PRINT October 2004


the School of Pop

When a cadre of ambitious French artists incorporated themselves into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, they sought to elevate their new company by setting strict rules of decorum. Prominent in its inaugural code was the stipulation that no academician be permitted to keep a shop or even to allow the display of his work in such a way that it could be seen from the street. At a stroke, the academy severed art in its high-minded sense from its formerly easygoing relations with the everyday requirements of commerce. Beforehand, if a painter or carver wanted to turn out an eye-catching signboard for an artisan friend, no habit or stigma stood in his way. But the “royal” aspirations of the new group forbade this kind of sullying participation in the mere conduct of trade. Afterward, such gestures could recur only under the cover of irony or as a pointedly temporary break with accepted practice.

That rule remains as much in force today as it was then (perhaps more so, in that it took some time for the new academic artists to break completely with old habits). A few revealing episodes over the intervening three and a half centuries—signposts, in effect—can serve to bring the topic up to date.

When Jean-Antoine Watteau painted an intricately pictorial signboard for his art-dealer friend Edmé-François Gersaint in 1721, the product was so obviously extraordinary that it hung over Gersaint’s premises in the Pont Notre-Dame for no more than a week or two and eventually landed in the collection of Frederick the Great. The painting stages a rich and waspish send-up of the commerce in art. Recalling seventeenth-century models where a princely collector would be shown standing proudly among the prizes of his collection, here these vain consumers of culture examine and covet entirely generic simulacra of actual paintings, every one of them a product of Watteau’s own invention.

The parody, nonetheless, works so subtly that there was nothing, apart from the radiant desirability of the canvas, to prevent its being used for its ostensible purpose and doing that job brilliantly well. The same could be said of Théodore Géricault’s 1814 painting of a muscular blacksmith restraining a restive horse. A reworking of the monumental Wounded Cavalryman he had shown that same year as an allegory of Napoleonic defeat, this reduction of the heroic model to common working-class terms was meant to grace the exterior of an actual forge, the artist applying his pigments to unprepared boards with all their joins and nailheads visible beneath the image.

Géricault notoriously defied the norms of the Royal Academy to which he could never conform sufficiently to qualify for membership. His gesture with the blacksmith’s sign—consistent with his hiring a London hall in 1820 to put The Raft of the Medusa on display for spectacle-seeking customers—followed from a generally rebellious stance that made him the prototype of Romantic outsiders for decades to follow. But Romantic rebellion spawned no further efforts to conflate fine art and paying commerce at this level of ambition. In the wake of Impressionism, Georges Seurat was another self-conscious outsider harboring equally monumental ambitions. And like Géricault, he was drawn to the sign-world of the streets, making himself a student of the incipient science of advertising. The mannered and exaggerated contours in Jules Chéret’s circus posters appeared to him to contain a visual technology of enticement, which he sought to channel through paintings like Le Chahut, 1889–90, and Le Cirque, 1890–91, into a more elevated diagnostics of modernity.

He did not himself go so far as—or lower himself sufficiently—to try his hand at motivating the paying customers himself. But one of his chief inheritors, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, used much of the same linear vocabulary to create a graphic style in advertising that still carries impact today. The collapse of art into its subject matter displayed itself as concretely as possible in 1895, when the Moulin Rouge entertainer La Goulue went out on her own at the Foire du Trône on the eastern outskirts of the city, setting up her act in a structure that appeared from the outside to be literally supported by two large painted panels by Lautrec.

What makes this a good story is that the episode stands out so dramatically from the norm. Seurat did not attempt to test his expertise in the actual arena from which he drew his motifs. Lautrec did, and his art-historical reputation has suffered for it ever since. Whatever case can be made for the aesthetic merits of his painting and draftsmanship, he persists in secondary status because he possessed equivalent expertise in both fine art and advertising design. Success in the latter, which is to say, making an actual difference in the realm of commercial entertainment, appears to vitiate any hope of attaining the highest reputation in the former.

The foregoing examples strongly suggest the need for a horizontal term that cuts across the presumed vertical division between fine art and the vernacular: Analysis needs instead to focus on the question of expertise and where it might lie. With Lautrec to one side, the distribution of expertise in each case from Watteau to Seurat lay preponderantly on the fine-art side, despite the novelty in their use of found materials or vernacular motifs. Where such everyday sources were concerned, these artists never presented themselves as anything more than ordinary consumers. To go no deeper than the surface of an artifact from the general culture is to abjure any claim to expertise in its production; and an assured competence in manipulating the protocols of fine art can be all the more dramatic in light of the unpromising nature of the material to which such skills were being applied.

In considering each of these examples—and looking forward to the eventual Pop phenomena of the later twentieth century—it is crucial to distinguish two modes of engagement with vernacular or mass-market artifacts. The first is a demand for a genuine connoisseur’s knowledge of the realm being translated into fine art, a deep fan’s ability to recognize distinctions of aesthetic quality and significance among, say, commercial illustrators, music-hall performers, or Memphis songwriters. And this typically entails contempt for the undiscriminating tastes of casual consumers. There are only hints of this among the products of the accredited artistic avant-garde. The edge to Picasso’s The Aficionado of 1912 depends on the Spanish artist’s claim to superior expertise in the art of the corrida over the simple enthusiasm of his depicted subject for the inferior Provençal version. But the visual idiom is uncompromisingly recondite, in spite of its knowing quotation of the ephemeral paraphernalia associated with the sport.

To surrender the protection and distance of fine-art sophistication, to go head-to-head with the best of vernacular artistry on it own terms, represents the second and riskier demand for expertise. Here Andy Warhol’s profound effects on our present-day culture of hollow celebrity and willful superficiality represent the unmatched instance of such an enterprise. But that success depended on the prestige conferred by his fine-art validation, which provided his first path to real fame: Warhol could see that his exceptionally refined facility as a commercial illustrator would have to be obliterated lest he become the Lautrec of his day—hence the aggressive faux incompetence of the commercial motifs in his early painting. Abjuring technical expertise went hand in hand with an aggressive refusal to order his found material in terms of its intrinsic quality, his famous posture of “liking everything,” the apotheosis of casual consumption.

To pursue both aspects of vernacular-culture expertise in an educated and self-conscious project may well be to negate the category of fine art altogether. This at least was the line taken by members of the Independent Group within the London Institute of Contemporary Arts during the 1950s. Its dominant figures distributed their expertise away from fine-art competencies toward mastery of the source. They were at pains to say that they were not in fact much interested in making art. One principal, Toni del Renzio, remembers their riposte to the popularity of Herbert Read’s earnest handbook of modern art history, Art Now: They wanted a new book in its place called Not Art Not Now. Their claims to expertise lay instead in comprehending their subject matter on its own terms, in mapping and analyzing the media and design culture of the 1950s, particularly as these emerged from the world’s engine of consumer prosperity in the United States.

The story of the Independent Group has become familiar and celebrated. Protest against a genteel culture based in the ancient universities gave rise to the first recorded uses of the term “Pop art” (by artist Richard Hamilton and critic Lawrence Alloway) to name the aesthetic challenge to Europe posed by American industrial culture, dramatized in the flamboyance of Detroit automobiles and in the engineer’s eroticized utopias found in science-fiction illustrations and films. This vision united an innovative group of artists, architects, and writers who thereby set themselves against both the aesthetic of neo-Romantic longing and the domesticated nature cult of British Surrealism.

“This Is Tomorrow,” the 1956 Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition joined by many of the IG’s members, looms large in conventional art-historical memory, but the Saul Bass style of the catalogue’s cinematic title pages can be misleading in its advanced look. The sensibility of the Independent Group could in fact be a pretty rugged affair, setting its face against the slick standards of contemporary commercial communication. The style of the installation designed by the architects Peter and Alison Smithson with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi—they entitled it “Patio and Pavilion”—offered the visitor a future as stripped-down, rough-hewn primitivism: “the fundamental necessities of the human habitat in a series of symbols.”

This theme of high technology returning humanity to its primitive origins is common in pulp science-fiction of the classic period, and it unites the Smithson-Paolozzi effort with the outwardly contrasting message offered by Hamilton and his collaborators in the same venue. Though painter John McHale had returned from a year at the Yale School of Art bearing his famous crate of glossy color magazines, comics, and other American exotica, their transformation by Hamilton—into the notorious Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?—proves to be yet another primitivizing fantasy of humankind beginning again, with naked Adam and Eve camped on a sandy satellite of the earth seen looming above them, surrounded by a clutter of alien artifacts they cannot comprehend. Though the outsize (Tootsie) Pop in the foreground arguably put the seal on the term forevermore, there is nothing in the manner or message of Hamilton’s collage that would have surprised Max Ernst or John Heartfield.

The next stage in this story is the Royal College of Art entering class of ’59, dominated in glamour and subsequent acclaim by David Hockney. But there was some historical space in between, left out of account in all but a handful of histories, notably that offered by David Mellor in The Sixties Art Scene in London (1993). This episode’s claim on historical memory rests to a great extent on just a few issues of Ark, the student magazine of the Royal College of Art, as edited in 1956 and 1957 by Roger Coleman. Trained as a painter, Coleman would come to the fore as organizer and promoter of the “Place” and “Situation” shows around 1960, prescient efforts to combine large-scale abstract painting on American models with an incipient installation aesthetic. But he cut his teeth on a much less heralded effort to wrest the design and content of his college publication out of the homely neo-Romantic aesthetic that still dominated the institution.

Though founding members of the Independent Group like Reyner Banham (on motorcycles) and Alloway (on sci-fi pulp fiction) had earlier expressed their technological enthusiasms in Ark’s pages, its dully straightforward style undercut their intended message. Coleman and his design collaborators—Angela Rimmer, to begin with; then Gordon Moore, Allan Bartram, and David Collins—sought to combine similarly deep knowledge of the new consumer economy and its glamorous products with equivalent expertise in the presentational skills that went with them. The covers of Ark from 1956 to 1957 tell the story, including a comic-style Mona Lisa (no. 19) and leading to the extraordinary blurred Coca-Cola logo on the cover of the thoroughly remarkable issue 20 (Autumn 1957), their masterpiece.

Representative of that issue’s contents are two layouts, the first a newly sharp and vivid presentation of an Alloway treatise on communication devices as thematic signifiers in the backgrounds of Hollywood films (and note the sign-theory diagram in the upper right; this and all the texts mentioned below amount to a cultural-studies semiotics long before the explicit concept existed). Alloway’s is as good an instance as any of the drive of source-expertise to get under and behind its materials—and can be contrasted with the later, American Pop-art fascination with the star in the foreground. The second brought an electric vividness to an article by Royal College student Michael Chalk, an ecstatic prose poem devoted to pinball arcades and jukeboxes (needless to say, of American manufacture).

In seeking a suitably intensified setting for this kind of information, Coleman and his designers were vying with the high-quality, four-color printing they saw in the imported American glossies, like the advertisements that McCale and Hamilton had found so mesmerizing. But equivalent means for a shoestring publication in Britain simply did not exist. The expedients that they adopted are simplicity itself: the vivid orange red of the Chalk illustration, for example, set against the plain black-and-white page, thus creating an uncanny anticipation of Warhol’s signature technique. That coincidence, however, results from artists operating in entirely opposing directions: Warhol pushing down to a harshly demotic manner alien to the design refinements of his work as an illustrator; Coleman and company pushing their genuinely meager resources upward into the realm of high style.

Probably the most inventive generation of complexity from such simple resources was provided by the ex-philosopher del Renzio, one Independent Group holdover who had professional expertise in graphic design and fashion. With his essay “Shoes hair and coffee,” for which he also designed the spread, del Renzio brought to bear his professional experience in an informed discussion of feminine fashion in relation to the design of Italian-style coffee bars. The shifting imagery of the article’s layout results from a single-color printing in red on a transparent yellow sheet, which performs one configuration in the recto position and another in the verso. A turn of the page leads into a footnoted taxonomy of the varieties of espresso environments. But a look back at the previous page, transformed by the overlay of the red-on-yellow woman in her Italian frock, makes another pointed juxtaposition: She seems to peer into a painting by Coleman’s close ally Robyn Denny, a work that had become something of a manifesto piece in their campaign against the figurative establishment in the painting faculty of the school.

A photo-essay by A.J. Bisley on professional wrestling, “On the mat at Lime Grove,” eschews technical tricks and sets itself at the opposite expressive pole from del Renzio. Forgoing commentary altogether, its explosive, raging-bull exploitation of crude black-on-white printing demonstrated that subject matter of this power need not be sought only on the other side of the Atlantic. In many ways, the most effective deployment of Ark’s minimal means appears in a layout and article by painter Richard Smith entitled “Man and He-man.” One close-valued, monochrome illustration anticipates to compelling visual effect Warhol’s fundamental principal of repetition, multiplying a single image of a man in formal dress with rolled umbrella (by the look of him an Eton College master, an inculcator of upper-class codes; the photograph is credited to Bisley). Another page shows a similar social type in a royal Ascot morning suit caught in more vigorous midstride, but jarringly juxtaposed with a proto-Pop catalogue of mythic Americana: Superman in midflight, the singing cowboy Gene Autry, and a stuttering overlay of actor Glenn Ford in gunfighter pose, inevitably calling to mind Warhol’s palimpsests of the action-Elvis series (Smith refers in his text to the advertisements for Presley’s first film vehicle, Love Me Tender, bannering its star as “fightin’ man, singin’ man, lovin’ man”).

Ark number 20 proved to be both the high point of this project—this pushing of expertise in the sources of a vernacular-based art to the point that it equals the potential of the most advanced expertise in fine art—and also its swan song: Student publications have changing personnel, and by the next issue (no. 21), Coleman had moved on, his designers too, leaving the replacement staff free to renew the journal’s earlier celebrations of nature worship in a Romantic/mystical vein.

The short-lived, preceding moment of Pop experimentation then dropped almost entirely from view, its innovations left to one side while Coleman, as well as Denny and Smith, turned their energies back to significant fine-art ambitions (with Smith, like Hockney, gravitating toward the American art scene). What they and their collaborators had improvised in ephemeral form then came to be fortuitously reinvented, five years later, in another place and time, with lasting and legendary impact on the established art world. The difference between their obscurity and the success of the Pop artists in the States lay in the Americans’ strategic packaging in paint on canvas, accompanied by their renunciation of any claim to knowledge superior to that of the average spectator. When fine art meets the late-twentieth-century media, expertise in the latter—that is, knowing your stuff—finds itself at odds with effectiveness in the system of art-world attention and celebrity, whatever the prescience of one’s formal and thematic discoveries.

It may indeed be difficult to bridge the gap between the stellar art-historical stature of the figures reviewed at the outset of this essay and the near-total eclipse of the specific case of Ark, numbers 18 to 20. But it may be precisely this gap that matters most. One’s confidence in the notion of Pop art, post-1960, as a distinct historical phase recedes the more one perceives it as the repetition of familiar fine-art moves. The cohort involved in Coleman’s Ark can offer as a counterexample something genuinely different: a carelessly youthful exploitation—both as expert consumers and disinterested producers—of opportunities revealed by the advances of mid-twentieth-century media and technology. They diverted into the stuff of the common culture a cultivated self-consciousness normally monopolized by fine-art refinement—and in that brief achievement effected a paradoxical return to that prelapsarian state before “royal” aspirations seized the definition of art.

Thomas Crow is director of the Getty Research Institute and a contributing editor of Artforum.