PRINT November 1965

Further Observations on the Pop Phenomenon

“David McCallum is utterly self-contained and completely dedicated to his own world. He acts and loves acting, but he also lives and loves living. He has never dissipated himself, never soiled himself with casualness, never deviated from a passionate addiction to his own basic values.”
Jean Kessner, Photoplay Magazine, July, 1965

“Claes Oldenburg has subordinated his entire being to the pursuit of an original, intensely personal vision. His artistic goals are ambitious, and he applies himself to their realization with complete dedication . . . He is the completely inner-directed man. His personality is built on a framework of values and goals that are unaffected by the currents of the world.”
John Rublowsky, Pop Art, 1965

POP ART HAS UPSET A LOT OF PEOPLE. Those who have taken their commitment to art for granted—painters, critics, patrons, curators and the like—are among its chief critics if for no other reason than that their involvement has been shown up to be the complacent and entrenched force that it had become. The Pop Art audience, as arrogant and as “arriviste” as much of it is, is involved with art in a way that I think no American art public has been involved before. It is concerned less with art, i.e., quality, than with the release of a spirit that has been repressed by its subservience to an idea of culture essentially foreign to its audience. The Pop audience is tired of being educated, tired of merely good art.

What we are experiencing now has gone far beyond the esthetic ramifications of Pop. We are witnessing a parody of innocence that expresses itself as a release from the conventions, values and consciousness of a culture that failed to anticipate the frustrations it was creating in the process of heightening the awareness of its increasingly sophisticated audience. As a result, grown men and women have thrown off the trappings of “respectability,” i.e., the serious side of culture, auctioned off their collections of Abstract Expressionism and rolled out the American flag. “This is it! You can’t beat the sound, you can’t beat the scene! People go to Europe and they’re crazy. The whole world is here.”1 This puts the Abstract Expressionist era in the position of parents who are no longer able to communicate and reason with their children.

Everything about Pop, everything connected with Pop seems—and is—exaggerated simply because the release of the frustrated impulses building up in American taste came, as all releases and overreactions do, at once. Revolutions at the outset are never subtle. Pop was successful in effecting this release not simply because it triggered the reaction but because it embodied it, better than, say, hardedge or color-field painting, which broke radical ground but remained within the formalist camp. People were waiting for a visual Godot, artists like Rauschenberg and Johns were fabricating the tesserae of reaction, and then suddenly it was here, an entirely different if not new mosaic of possibilities. If the American art world then went off its nut, it was consistent with the revolutionary pattern of peasants invading the palace grounds and desecrating the statues. It is regrettable that in the process the troops have felt compelled to string up Europe as a cultural model, by the heels like Mussolini. Like many modern revolutions, ours is a revolution against the sensibility and authority which educated us. Similarly, its leaders have not been able to contain their revolution.

It is inevitable, then, that certain aspects of the “revolution” should appall some people who, one expects, support it in other respects. “The New York art world is engaged in an endless litany of nationalist self-congratulation,” complained Susan Sontag, whose Notes on Camp established “camp” as a significant aspect of the contemporary scene. The charge of chauvinism, however, blurs the reality of the actual vitality of American art at this time, a historical fact no matter how, or by whom, it is used. It also ignores the significance of American art having attained a “nationalist” character, regardless of its affiliations with the European, i.e., French, avant-garde of this century. Indeed, the Pop phenomenon is ironic to the extent that it has carried the day not only at the expense of the European contribution to American modernist art but pretty much at the expense of the art which first aroused American esthetic sensibility to its indigenous potential. But Abstract Expressionism was in fact caught between two drives-its loyalty to the ideas of the European avant-garde and its own aggressive impulses which expressed the impatience of Americans with anything that does not produce immediate practical results. These drives were further complicated by the frustrated idealism carrying over from the Depression. The achievement of a more inimitable character by American art had to be delayed while artists were struggling with their “crisis.”

It has, however, been one of the more unfortunate if predictable aspects of the Pop phenomenon that it has been permitted to overshadow thus far, other developments in post-Abstract Expressionist art. In certain respects the situation already resembles, in its intolerance, the protective and pious atmosphere that developed around Abstract Expressionism. That the Pop hierarchy is still dominated by its innovators is another feature in which it resembles the pantheon of what only a few years ago was called The New American Painting.

Still, it is unlikely that Optical art, for instance, would have had the reception in America that it has had, had not Pop Art so effectively brought to a head the growing reaction against painterly abstraction. Optical art received the benefit of the cultural “thaw” precipitated by Pop Art, as evidenced by the fact that some collectors of Pop also took up “Op.” This does not contradict the “chauvinistic” side of the Pop phenomenon but is rather an expression of the generosity people can afford when they feel they have come into their own. It also confirms my previously asserted impression that on the part of the audience the issue is not so much artistic quality as a release from certain inhibitions. A lack of discrimination, while dilettantish, is probably natural after years of a visual diet limited to moody Romantic, anti-social documents that anyway quickly reverted to a purely esthetic status. It is also a further measure of the success with which the public has been educated in the acceptance of misunderstood genius. The danger, of which, as I have said, some evidence already exists, is, of course, that the cure may turn out to be worse than the disease. But this has happened before and distinguishes the fellow traveler rather than the committed individual whose abiding vice is, instead, usually snobbishness.

The possibility exists, then, for a backlash to occur in favor of Abstract Expressionism. To many people de Kooning is still the leader. But, ironically, attempts in this direction have only had the effect of even further separating the Abstract Expressionists from the more vital aspects of the scene. I regret to say in these pages that the somewhat compulsive reverence for The New York School expressed by Philip Leider in the September issue of Artforum is just the sort of thing that consigns Abstract Expressionism to history while its surviving artists remain committed to the probiems that originally engaged them and while a criticism of them is still barely tolerated. The giants are always lonely precisely because they are made responsible for their admirers’ ambitions. Action painting as a movement may be finished, its aura of crisis repudiated, but the artists remain to be dealt with, especially de Kooning, whose difficulties over the past decade recapitulate all of the frustrations which finally found an outlet in Pop Art. Meanwhile, it was an admission that the heroic days of Abstract Expressionism were over when Robert Motherwell exclaimed in an interview with Max Kozloff (Artforum, same issue), “How I admire my colleagues!” There was also the clear inference, whatever else may lie behind his compulsive admiration, that the new wave is the creation of sissies and parvenues.

On the other hand, the exploitation of Optical art as an alternative to Pop also has to be considered. John Canaday, in an unqualified rave in the New York Times, claimed that “Op” was no less than the art of our time, and “at last.” Optical art also reflects the Establishment in other ways. For if “The Responsive Eye,” organized by William Seitz at the Museum of Modern Art, was not conceived for the purposes of counteracting the popularity of Pop Art, it did illustrate the difficulty the curatorial Establishment has had in approaching modernist art with anything but an internationalist bias. Anything else would have to be regarded as parochial by an organization whose policies were shaped by events in Europe between 1907 and the 1930s.2 It wasn’t until 1958 that it organized “The New American Painting” and then it was “organized at the request of European institutions,” to quote Director Rene D’Harnoncourt himself. The Museum acknowledged Pop Art principally by a symposium on Dec. 13, 1962, but has attempted no general survey. When it detected a trend to figurative painting, it organized the incredibly feeble “Recent Painting U.S.A.: The Figure” (also in 1962) which managed to reject many of the significant modern realists, and again reflected the museum’s obsession with “crisis” esthetics by limiting the exhibition to the figure. Meanwhile, in The Guggenheim International Award of 1964, selected by Curator Lawrence Alloway, Pop Art was represented by Kitaj, an American-born artist living in England, and Oyvind Fahlstrom of Sweden. As I remarked in an article at the time, “Not that Mr. Alloway utterly ignores the palace revolutions of the international style . . . (But) by dispersing the evidence of unrest throughout the world, by assigning, in other words, important parts of the dialogue (between what he described as “current possibilities”) to those least qualified to discuss them, Mr. Alloway has produced a corporation report for stockholders, few of whom will notice that the figures on the balance sheet were juggled.”

While Optical art may have recouped some lost prestige for the Museum of Modern Art, and while the Guggenheim has since made some restitution to post-Abstract Expressionist art, Pop was finding support at, of all places, the Jewish Museum. Under the brief and controversial directorship of Alan Solomon (of the new List Pavilion), the museum was transformed from an archaeological and ethnic institution into a force in American art by mounting retrospectives of the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Mr. Solomon’s aggressive program, however, announced the presence on the scene of “young Turks” who have exploited the Pop phenomenon in the interest of their own struggle with the Establishment.

As I said, everything connected with Pop is exaggerated. This includes the promoted impression that it was violently opposed. But if Pop was not an immediate success in every official circle, it found ready support elsewhere. Even before The Jewish Museum entered the picture, it had already attracted some critical support.3 Influential dealers like Leo Castelli and Dick Bellamy threw their resources behind it and very quickly one of the more significant aspects of the Pop phenomenon developed; namely, the role a relative handful of collectors have played in establishing a revolution in taste and style. Pop collectors like Robert Scull and Leon Kraushar advanced the cause of Pop Art through the publicity they received merely by buying it. Today they are almost as well-known as the Pop artists themselves. Not to dismiss outright their beneficent gestures, the fact is that with the aid of Pop Art these new collectors finally caught up with the reaction against provincialism that has inspired modernist American art for most of the century.

They have thus joined forces with the new spirit, producing a situation where, in effect, they are virtually competitors with the art and artists they support. Their names now appear alongside those of the artists in newspapers and magazines which recognize in their gregarious passion, albeit with mixed feelings, a clue to both the aspirations and values of The Great Society. Not only have Life Magazine and Good Housekeeping recently devoted several pages to the Sculls and the Kraushars, but a recent book on Pop Art4 devotes an entire chapter to the new collecting elite. Now incidentally, the new breed collector is also reacting against the pattern in American collecting, which might be called grand eclectic and which covers a period from the Robber Baron days of the Fricks, the Mellons and the Morgans down to those of the no less omnivorous Joe Hirshhorn, who can now be regarded as a transitional figure between the old rich and the new.

However, it has to be considered a sign of the incipient bureaucratization of the Pop phenomenon that it not only has sired a new breed impresario and a baffling range of Ivy League Apollinaires, but has also inspired a hack rhetoric which not only exhumes the Romantic image of the suffering artist but then proceeds to turn him into the great American success story. It was offensive in the early days of the phenomenon, that is, only two or three years ago, to hear Alan Solomon and Henry Geldzahler exaggerate the opposition to Pop Art so that they could defend it, but in John Rublowsky’s razz to riches account of Pop Art, secular hagiolatry perfects its vulgar style. Rublowsky tells a tale of simple, stouthearted and poignantly middle class but always “sensitive” men struggling against great odds to express an “uninhibited delight in the extravagant imagery of our world” which, moreover, has been tested “pragmatically.” Surrounded by critical hostility and official apathy, they do not waver in their attempts to “see beyond the surface appearance” (of a hamburger or comic strip) to “represent deeply experienced truths about illusion and reality.” “Labor and discipline,” it seems, pulls them through, as the hero becomes simultaneously a revolutionary and a paragon of the Puritan virtues. Success and international recognition, when they come, do not contradict this image of the artist-as-(Everyman’s) tragic hero, for in the popular version of the legend, success, like failure, is equally a testimonial to his superhuman accomplishment. All of which suggests to me that the true hero worshipper is an intellectual transvestite. Rublowsky’s panegyrical cliches are accompanied by photographs by Kenneth Heyman of Pop artists at work, at play and as family men. In other words, the book is a package which in word and image resembles nothing so much as a Hollywood fan magazine. The quotes at the front of this article, therefore, require no comment.

It has taken Pop Art four years to achieve the hierarchical eminence which it took Abstract Expressionism about ten. It thus attracted the fellow traveler that much quicker and, given the particular appeal of its imagery, a type of following which would naturally be as adventitiously banal as Pop imagery itself. All revolutions have their ugly aspects; but, in spite of these and despite what I, at least, feel are certain fundamental shortcomings in a basically transitional art, the Pop phenomenon has put the entire history of American art in a new perspective.

Sidney Tillim



1. Pop Art collector Leon Kraushar to New York Times reporter Grace Glueck, last June on the occasion of a publisher’s party in Andy Warhol’s studio to celebrate the publication of Pop Art. The party tried to emulate Pop Art itself. A rock and roll combo (The Denims) provided music. hot dogs were served from real pushcarts, and guests had received invitations printed on the back of Campbell’s soup labels.

2. In the thirties and forties, the Museum did put on what appears to have been a series of informative exhibitions about American art—folk art, Indian painting, architecture, photography and even George Caleb Bmgham. But this only confirms a parochoal attotude towards Amerocan art which seems to persist to this day. It is only in the last few years that the Abstract Expressionists have been honored. But among the first of these was Mark Tobey, who can hardly be described as typical; and besides, the present series of retrospectives seems curiously belated. In the thirties and forties there may have been some justification for the Museum’s intransigence; the new American painting was hardly out of the rough. Not that I think that museums should reflect immediately the changes of taste. On the contrary, premature museum recognition not only seriously distorts the market but hastens the obsolescence of living art. The problem is that the Museum has been ambivalent on the one hand, and aggressive on the other, and has retarded the development of indigenous sensibility by constantly relating art on America to values that over the years have applied less and less to the problems whose issue now simply repudiates what the Museum down deep still thinks is the mainstream.

3. From myself, for instance. My article on Pop Art (ARTS, Feb., 1962), based largely on Oldenburg’s wholly remarkable Store, was the first in this country and actually preceded the formal debut of the movement. As for opposition from critics like Hess, Rosenberg, Greenberg and Kramer, it was hardly of the customary philistine kind. It was rather, an extension of all the ideological disputes that have raged in the New York art world for years. Vanguard art has ultimately profited from these squabbles because they preserved the image of the artist as rebel which appeals both to his—and the popular—imagination. Pop Art’s most vocal apologists have not only exploited this omage but have frequently seemed to be soliciting opposition as well as support. For without this tradition of dossent, Pop Art would have had to make it on esthetic merit alone. This is something virtually no movement since Cubism has dared to do. My own opinions on Pop, meanwhile, have varied from exhibition to exhibition. I liked the Store when it was set up in Oldenburg’s studio, but not the later and cleaned up version at the Green Gallery. Similarly, his furniture failed to transscend its intrinsic banality. But his soft telephones and the like were both terrifying and funny, something banality, which is only terrifying, is not. Lichtenstein did not reach me at all, to put it mildly, until he applied his technique to something besides comic strips. Rosenquist’s goals were at first unclear, but he has grown fantastically, though he cannot now change his technique without contradicting himself. Wesselmann’s reputation is a complete mystery to me. Warhol is a true iconoclast and a negative genius who confirms, I think, Mr. Greenberg’s thesis that “Pop Art amounts to a new episode in the history of taste, but not an authentically new episode in the evolution of contemporary art.” Basically, I share Mr. Greenberg’s verdict but I place a higher evaluation on Pop Art as an “episode” simply because I believe that a change of taste augurs a more fundamental change in art than Mr. Greenberg would presently allow.

4. Pop Art, by John Rublowsky. Photographs by Kenneth Heyman, 41 color plates, Basic Books, New York, 1965.