PRINT October 1963

Pop Art, USA

“Pop Art, USA,” the first exhibition to attempt a collective look at the movement in this country, was presented at the Oakland Art Museum during September, 1963. The following essay, by John Coplans, who organized the show, has been pre­pared as the catalog essay for the exhibition.

ALTHOUGH THIS EXHIBITION is the first to attempt a collective look in considerable depth at Pop Art (as well as those artists who now appear as harbingers of this new art), it has been preceded by a series of important museum exhibitions within the last year that have examined various aspects of this heterogen­eous activity:

September 1962

“The New Painting of Common Ob­jects” organized by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum.

March 1963

“Six Painters and the Object” organized by Lawrence Alloway at the Solo­mon R. Guggenheim Museum.

April 1963

“Popular Art” organized by Mr. and Mrs. C. Buckwalter at the Nelson Gal­lery of the Atkins Museum, Kansas City.

April 1963

“Pop goes the Easel” organized by Douglas McAgy at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston.

April 1963

“The Popular Image Exhibition” or­ganized by Alice Denney at the Wash­ington Gallery of Modern Art.

July 1963

“Six More” organized by Lawrence Al­loway at the Los Angeles County Mu­seum (mainly a repeat of the Pasa­dena Exhibition) and shown with the traveling version of “Six Painters and the Object.”

Abstract Expressionism, the first brilliant flowering of a distinctly American sensibility in painting, is a movement in which the prime innovators and the most important artists are largely based in New York. An­other characteristic is that, without exception, all the early work of the painters in that movement can be seen as a direct confrontation of, and struggle with, the dominating influences of European painting. In contrast, the current phenomenon of what for the time being is broadly labeled Pop Art reveals a com­plete shift of emphasis in both geographical location and subject matter. The first body of work that has emerged from this new movement is widely dispersed between the two coasts––this simultaneous eruption is an important factor neglected by all the organizers of the previous exhibitions, with the exception of Pasadena’s “New Painting of Common Objects.” It points up several aspects of the new art that have received little consideration in the past. The curious phenomenon, particularly in these times of easy com­munication, of a group of artists widely separated geographically, who, without knowing, for the most part, of the existence of the others, appear at roughly the same time with images startlingly different from those which dominated American painting for two decades and yet strikingly similar to each other’s work, points to the workings of a logic within the problems of American painting itself rather than to the logic of dealers and pressure groups. If the logic of abstract expressionism was hammered out in fiery quarrels in Greenwich Village bars by the most in­tensely speculative group of painters America has yet produced, the logic of this new art, by a quite different, but equally valid process, forced itself on artists geographically isolated from one another and yet faced with the same crisis.

The subject matter most common to Pop Art is for the most part drawn from those aspects of American life which have traditionally been a source of dismay to American intellectuals, and a source of that glib derision of “American culture” so common among Europeans: the comic strip, mass-media advertising, and Hollywood. Some critics argue that the employ­ment of this subject matter places the artists in the morally indefensible position of complacent––if not joyous––acceptance of the worst aspects of American life. Others, however, insist upon finding a negative moral judgment implicit in the work. The artists, for the most part, remain silent, or, worse, perversely make public statements feeding the fury of the party they consider more absurd. For of course neither po­sition approaches the real problems of this new art or searches the nature of the crisis which has brought it forth. That crisis is essentially the same crisis the abstract expressionist painters faced, and solved so brilliantly in their own way: the problem of bringing forth a distinctly American painting, divorced from the stylistic influences and esthetic concerns of a tradition of European art which has lain like a frigid wife in the bed of American art since the Armory show. (And why hasn’t anyone seen the re-creation of the Armory show as the greatest irony possible in the light of this new American painting?) If, during the last decade, abstract expressionism has been thought of––at least in this country––as finally having solved the problem of the creation of a distinctly American art, here is a whole new generation who have engendered widespread confusion by thinking other­wise. Seen from this point of view the painters of the soup can, the dollar bill, the comic strip, have in common not some moral attitude toward their subject matter that some say is positive and others say is negative, but a series of painting devices which derive their force in good measure from the fact that they have virtually no association with a European tradi­tion. The point is so utterly plain that one is aston­ished at how often it has been missed. For these artists, the abstract expressionist concern with ges­ture, with the expressive possibilities of sheer mate­rials is out––all Expressionistic concerns (and Impressionistic ones as well) abstract or otherwise—are out. A sophisticated concern with compositional tech­niques, formal analysis or drawing, is also out, and, indeed, Lichtenstein will depart from his usual comic strip paintings to lampoon a famous Picasso cubist painting, or a well-known art book’s diagramming of the composition of an important Cézanne.

A further challenge to this new direction in art is that of shallowness. This condemnation is based upon the principle that transformation must occur in order to differentiate an art image from a similar image in the real world. Certain artists within the broad cate­gory of the movement, it is claimed, in particular War­hol and Lichtenstein, fail to effect such a transfor­mation, and if they do, it is so minute as to be of relatively no importance. The very essence of this new art lies precisely in its complete break from a whole tradition of European esthetics. This is accomplished by the particular choice of subject matter which is put into a new fine art context. This is the transfor­mation.

While it would seem neither to damn nor to ap­prove the material of its inspiration––indeed appear totally disinterested in the moral problems it raises­––Pop Art does take subtle and incisive advantage of deeply rooted cultural meanings and demonstrates how for the artist the seemingly common and vulgar everyday images, messages and artifacts of a mass communicating and consuming society can give rise to the deepest metaphysical speculations. Warhol’s rigid, simple, mass produced and standardized symmetry is only a point of departure behind which lies an assertive individuality, despite his non-committal painting technique. Hefferton’s deliberate and highly disciplined suppression of the decorative quality of paint by substituting a non-esthetic and primitive handling is also totally personal and at the same time his images insidiously recall a host of associations concerning “political expediency.” Lichtenstein’s flat­tened, blown up and arrested images from the comics subtly pose real issues of the crisis of identity. In con­trast to these three, Goode in his highly ambiguous milk bottle paintings employs a rich sensuous quality of paint. Oldenberg’s painted plaster edibles parody the anxious violent type of caricature and expressive use of color that has marked so much of modern art since Van Gogh but which has now become an inex­pressive formal device and cliche in academic circles. If some of these images are dead-pan, an underlying violence seeps through as in Ruscha’s calculated word images. Blosum’s cool and detached simply painted monotone image of twenty-five minutes ticking away on a parking meter may appear indifferent to the tortured quality of life, the subject matter of the human condition painters, but it is in fact loaded with suppressed anxiety.

What at first sight appears to be a rather restricted movement employing a narrow range of imagery is in fact enormously rich in the variety of artists it en­compasses. At the same time this is not meant to imply that there are no sharp qualitative differences among these artists as in those of any other movement. What is of intense interest, however, is that these artists are looking at and using the most thor­oughly and massively projected images of our time­––images so looked at that they have become accepted, overlooked and unseen––as a raw material for art.

The emergence of this new art forces the re-evalu­ation of those artists in the past who have seemed merely eccentric or whose imagery and direction seemed peripheral to the course of American painting since World War II. Obviously Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy, both considerably influenced by Leger, anti­cipate certain aspects of Pop Art in imagery and technique––Davis for his use of blown up sign frag­ments and references to popular culture and jazz, Murphy for his billboard style and American vul­garism.

A more recent forerunner activity than that of Davis and Murphy spanned the last fifteen years in various cities. In Paris was the American expatriate William Copley, a post surrealist with images full of cheese­cake eroticism, patriotic folklore and sophisticated vulgarism. In New York were Larry Rivers with an imagery derived from American folklore and contem­porary popular sources, but without the radical inno­vation of technique that would separate his work from abstract expressionism, and Ray Johnson, a pio­neer in the use of the cheapest graphic techniques. In San Francisco Wally Hedrick traced ironic reflec­tions onto radios, television cabinets and refrigera­tors, and Jess Collins “rewrote” the action and con­tent of comic strips by collaging within existing printed images. Another curious figure is Von Dutch Holland, the Southern Californian hot rod striper, a genuinely popular artist whose eccentric imagery and high craft technique combined with a visionary atti­tude was admired by younger artists. The two key and most significant artists who are usually included within the Pop category are Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but they should rather be regarded as direct precursors who provided the momentum, con­centrated insights and focus of ideas that triggered the broad breakthrough of this new art, Rauschenberg for his concern with art as a direct confrontation of life, transforming his environment into art in a strange compelling new way and Johns for the potent ques­tions he raised on the discontinuous quality of sym­bols. Billy Al Bengston appears to be one of the first artists to have recognized exactly what Johns and Rauschenberg were opening up; from 1959 on he completed a broad spectrum of work within the new idiom, but his more recent penumbral, hard-surfaced optical images are more concerned with a heightened awareness of the strange beauty and perfection of materials and have little to do with Pop Art.

––John Coplans