PRINT December 1991


JUST WHY IS IT that Pop, after three decades, retains so much of its youthful exuberance and vibrant appeal?“ writes Marco Livingstone, organizer of ”The Pop Art Show" at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, at one point in his catalogue overview.1 The sentence jumps off the page, its syntax and tone precisely those of Richard Hamilton’s title for his famous collage of 1956: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Surely, one thinks, the exactness of the parallel is intended, and, therefore, this rhetorical question must be designed, as it was in Hamilton’s piece, to put ironic brackets around the advertising catchphrases it knowingly deploys. Let the visitor, it seems to say, be skeptical about the uncomplicated availability of the pleasures on offer.

But that expectation is never fulfilled, not in the surrounding text nor in the cheerfully democratic selection and hanging of works in the exhibition. One is meant to take at face value this upbeat terminology of excitement, charm, and youth. Such absence of self-awareness is all the more surprising in that it contrasts with astute historical recognitions elsewhere in the essay. On the same page, Livingstone assumes an altogether more serious perspective, observing that the possibilities engendered within Pop “for a representational art that acknowledges both the formal force of abstraction and its crisis of content, without retreating into an anti-modernist stance, have been essential to the very survival of modern art.”2 This judgment, though sweeping, is a sound one, deceptive in its apparent simplicity and too little recognized. It properly shifts attention away from the superficial rhetoric of enthusiasm and accessibility. It may, however, still be getting its causal logic reversed. Modern art was going to survive anyway. The process of its survival, in the face of a genuine crisis of expressive content in the 1950s, left a pattern of traces that, somewhere in midstream, came to be called Pop.

In its normal usage that label is taken to signify a key moment of convergence in the early 1960s between fine art and the vernacular of postwar consumerism, against which a broader array of works can be arranged into precursors, offshoots, parallels, and sidebars. Such a view receives tacit confirmation in the plan of the exhibition, which begins with the usual progenitors in Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, and Larry Rivers, gives understandably broad exposure to British work, properly sets a room aside for California, samples the Continent, and groups all this around a large central hall dominated by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein facing one another along the main axis, with Tom Wesselmann and Claes Oldenburg closing off the ends.

But this dutifully representative selection undercuts the coherence of the exhibition’s guiding concept by the very faithfulness with which it is represented: there simply is not enough common ground in the subject matter or in the technical means of the works included, certainly not enough of the kind suggested by the familiar invocations of the immediate, the up-to-date, the mass-produced, the fast moving, that is, the standard adjectives taken to typify the brave new world of postwar prosperity. If one stands back and tries for a fresh perception on the collected imagery in the show—that is, if one tries to look at the work as if one had never seen it before—it is just as easy to perceive a landscape of deprivation and filtered historical memory as it is one of abundance and immediate contemporaneity.

In the work of the ’50s and ’60s, the predominant mood of the collective iconography is closer to the Great Depression than to its own time: cheap food with old-fashioned labels, electric refrigerators as coveted objects, flea market knickknacks. Among comic strips—which have become Pop’s conventional signature—there is a marked preference for Dick Tracy and Popeye, out of the hundreds that might have been chosen, and the heyday of both was the Depression era. Chester Gould’s detective, who springs up in the work of Jess, Warhol, and Edward Ruscha, belongs to the period of Hoover’s radio G-men, still mopping up the colorful gangsters left over from Prohibition. Ruscha, in a series of important early works not represented in the show, had a special fondness for the quintessential Depression strip, Little Orphan Annie (another of his paintings was famously emblazoned with the name and package of that rock-bottom Depression meat, canned Spam). Throughout, there is a fascination for newsprint as a mass medium, despite the advance of television and the wholesale closure of city papers, which, by the 1960s, had already proceeded apace, depriving the cheap American press of its richness and variety.

World War II is probably the next most prominent historical reference in the work on show. The prevalence of national flags, stars, chevrons, and stripes is all part of the panoply of armed patriotism. A habitual conjunction made in the work of a number of British artists between machinery, abstract insignia, and women in cheesecake poses has an obvious point of origin in the pinup figures painted on American military aircraft. Marilyn Monroe, whose image recurs in room after room, perpetuated the wartime pinup esthetic into succeeding decades, well after its supersession in the culture. The effect is far from sexually sophisticated and far from sophisticated about sexuality. It represents (Warhol apart) more the fascination with the tokens of masculine camaraderie and glamorous adulthood found in boys’ adventure stories.

There is, I think, an underlying logic to these clusterings of references, and Livingstone’s lapse into “Just what is it. . .” phraseology, in fact, gives voice to it. The association with youth is exactly right. The coupling of youth with “exuberance and vibrant appeal” contradicts the dour appearance and diminished outlook evident in a great deal of the work, but it expresses a basic assumption in the culture that the child is closer to true feeling and that to see with the eyes of the child is to see the world afresh. The rush of cliché both disguises and reveals the common recourse to the cult of the child, which more than any other factor knits together “The Pop Art Show” and, by extension, a large part of the worthwhile figurative art done in recent decades.

Preoccupations with the ’30s and ’40s can be understood as the product of artists’ recalling their own childhoods. Oldenburg gave an interview to The Independent’s Sunday magazine—the newspaper is one of the sponsors of the show—in which he discerns the promptings of his art within such homely memories. “It seemed like a very natural thing,” he says, “to bring together these experiences you had as a child, which were very strong in the mind, with your desire to create an American art.” Expanding on the theme of the populism and consumer orientation of the American Midwest, where both he and Lichtenstein grew up. he casts the process in the most affirmative terms:

All this kind of stuff was at its high point in the Forties. It was a period of very good comic strips and very good consumer goods—very nicely designed toasters and typewriters and so on—and there was a great emphasis on commercial object culture. And the point was, as children, we liked it. We really liked it. . . . We all grew up with this, and we liked it so much that our love for it eventually interfered with our desire to be fine artists. We all came to terms with it in the end through something like Pop Art.3

This is, again, a combination of the accurate and the ludicrous. As art history, it discounts to the point of obliteration the sophistication of Oldenburg’s enterprise in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It ignores the extent to which works like the Street installation, 1960, and, most of all, the Store, 1961, interrogated the normal relations between fine art and ordinary work, between the mystifying value-creation of the art market and the realities of neighborhood commerce, between the studio as a place of production and the gallery as a point of display and consumption. In short, the mirage of juvenile utopia—a painless childhood guaranteed by mass culture—denies the complexity of his project, leading him to construct his formidable challenge to the pieties of the late New York School as little more than an aversion to the mature responsibilities of high abstraction.

More or less the same theme appears in one of the earliest critical responses to Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” Henry T. Hopkins, writing in 1962 for the fledgling, Los Angeles–based Artforum, turned his review into a slightly unhinged reverie on his ’30s childhood:

To those of us who grew up in the cream-colored thirties with “Big-Little Books,” “Comic Books.” and a “Johnson and Smith Catalogue” as constant companions; when “good, hot soup” sustained us between digging caves in the vacant lot and having “clod” fights without fear of being tabbed as juvenile delinquents; when the Campbell Soup Kids romped gaily in four colors on the overleaf from the Post Script page in “The Saturday Evening Post,” this show has peculiar significance. Though, as many have said, it may make a neat, negative point about standardization, it also has a positive point to make. In a tenderloin-oriented society, it is a nostalgic call for a return to nature.4

This sanitized recollection of the virtues of Depression poverty shares the absurdity of Oldenburg’s remarks, as does Hopkins’ elaborate flight from intellectual seriousness, but both point to the power and pertinence of child-cult in the period around 1960 and thus to a truth about the larger condition of art in that period.

The New York School artists were believers in the heroic. Their dilemma was that they found nothing in the culture, nothing outside themselves, of sufficient stature to warrant representation. Their eventual solution was to extinguish explicit figuration but to retain the formal characteristics of heroicizing art: imposing scale, expansiveness of effect, the rhetoric of action. In this sense, the art of the New York School was old-fashioned in its ambition, a throwback to the 17th century of Rubens, LeBrun. and Bernini, that is, to the time when art could confidently summon up belief in Vir Heroicus Sublimis (to cite the title of one of Barnett Newman’s triumphant works) and in its own capacity to represent the qualities and actions of superior individuals.

Such ambitions ignored the parallel tradition of skepticism and doubt about both, which paradoxically was the means by which the heroic protagonist in art had been kept current from the time of royal absolutism into the 20th century. The lessons of several centuries of European art were that the essentials of the heroic mode—the enlarged view, the representation of passionate action and dignity of sentiment—could only survive comparison to reality by being open to the voice and point of view of everyday life. From the time of Virgil forward, faltering belief in the transcendent virtue of rulers (and from the instant it is solicited such belief always falters) ele- vated the rustic type, the shepherd or swain, to the place once occupied by Achilles, Alexander, or Augustus. In this form of courtly conceit, the poet or painter transfers the lordly pretense of representing all of society (“L’état c’est moi”) to characters who derive their representative status from their ubiquity and from their presumed closeness to nature and the basics of life. The extreme of this development might be found in Charles Baudelaire’s designation of the derelict ragpicker as poetic surrogate and the majestic, exemplary protagonist of the modern city.5

William Empson has identified this persistent form of pastoral, which replaces the chivalrous shepherd of earlier times, as the ironic joining of the “idea of everything being included in the ruling hero” to “the idea of everything being included in the humble thing, with mystical respect for poor men, fools, and children.”’ Such ironic and mock heroism flourished in the American 1950s. Baudelaire’s outcasts reappeared in the guise of the fringe hustlers of the jazz scene celebrated in Norman Mailer’s The White Negro (1957). At the other end of the pastoral spectrum from such aggressive types was the figure of the holy fool embodied in the work and person of John Cage, who offered a cultivated simplicity akin to the supposed innocence of the child, open to play and an uncensored apprehension of the world. One can find traces here and there of Mailer’s stance in the visual-art world, in a Rauschenberg combine painting like Hymnal, 1955, with its thematics of urban anonymity broken only by crime and police surveillance, and in the rhetoric of Allan Kaprow’s influential essays.7 But it is the latter position that most suited the artists emerging in the 1950s. The mute simplicity of Johns’ numbers, flags, maps, and diagrams, along with his compositional principle of mantralike repetition, bridge the blankness of meditation with the drills of the child’s lesson book, the absorption of the puzzle box, and the rituals of the playing field. And this retreat to the experience of childhood was passed on whole to the cohort that came to be identified as Pop, not only in New York but in London and Los Angeles, wherever Johns’ work traveled or reproductions were seen.8

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, though he is severe on the subject, has perceptively discerned that the “participatory aesthetics” encouraged in works by Johns and Rauschenberg were deliberately kept “at so infantile a level as to invite participants to wind up a music box, to clap their hands, or to hide an object.”9 But there was strength in this. These artists, and those who came after, were reconnected by such procedures to that long, complex line of European pastoralism from which the first generation of the New York School had been separated in its pursuit of an unallowed grandeur of utterance. This includes Marcel Duchamp, in whose readymades and chance pieces child-cult has always been a large and underestimated component. In his work and that of his American epigones, the pastoral allows a distinctive voice to be constructed from the contrast between one’s suitably large artistic ambitions and a simultaneous awareness—figured through the surrogate of the child and consciously childish activities—of everyone’s limited horizons and modest powers. Through this ironic reduction of the heroic point of view (the child is powerless but conveys the power once again to observe the world), they managed, as Livingstone observes, to recover figuration without lapsing into anti-Modernist provinciality. The results were inevitably less glorious but arguably more sophisticated—because more realistic and better informed by history—than continued aspirations toward an abstract sublime.

At the same time, however, child-cult is the narrowest and most constraining of pastoral forms. It is framed within the Enlightenment view of the child as inherently innocent (though in danger from corruption), not within our own post-Freudian view: the convention demands this, whether the artist believes in it or not. Sexuality, therefore, is suppressed or channeled through remote fantasy images. Such is generally the case in the Royal Academy exhibition, which easily accommodates the accumulated evidence of Allen Jones’ arrested development but makes the frank and emphatic confrontation with desire found in David Hockney’s early painting—some of the strongest of the British work—seem not to belong. Another exception is Edward Kienholz’s twisted, priapic ex-voto, John Doe, from 1959. In this case, however, the show could have done with more Kienholz—and Kienholz on a properly expansive scale—to acknowledge the existence of a countervoice within the Pop universe. There is not enough work in the exhibition that manifests the ripe potential in these vernacular materials for expressions of the genuinely profane and disabused. Mike Davis, in his acute social dissection of Los Angeles, has recently recalled the power of one such piece:

Back Seat Dodge-38 of 1964—a work that so infuriated a right-wing County supervisor that he tried to have the new County Museum of Art shut down because of it—summarized the Southern California Dream in a single noir tableau. Literally hotrodding, Kienholz “chopped” a ’38 coupé and set it in a “Lovers’ Lane” complete with discarded beer bottles on the grass and “mushy” music. Dead lovers, locked in a grim missionary embrace on the front seat, seemed to symbolize an adolescence gone to seed in eternity—Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello petting after the Holocaust. Kienholz’s imagery—set in a fateful year—anticipated the worst.10

Likewise, the presence of his State Hospital, 1964–66 (with its acid use of the cartoon speech balloon), Illegal Operation, 1966, or Portable War-Memorial, 1968, would have made the case that the materials of Pop could be enlarged into timely and compelling public statements. As it stands, the exhibition’s only acknowledgment of the dominant public issue of the later 1960s, the war in Vietnam, is one small poster by George Maciunas, easily overlooked in a crowded array of Fluxus ephemera.

But it must be acknowledged that the bias of “The Pop Art Show” toward tidiness and comfort is the bias of most of the art that fits under the Pop umbrella. It is a particular characteristic of much of the British art in the show, and this may be because pastoral fantasy remains such a vital part of ordinary middle-class life here.11 “The countryside,” neatly hedged, fenced, and controlled, but linked to ancient Britain, is regarded with almost religious reverence. Child-cult has made an icon of Alice in Wonderland; its author and the young girl who inspired the book are perennial objects of fascination. Joe Tilson is one artist prominently featured in the exhibition whose career has been fashioned to a great extent within the linked cults of the child and the countryside. In the 1960s, he produced sculpture in the form of nursery alphabet boxes; the compartments of his A–Z Box of Friends and Family, 1963, combine whimsically miniature contributions from the likes of Hamilton, Edoardo Paolozzi, Hockney, and Jones with objects made by his own children. By the early 1970s, he had decamped to a retreat in rural Wiltshire. There, the catalogue relates, he became preoccupied with “ecological concerns, with alchemy, with our relationship to nature and with subjects drawn from pre-Classical mythology.”12 Peter Blake is another key British figure to have taken this road. At the end of the ’60s, he retreated from London to a country village near Bath where he proceeded to found a group calling itself “Brotherhood of Ruralists.” There the female wrestlers and pinup models of his previous work were recostumed as woodland fairies, and he began a series of works around the theme of Alice.

“The Pop Art Show” understandably declines to follow these directions, but constructs its own timeless idyll out of the urban 1960s. The post-1970 work included as a demonstration of the undiminished vitality of Pop is invariably consistent in its motifs with what the artists had been doing before—only bigger. While its chronology extends as late as the current year (in work by Hamilton, Blake, Lichtenstein, and Richard Artschwager), the exhibition enlists the present to effect a suspension in time somewhere around 1965. Nothing really develops after that. Certainly no development in the area of sexual politics is admitted. The world of art is presented as the boys’ club it was in that period. Neither the show’s installation nor its catalogue find any way to address the persistent objectification of women in the imagery or the nearly total exclusion of female artists that resulted from its view of history (one small piece each by Niki de Saint Phalle and Yoko Ono are the only exceptions among 258 works in the show).

The primary audience for all this, however, does not seem to be the British equivalent of the Big Chill generation. Informal demographic observations suggest that a substantial majority of visitors are under 25. On the weekday of the opening, Radio One was doing a remote broadcast from the Royal Academy courtyard as “your official Pop Art station.” (This would be the rough equivalent of having Don Imus broadcasting live from MoMA’s sculpture garden.) Listeners could call in for “Pop Art Show” stickers and other prizes. A double-decker bus, described in the press material as “partly designed by Allen Jones and capturing the spirit of Pop Art,” was slated to ply a route through central London, taking visitors on a free “magical mystery tour to the exhibition.”

So to the question “Just why is it that Pop, after three decades, retains so much of its youthful exuberance and vibrant appeal?” the spectacle mounted by the Royal Academy answers that Pop allows most of those three decades to be erased; historical time collapses. Because it is permanently youthful, so must be its public: a generation born in the 1960s and after can have a happier Britain imaginatively restored to it, a Britain when the Beatles were still together, when Wilson’s Labour government offered an expansive future built on “the white heat” of technology rather than the penny-pinching and social indifference of today’s ruling Tories. The artists on show once made their own childhood memories seem somehow to define the living moment. Many in the 40ish generation of today, myself included, accepted this claim at face value and discovered art in the process. This retrospective has turned the same trick, transforming the memories of my generation into a temporary illusion of a better, substitute present for our own children. I cannot say whether this will turn out to be a good or bad thing, but it demonstrates the unrelenting grip of the cult of childhood and the enormous consequent difficulty, in 1961 or in 1991, of making art in the present tense.

Thomas Crow is professor of history of art at the University of Sussex, England.



1. Marco Livingstone, ed., Pop Art, exhibition catalogue, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1991, p. 19.

2. Ibid.

3. Claes Oldenburg, quoted in Andrew Graham-Dixon, “Art in the Promised Land,” The Independent Magazine, 7 September 1991, p. 32.

4. Henry T. Hopkins, review of Ferus Gallery exhibition, 1962, in Amy Baker Sandback, ed., Looking Critically: 21 Years of Artforum Magazine, Ann Arbor: UM1 Research Press, 1984, p. 274.

5. The classic discussion is in Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. H. Zohn, London: Verso, 1983, p. 97.

6. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, rev. ed. New York: New Directions, 1974, p. 21.

7. See, for example, Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Art News, October 1958, pp. 24–26.

8. A somewhat touching pastiche of Johnsian ideas and motifs in the exhibition is Peter Phillips’ Purple Flag of 1960. Edward Ruscha has cited his seeing reproductions of Johns’ flags and targets in 1957 as prompting his decision to become an artist; see The Works of Edward Ruscha, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 157.

9. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art, 1956–1966,” Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989, p. 45.

10. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, London and New York: Verso, 1990, p. 66. It should be said, though, that Kienholz has related the piece to his father’s 1938 Dodge and to his sexual initiation in the 1940s (quoted in Verni Greenfield, “Ed Kienholz, The Artist and The Man,” in Forty Years of California Assemblage, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles: Wight Gallery, UCLA, 1989, p. 91).

11. Mention should be made of one striking exception to this tendency, which ruthlessly takes the measure of one form of ruralist romanticism in art history: Clive Barker’s three-dimensional, life-size replication of the chair in Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles in chrome-plated steel from 1966, which it is interesting to note is in the collection of Paul and Linda McCartney. In comparison to it, Jeff Koons’ castings seem jejune and redundant.

12. Livingstone, p. 292.