early 60s.
Tom Wesselmann's "feminist aesthetic"
Still Life #31, 1963 (oil, collage, working t.v., 48 x 60")
Still Life #20, 1962 (collage, assemblage, painted wood, bulb, sink, 46
In both still lifes, we see a modest
suburban kitchen with the necessary appliances and products, representative
of middle class living. The products are either packaged or easily
obtainable goods; there is nothing in either kitchen that is exceptional,
either in terms of being above the norm or below the norm. If abundance
was the condition of the average American life, this imaginary family belonged
to the mean and the painting documented the reality which the government
wanted to promote. The myth of the American Way of Life was an image
which claimed that the middle class life style was in fact the life style
of everyone; and that the middle class was the national norm. Wesselmann's
paintings might be seen as a picture of this national norm, moderately
"improved" or touched up by Wesselmann's aesthetic taste. Yet, the
aesthetic is not the same in the two paintings: in the 1962 still life,
the effect is almost as though the still life has become a concrete version
of the Mondrian painting on the wall. Still Life #31, in contrast,
evokes the curving contours of a Matisse painting.
Bathtub Collage #3, 1963 (84 x 106 x 20")
Great American Nude #28, 1962 (48 x 66")
In the bathtub collage, the woman
has become an unreal element in the scene, ironically reversing the values
of everything we see such that the bathroom furnishings, the towel, the
hamper, the shower curtain are all tangible and demanding of our attention,
while the female nude, generally the focus of attention, is almost incidental,
despite being close to the center of the assemblage. In the Great
American Nude, something similar has happened although not in the same
way. Certainly the pink body rivets the eye across the center of
the painting but the rest of the composition is cluttered with all the
elements and signs of ownership. The female nude is just one more
of these elements. I wonder if the question to ask is whether Wesselmann
is trying to say that this is the role of women and we should transcribe
it into paintings or if he is forcing us to question the conventional treatment
of the female in high art and in society. Remember that the early
60s was the beginning of the feminist movement in this country.
Interior #4, 1964 (66 x 54 x 9")
Great American Nude #54, 1964 (84 x 102 x 39")
Wesselmann's strategy involves the
confusion of boundaries:
Personally, I want to see these paintings
as a concrete version of the abstract expressionist painting, particularly
those of De Kooning. I say this in part because I've seen the increasingly
abstracted paintings he made as he continued painting into this century
and also because I know that in De Kooning's paintings, the woman and the
environment were treated as interchangeable elements of the lush application
High art is treated as part of popular
culture: Wesselmann includes "reproductions" of paintings by Matisse,
Mondrian, and other artists in the interior settings of his domestic scenes.
The reproductions which Wesselmann makes are actually representations of
images which already are reproductions, since the people living in his
imaginary rooms would not have owned the originals of these paintings.
The "masculine aesthetic" is placed
in the midst of the "feminine aesthetic": Masculine in this context
of art and aesthetics does not explicitly refer to the subject matter and
only vaguely refers to the style; more specifically, it describes the domain
of "high art" or fine art, while feminine describes a taste for things
which are associated more with interior design and a less discriminating
aesthetic intelligence. The intriguing (or is it unsettling?) aspect
of this confusion is that the female body has become little more than ornament
or abstraction in these paintings.
Popular culture is treated as part
of high art: In this case, Wesselmann sometimes includes representations
of postcards, posters of famous Americans, and even representations of
his own art as the framed "reproduction" on the wall. Another way
in which he makes pop culture into high art is through the subject matter
of the paintings and the incorporation of mass-produced food, towels, refrigerators,
and so on.
view of Wesselmann's work, 2004: in particular, note the 2nd work on the
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown:
is there such a thing as Pop Architecture?
At just about the same time that Wesselmann
was painting his domestic interiors and great American nudes, Robert Venturi
was speaking out against what he identified as the reductive simplicity
of modernism, especially as modeled in the architecture of Mies van der
Rohe, with his maxim of "less is more," and speaking for an architecture
of complexity and contradiction.
Venturi argued against the universal
glass box. He wanted an architecture, he said, that was "hybrid rather
than pure," "compromising rather than clean," "distorted rather than straightforward,"
"ambiguous rather than articulated," "perverse as well as impersonal,"
"boring as well as interesting," and finally, he wanted the "difficult
unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion." Inclusion,
in his case, meant inclusion of the signs of the environment, the characteristics
that made a place identifiable as a member of a type: in other words, not
only what makes a house look like a house, but what makes a house look
like a particular family lives in it. Venturi wanted to include the
ornaments and signs which the glass box had excluded. His book, Complexity
and Contradiction, was a call for the inclusion of the real world in
the world of architecture, an architecture of "both-and" rather than "either-or."
and Scott-Brown: Guild House (in Philadelphia), 1960-63
Gas in Mickey's Toontown, 1993
Guild House is a home for the elderly,
sponsored by the Quakers. Venturi wanted Guild House to fit into
the context and to reflect the lifestyle of the occupants. He uses
conventional double-hung windows, which, however, are larger than usual
so that they can serve as a sign of the idea of the window even as they
function as real windows. Venturi uses brick for the facade
and presumably “fancier” materials around the doorway, to announce that
this is the grand entranceway. In his most unsettling move, he places
a tv antenna at the top of the building in the place where more traditionally
a religious symbol might be located. The sign on the front, Guild
House, calls attention to the building, much more so than a nursing home
usually does. The architecture makes references to Renaissance palace
architecture along with the neighborhood vernacular. The white cornice
line which separates the top two stories makes them into a large upper
story, while the white entrance creates the effect of a grand lower story.
The result is the sense of the building as a 3-story palazzo. Although
some people found the tv antenna an insulting gesture, perhaps he did not
intend an insulting building but an ennobling building. If it is
ambiguous, Venturi is not troubled by it. Venturi and Scott-Brown
believe in signage–more than looking like what something is, the building
should say what it is. Guild House announces its name, as well as
the conflicted and ambivalent place of the elderly in American society.
Disney World, in contrast, allows
for no ambiguity--other than the fact that Mickey's Toontown and Goofy's
Gas are completely imaginary.
Roy Lichtenstein's comics
Hearts, No. 83: "Run for Love!"
Takka Takka, 1962 (magna on canvas, 68 x 48")
Okay, Hot-Shot, 1963
Lichtenstein’s art of the 60s was
dominated by his imitation of the printing techniques used in comic books,
and his decision to borrow comic book scenes. Yet, he did not literally
copy what he saw: he chose, he selected, he enlarged, he composed, and
most of all, he eliminated. His primary sources were war comic books
and romance comic books, intended for an audience of teenagers. The
war scenes were scenes dominated by male characters who are challenged,
who meet their challenge, and who prove themselves, becoming close to the
equivalent of a machine in the process. Consistently, he chooses
the characters who look anonymous rather than the immediately recognizable
ones, and he omits the connecting scenes of everyday events and occasional
defeats (in the male comics). He manipulates the male comics more
than the female comics, taking pieces from different scenes and putting
them together to create his own. The romance scenes, focused on the
anxious face of one female character, eliminated the moments of happy resolution
or fulfillment, making femininity into a synonym for helplessness and emotional
distress. The men not only engage in tests which prove their strength;
they are given voices which demonstrate their superior knowledge and command.
The women are not usually given exterior voices; their interior thoughts
fill the captions and they are thoughts of self-doubt, stuttered and incompletely
Eddie Diptych, 1962 (two panels, 44 x 52", o/c)
Some writers describe Lichtenstein’s
paintings as detached–because he focuses on style, he remains detached
from the content. They find his work to be a study in signage: signs of
emotion, signs of gender, signs of violence, and signs of the popular media.
But in fact, the opposite may be happening. By focusing on style,
at first glance, his work may seem to be an endorsement, even if detached,
of what it contains; but again, by focusing on style, Lichtenstein foregrounds
the constructed nature, not only of comic books but of gender roles in
popular culture. That does not make his work any less about signage.
But it is about the sign as something which is constructed, and if it is
constructed, it is not invariable.
Andy Warhol: self-negation as self-promotion
Dick Tracy, 1960 (casein, crayon, canvas)
If the post-abstract expressionist
artists of the fifties and sixties rejected the idea of an art that was
generated from within the person rather than outside, Warhol, by making
his lifestyle as much a part of his art as his productions, rejected the
persona of the abstract expressionist: the person whose life was as profoundly
tortured and inexplicable as his art. His rejection takes the form
of rejecting the idea that there is such a thing as a private life.
Yet, he certainly challenges us to find the elements of his private life
when his paintings look so unlike self-portraits and have eliminated almost
all vestiges of personal touch or gesture.
Before and After (1960-1; version one, synthetic polymer and silkscreen
ink on canvas)
Before and After (version two)
If Warhol's career is built on the
idea of emptying cultural icons of their meaning, then his relatively early
paint-by-number paintings may have been one of his first metaphors for
his life work. The paint-by-number hobby sets had already divested
the idea of painting of any meaning; Warhol takes this emptied or denuded
hobby set and recreates it as a painting which has no meaning. That is,
in fact, precisely what he does with his images of movie stars. Warhol's
skill lay in his uncanny ability to choose social themes and iconic images
at the very moment when they were beginning to lose their meaning;
he then enacted that process in his serialized, seemingly mass-produced
Do-It-Yourself (Flowers), 1962 (synthetic polymer and prestype on canvas,
69 x 59")
Green Coca Cola Bottles, 1962
Gold Marilyn, 1962 (silkscreen ink, synthetic polymer on canvas; 17-3/4"
Marilyn diptych, 1962
Camouflaged Self-Portrait, 1986
camouflage painting from 1986 (116 x 420")
He enacts this theme (the loss of
meaning in the iconic image) in the mythology of the artist, using himself
as the image---from artist as manager, to artist as machine and MacDonald's,
to the artist as irrelevant: the death of the artist. The images
of celebrities, the soup cans, the coca cola bottles--all of these suggest
a death-like depersonalization and detachment, an emotional and physical
numbing of the person such that the identity of the figure matters less
than the medium. But it's too reductive to leave it at that: by denying
the individuality of the figures in the art work, Warhol does not deny
his role as artist because this denial becomes his artistic persona (his
gesture, we might say). What he does do is to equate the death of the represented
figure with the death of the artist, metaphorically speaking, and to some
extent, in visual terms as well, as his later paintings of skulls, shadow
portraits, and camouflaged self-portrait show.
Martha Rosler's "Dis-illusionment"
from "Bringing the War Home," 1965-72
from "Bringing the War Home"
Rosler made explicitly political
art, which does seem to take her out of the realm of pop, but she uses
the pop art iconology and the postmodern strategy of mixing media and ignoring
traditional boundaries. In Bringing the War Home, she mixes
images from Life Magazine and House Beautiful and other journalistic
sources to elide Vietnam and the American domestic environment. It
is a more directly confrontational art in the almost seamless juxtaposition
of war images and domestic/family scenes, pointing to the illusions involved
in both war and peace. This is an upper middle-class living room,
kitchen, front yard, and so on, but the images of soldiers, of napalmed
Vietnamese, of dead bodies were images from a war taking place halfway
around the world. At the same time, that war, more than any other
to that point in time, was present in people’s homes because of television.
Present, but in the form of a medium not widely known for its truth value,
and present in a form which can easily be switched off at will. Because
she did foreground political events and because of her use of photography
and text, her work raises questions that parallel those raised by pop art
although it does this in a different context. One of those questions
concerns politics and art: can political art speak across boundaries of
time and place if it does make visible references to specific events?
And the second question concerns the medium: can the message of willful
ignorance, about the social construction of what we think is real, remain
current and be understood not only when the event has passed but when we
have become so innured to the medium itself?
This is not a definition of pop art
but it is an attempt to identify some of the linking characteristics.
Fineberg's "common core" of characteristics for pop is similar to this
although he includes some which I don't. If you were to make a list
based on your textbook, it might have some of the same but it might have
some additional ones:
Perhaps the last question to ask is
one we didn't ask in class: pop art is a form of realism. Abstract
expressionism obviously was not. Is pop art the realist answer to
the extreme abstraction of the late 1940s and 1950s?
an iconography of the "everyday" whether
this everyday is celebrity culture, consumer culture, or domestic culture;
pop art itself becomes part of this iconography. As the real or everyday
world changes, the iconography of pop changes as well.
not only is the subject matter found
in the world of popular culture but the techniques may be found there and
they may be found in high art, but in either case, technique then becomes
a subject as well as technique
gender-based stereotypes are pivotal
to this iconography
by erasing and obliterating the distinctions
between high art and popular culture, pop art launches an attack against
artistic and social illusions
this attack is carried out by a challenge
to space as the two-dimensional art moves out of the picture plane into
the real world and as the scale of the art work continues to increase
by questioning the relationships between
high and low art, pop artists may be questioning relationships between
art and life-questioning them by seeming to inscribe them in their works