PRINT November 1962

The New Paintings of Common Objects

An exhibition assembled by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum, with the following dramatis personae:

OUT OF NEW YORK: Roy Lichtenstein, age 42, previously an abstract expressionist living in New Jersey. First one man show of new work, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, fall 1961.

James Dine, age 35, major figure in “Happenings” in New York, (Car Crash, Rubin Gallery, 1960). One man exhibition, Martha Jackson Gallery, fall 1961.

Andy Warhol, age 38, for several years a very successful commercial artist for top Manhattan fashion magazines, who, without exhibiting or even being thought of as a serious artist, developed new work over past two years in almost total seclusion.

OUT OF DETROIT: Philip Hefferton, age 29, sometime jazz trombonist and serious artist previously working in an abstract expressionist style.

Robert Dowd, age 28, a serious artist also previously working in an abstract expressionist style.

OUT OF OKLAHOMA CITY: Edward Ruscha, age 24, and Joseph Goode, age 25. In student exhibitions at the Chuinnard Institute in Los Angeles their first adventures into their current work were received with ridicule and clamorous agitation. An ugly point was reached when an enraged faculty member burned a work of Ruscha, when hung on the Institute walls. Ruscha makes a livelihood in the field of commercial art, which he abhors, while Goode works at the Chouinnard Institute doing odd jobs.

OUT OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: Wayne Thiebaud, age 42, assistant professor of art, University of California at Davis.

PRACTICALLY EVERY MOVEMENT in the last thirty years has had a strong theoretical basis. Mondrian dealt with the glorious world of pure form, a metaphysical vision of architectonic space, Ernst and Dali with the vista of psychosexual imagery, abstract expressionism with the vista of surface light and color of actuality, in exchange for the actuality of paint (but with a certain duality of tension between the two factors rather than a complete overthrow). Given these preoccupations, with certain exceptions, a whole visual environment was being ignored. The lack of an empirical base and direct perceptual contact with the everyday world had serious consequences, leading to an inevitable trivialization of form and content. Without the knowledge of the theoretics of Yves Klein’s art, for example, it is impossible to decode his paintings.

Neither philosophical newness nor modernism of metaphysics has ever necessarily led to the deepest art. The intuitive understanding of this position differentiates to a great degree the American artist from his European counterpart and the result has been an art of direct response to life rather than to “problems.” The proverbial dumbness of most younger artists on the West Coast, for example, is a reflection not only of their deep understanding of the lie of the evolution of progress, but also an affirmation of the basis of both Jazz and Beat poetry, that art springs directly from life, with all its anguish.

Man, having engineered a society to an undreamed of state of mass production, now labors solely in order to consume with the same ferocity as he produces. He is constantly, and with enormous pressure, subjected to visual effects conditioning him to selling and consumption, that is, message carrying, to inform and to induce him to act. This new art of Common Objects springs from the flashback of these visual effects and has nothing to do with any form of descriptive realism. Lichtenstein’s painting of a hand holding a hairspray tells you nothing about a hairspray, any more than one of Cézanne’s apples tells you about an apple: both are formal devices, but with an important difference. Cézanne’s apple is mute, but Lichtenstein’s hairspray carries a moral judgment. Lichtenstein’s blownup image of the artwork of the ad brings out a true and most pointed flavor of the situation. The vulgarity of the image itself is shocking in the way the howl of the Beat poets is, in comparison, for example, to the cultured cantos of Robert Graves.

The sense of crisis precipitated in Lichtenstein’s painting is totally missing in Thiebaud’s paint act; Thiebaud’s art is a coincidence: he lacks the guts and the total commitment of the others in this group. Lichtenstein’s painting is deliberate, outrageous and daring. Thiebaud begs the issue. The anguish of the situation is not well enough reflected; he titillates rather than creates a distillation that can either lead to, or bare the heart of the issues. Thiebaud is both clever and flippant rather than deeply perceptive, a polite slap instead of a murderous wound.

James Dine, somewhat like Frank Stella, uses the stylistic device of a series system, as in mathematics, but this device should not be confused with architectonic balance. He paints in series, eight separate but contiguous panels, on each panel a nearly, but not quite, flattened-out tit. He implies a comic paradise—an acre of tits. “I am surrounded by all good things,” but, at the same time there is highlighted the desperate and horrible depersonalization of contemporary American women (remember Magritte’s imagery?). Although linked to surreal imagery, the format of his work probably derives from the problem of time sequences in his Happenings. But Jasper John’s work (see chronology) is probably the focal point to which many ideas can be hooked. Even if a somewhat shaky terminus, every one “got through” via his insight. Dine paints something he likes to look at (tits and rainbows in this exhibition). His realistic rainbows are not an abstraction—he writes “rainbow” on them. Of all these painters, Dine, because of his complex and sophisticated background, is the most esoteric and does not fit too happily in the exhibition title.

Warhol, with his now famous Campbell soup images, refers to his work as a kind of portraiture. His images can be read as a pun on people, how much alike they are, how all that changes is the name. His S & H Green Stamp painting reminds us of a hive of grey flannel clerks, all identically clothed, all working for a pay check, to be spent on identical goods in identical supermarts to get identical stamps to redeem them for identical goods to be put in identical homes and be shared with stereotyped wives.

The isolated and lonely figure is thematic in American literature and constantly reoccurs, but here is a totally different approach from a humble nobody, a young unknown American painter named Goode, who has painted two of the loneliest paintings imaginable. They represent a totally new and radically different approach to the quest for identity. Each canvas rests on a squat white platform; the painted surface of the canvas, almost monochromatic, is slightly anthropomorphized into motion, but quite blurred and formless. On the platform, immediately in front of the painting, stands a milkbottle, covered completely with paint of a single flat hue, only the shape reminding us of a milk bottle. The nearest parallel would be the work of Cornell, because he is completely outside the logical mainstream of art, with a personal poetic logic, more poetic than logical. He sets a standard in the use of concrete objects not to be surpassed, creating a whole new sense and logic of structure in our time. Goode has absorbed this new sense and uses it to create two most powerful, deeply moving and mysterious paintings.

Both Dowd and Hefferton paint American bank notes and seem to chronologically antedate Larry Rivers. In any event whether they do or not is unimportant, because their performance puts Rivers in the shade. Both painters have a high degree of painterly quality of paint, use loose color over color, dragged and dry-edge brush marks, impasto and drips, a heritage from the whole gamut of abstract expressionist painting technique. Hefferton uses his money as a device to make some excellent and imaginative portraits of Lincoln and Jackson and in one case substitutes a family portrait. But his handling of the portraits is so fine that he induces a freak love for these stereotyped heroes. Both these artists have a fixation on Lincoln. Dowd’s Lincoln has a brash funereal quality. All his paintings have a high degree of paint sophistication, using blurring as a formal device almost as if his art does not depend on a precise environment. His typography on the notes is also used to create almost dada word puns.

Ruscha’s art reminds us of the visual humor of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, but he is impressive for his creation of a totally new visual landscape. On the upper half of his paintings, almost like a heading, is the name of a product, Spam, Sunmaid (raisins) and Fisk (tires) while on the lower half is an image of the product. But he combines a beautiful use of typography with an exquisite sense of placing and extraordinary color to upset our whole aesthetic balance.

Chronology: The Common Object and Art

Eugene Ajet photographs the banal urban image.

Impact in New York of the friendship of Duchamp, Man Ray and Joseph Stella. Both Stella and Man Ray produce collages and assemblages of ready-mades.

Arthur Dove produces unique collage/assemblage work.
Steiglitz photographs of the banal urban image.

Joseph Cornell begins to use commonplace concrete objects themselves in a complex symbolism.
Walker Evans, one of a whole wave of American photographers of commonplace, cheap and mass-produced man-made imagery.
Frederick Somer’s photographs.

Wallace Berman’s precise pop culture drawings with startling irrational imagery, specific portraits of the pop and jazz heroes, in precisely rendered common technique.
William Copley, the painter, links to his sophisticated knowledge of European surrealism a banal American imagery.
Kurt Schwitters, in 1947 makes a number of collages, notably one from the Phantom and Prince Valiant comic strips, of a sexy blonde being reached for by a bunch of assorted men for his New York show at Rose Fried Gallery. Schwitters dies a week before his opening, and the exhibition is cancelled.
Von Dutch Holland, itinerant custom coach craftsman of the Southern California hot rod world, conceives and executes the striping motif of hot rod decoration; deliberately corny science fiction images of bug eyed monsters with ray guns driving hot rods, with puns, politicians’ heads, etc., inset in cartoon bubbles. (See hot rod magazines from 1947 to date.)
Moholy Nagy dies in 1946; students at the Institute of Design turn away from Bauhaus concepts of design and typography and return to common everyday American sources for ideas. Notably Aaron Siskind, Robert Nickel, Harry Callahan, photographers, and H. C. Westerman, an assemblage and construction artist.
Judson Crews’ random sliced slick magazine images with poetry.

Hassel Smith’s objects and collages as photographed by Bern Porter.
In 1951, exhibition of “Common Art Accumulations” at the Place Bar, San Francisco, by Hassel Smith and others. (Complete American flag iconography.)
In 1952 Wally Hedrick, displaced Los Angeles artist, feeds banal and ironic reflections into his paintings and junk metal sculptures.
Eduardo Paolozzi, in London, shows “found images” from advertising material projected onto a screen. First public exhibition of this subject matter at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts under the title “Parallel of Life and Art.”
Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Ray Johnson working on the New York scene. Johnson pioneers the use of the cheapest graphic techniques and images in his approach to graphic art.
In 1954 Lawrence Alloway coins the phrase “pop art” and defines it, which later Richard Hamilton redefined to today’s usage. Hamilton makes huge blowup of “pop art” collage for the 1956 “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition at London Whitechapel Art Gallery.
In San Francisco, J. de Feo in 1954, Fred Martin in 1954, Robert La Vine in 1954, Joan Brown in 1955, Roy de Forest in 1957 and Richard Kegwin create constructions, assemblages, drawings and paintings.
In Southern California, Ed Keinholz in 1954 makes constructions and assemblage objects; at the same time Billy Al Bengston makes paintings, drawings and collage objects (wind-up cookies, etc.). John Reed makes paintings, drawings and sculptures of World War II fighter planes and George Herms in 1958 makes assemblages. A number of important artists such as Bruce Conner come in on the tail end of the Fifties.
In Italy, the Galeria Schwartz in Milan exhibits “pop artists” such as Enrico Baj who collages pop images with textiles.
In England a whole movement of pop painters develops in the late Fifties.

John Coplans