The Many Moods of Pop: Denial, Negation and Affirmation

Rosenquist: 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 unknown:
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"

Wesselmann: Still Life #31, 1963 (oil, collage, working t.v., 48 x 60") Wesselmann: Still Life #20, 1962 (collage, assemblage, painted wood, bulb, sink, 46 x 48")

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.

Wesselmann: Bathtub Collage #3, 1963 (84 x 106 x 20") Wesselmann: 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.

Wesselmann: Interior #4, 1964 (66 x 54 x 9") Wesselmann: 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 of paint.
Exhibition view of Wesselmann's work, 2004: in particular, note the 2nd work on the left side

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."
Venturi and Scott-Brown: Guild House (in Philadelphia), 1960-63 Goofy's 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

Roy Lichtenstein: Hopeless, 1963 Tony Abruzzo, Secret Hearts, No. 83: "Run for Love!"
Lichtenstein: Takka Takka, 1962 (magna on canvas, 68 x 48") Lichtenstein: 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 spoken.

Lichtenstein: 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

Warhol: Dick Tracy, 1960 (casein, crayon, canvas) Warhol: Popeye, 1960

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.

Warhol: Before and After (1960-1; version one, synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas) Warhol: 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 images.

Warhol: Do-It-Yourself (Flowers), 1962 (synthetic polymer and prestype on canvas, 69 x 59") Warhol:  Green Coca Cola Bottles, 1962
 Warhol: Gold Marilyn, 1962 (silkscreen ink, synthetic polymer on canvas; 17-3/4" in diam.) Warhol: Marilyn diptych, 1962
Warhol: Camouflaged Self-Portrait, 1986 Warhol: 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"

Giacometti, from "Bringing the War Home," 1965-72 untitled, 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?

Identifying Commonalities

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?