PRINT February 2013


Sergio Lombardo, Kennedy, 1963, enamel on canvas, 70 7/8 x 90 1/2".

Pop Art serves to remind us . . . that we have fashioned for ourselves a world of artefacts and images that are intended not to train perception or awareness but to insist that we merge with them as the primitive man merges with his environment. The world of modern advertising is a magical environment constructed to produce effects for the total economy but not designed to increase human awareness.

[. . .]

“Pop Art” is the use of some object in our own daily environment as if it were anti-environmental.

—Marshall McLuhan, “The Relation of Environment to Anti-environment”¹

IT'S DIFFICULT to exaggerate the invasion of culture by commercial brands, billboards, photographs, magazines, and packaging designs beginning in the 1960s. Advertising and its viral propagation on the street, in the home, through print and celluloid, presented an unprecedented aesthetic challenge, marked by its proliferation around the world. Indeed, if consumer culture was branded quintessentially American, it was in fact indelibly global. And while Marcel Duchamp had responded to the explosive production of materiality in the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution with the readymade, the next generation of artists had to contend with not just the object but a whole environment. Pop art, we know, was an inevitable rejoinder to the flow and dissemination of images of products as much as the objects themselves. And these images were no longer created after reality, but after icons precoded by the media.

Ever prescient, Marshall McLuhan identified in 1966 how Pop, in contrast to the “disinterest” expressed by Duchamp’s readymade, contended directly with the product or image and expressed an active interest in breaking through its passive consumer landscape, directing attention to the very place it was born. Post-readymade but pre-simulacrum, Pop was still concrete: It built its desired socio­economic and commercial meaning into the figuration of the object in a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s famous formulation, in Mythologies (1957), of the sign that flickers between signifier and signified, so that the image or text, icon or logo, denotes a real object but stands simultaneously as a representation of a code. Whether that code was complicit or critical has been the story of Pop art’s reception and, in particular, that of its first generation of US-based artists. But that very question meant different things in different contexts.

POP HAS ALWAYS BEEN SEEN as one-directional: disseminated from founding hubs in New York and London to other parts of the world. Arriving in a socially and politically revised global landscape that had placed the US in a central position, Pop was of course irrevocably associated with that nation’s emerging dominance. And due largely to its commercial appeal and success, its narrative was subject to a forceful, gallery-driven marketing that resulted in narrow parameters being set from its first appearance, and the consequent exclusion of numerous, mostly female artists.² At the same time, a (largely New York–based) Pop history was being written in John Rublowsky’s Pop Art (1965), Mario Amaya’s Pop as Art (1966), and Lucy R. Lippard’s Pop Art (1966) and through dealers and curators such as Leo Castelli, Walter Hopps, and Lawrence Alloway. This was a process that edited out alternative Pops—and Pop in other places—before they were even understood to exist. Indeed, this process of exclusion can be read as a direct or deliberate echo of the convergence of critics, markets, and exhibitions that established Abstract Expressionism as the dominant art movement in the postwar US.

Yet “Pop” did not just signify North American popular culture. Around the world, Pop arose in singular forms and designations but in no singular lineage. Many Pops emerged at once, often imbued with an ambivalence about, if not outright hostility to, the notion of American economic (and artistic) dominance. While television, newspapers, and magazines proved efficient conduits for globally transmitting the products of American culture, US-branded advertising was still largely absent in many regions of the world where such goods were not imported at all, or were too expensive. Instead, regional pop and film stars, local fashion houses and car manufacturers, were dominant, and homegrown visual messaging such as street signs, comics, banners, and posters provided alternative inspiration. This was global yet specific Pop.

WHAT DO WE TALK ABOUT when we talk about Pop? For one, Pop style or a Pop spirit encompassed graphic techniques that mimicked popular, commercial, and media art, with flattened, simplified, and cutaway imagery; bright, artificial colors; and the combination of text with picture. Achieved through projecting an image onto a flat surface and tracing it, or through various types of printing processes—though serigraphy was not always available—the resulting abridged figuration also drew from street signs a universal yet localized language. Mass media, desire, culture—the most iconic terms associated with Pop art must be reconsidered in its global contexts, where the masses and culture had no single hegemonic definition.

Claudio Tozzi, Multidão (Multitude), 1968, Liquitex on plaque, 58 1/4 x 54 3/8".

Many Pop artists, not just in the US but all over the world, emerged from a design background—and the convergence in Pop of graphics, design, architecture, and art is a direct result of this crossover. The emerging force of media—television, photojournalism, and a new culture of “breaking news”—drew Pop artists to bold forms, used for laconic effect: These artists reappropriated (in many instances illicitly) the plates or molds from printing presses and the photography commissioned for journalism. In locations where censorship was editorial policy, artists were acutely aware of the potential in disrupting intended meaning. The desire for an immediacy of impact was often directed toward political rather than profitable ends in global Pop; serial imagery and duplication became central to the production of an easily distributable mass art form comparable to popular printmaking (operating outside a commercial context) rather than limited to a commentary on commercial practices.³ Pop style also appropriated the advertised object itself through sculpture, frequently made with new consumer materials: inflatables, malleable soft sculptures, and brightly colored plastics, which offered human associations tinged with the sinister threat of the unnatural or even, in the omnipresent shadow of war, dismemberment.

Just as “Pop style” encompassed various strategies of composition and process, so there was not one universal Pop art but rather hundreds of iterations around the globe that shared a populist concern. Numerous movements and artists developed a Pop strategy: Among the former were Nouveau Réalisme, neo-Dada, Otra and Nueva Figuración, and Saqqakhaneh or Spiritual Pop; the latter included the collective Equipo Crónica, as well as such singular figures as Öyvind Fahlström, Keiichi Tanaami, and Erró. These tendencies differed from one another due to their varying origins, in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, France, Iceland, Iran, Japan, and Spain, and were necessarily informed by their respective traditions and sociopolitical situations. Countering the mainstream impression that Pop art operated as a simple adaptation of the techniques and images of consumer culture, these global variants mined the media as a critical, material source for artists investigating the effects of everyday culture. Pop—and this can, of course, be said of the more ambivalent work of Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, too—was rarely just an affirmative aestheticization of commodity culture or consumer behavior but employed the language of marketing, the language of the magical commercial environment as identified by McLuhan, to turn established communication strategies into political opposition, satiric critique, subversive appropriation, and utopian explorations of collective and individual identity. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the global permutations of Pop. Tactics of Pop appropriation could be made to mean completely differently. Anti-imperialist critique clothed itself in the signifiers of dominant commercial ideology in order to outstrip it, while situating itself firmly and joyously within contemporary culture.

Given that global Pop was largely a response to diverse strains of local and international commercial media rather than specifically American Pop art, and reflected a desire to create a truly populist art form, it is unsurprising that its many manifestations, even in adjacent countries, developed in relative isolation. Despite this lack of transnational communication or dissemination, shared themes and concerns can be observed across the globe, indicative of contemporaneous socioeconomic realities but also of an understanding of the operations of mass media itself. In specific ways, Pop iterations throughout the world deformed, extended, or inverted certain strategies of American Pop—and developed wholly different tactics—in dialogue with specifically vernacular consumer environments.

AND WHAT BECAME of subject formation under this advertising invasion, particularly as the individual was both the mass media’s prize possession and its victim? While Pop’s canon replicated the image of the isolated consumer, reinforcing the hyperindividualization under capitalism that burgeoned in the second half of the twentieth century, global Pop artists brought the crowd crashing back into the living room, bursting from the contained safety of the television screen and disrupting the hygienic atmo­sphere of the singular figure or discrete shopper. Think of Icelandic artist Erró’s “American Interiors” series of 1968, with its globally diverse crowd of proletarians, culled from socialist-realist Chinese artwork, who appear to be invading the bourgeois interiors found in household magazines. The demonstration or crowd provided fertile terrain for a miscellaneous group of artists and artists’ collectives who recognized and hijacked the image of the masses, which stood for, on the one hand, the hidden populace that made possible the consumer society being sold through an apparently subjective, individual appeal; and, on the other, an assembled, and on occasion underground, political opposition to the status quo. Within the graphic arts, “Pop” style was marshaled productively for political posters from the Situationists and the Black Panthers, Sister Corita and the Vietcong. Representations of mass events—Claudio Tozzi’s Multidão (Multitude), 1968; Michelangelo Pistoletto’s No to the Increase of the Bus Fare, 1965; Sigmar Polke’s Menschenmenge (The Crowd), 1969; Equipo Crónica’s Concentration or Quantity Becomes Quality, 1966—reassert collective action and communality, in opposition to such remote Pop icons as Marilyn and Elvis. Whether left-leaning graphic-poster production, including the work of Paris-based New Figuration artists for the 1968 protests, or artist-designed flags for the demonstrations in São Paulo and Rio that same year (made by Nelson Leirner, Tozzi, Rubens Gerchman, Carmela Gross, Hélio Oiticica, and Antonio Manuel, among others), collaborative, public production aimed to make Pop-influenced work for mass consumption, if not agitation. Global Pop represented and framed the crowd, while orchestrating and unifying it.

Wolf Vostell, Jayne Mansfield, 1968, mixed media on paper and canvas, 78 3/4 x 55 1/8".

At the same time, global Pop posed new ways of representing individual subjectivity, if only to emphasize its erosion and loss under tabloid conditions. Just as in Warhol’s work, this led to image manipulations that denote celebrity or popularity but also to the traces of defamation that linger in even the most apparently elevated portrait.⁴ Thus Cuban Raúl Martínez’s numerous laudatory images of Che Guevara and Belgian Evelyne Axell’s portrait of the astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, or the sinister gesticulating politicians by Italian Sergio Lombardo and, in France, industrial designer Roger Tallon’s placement of Charles de Gaulle on one of his chairs. We see the deconstruction of this process in works such as Wolf Vostell’s Jayne Mansfield, 1968, a décollage in which the actress’s repeated image is combined with woundlike ruptures and pictures of her fatal car crash, pasted over depictions of New York City buildings. And Argentinean Roberto Jacoby’s 1968 poster, placing the text A GUERRILLA DOES NOT DIE TO BE HUNG ON THE WALL alongside Cuban Alberto Korda’s iconic 1960 image of Che Guevara, which had become, almost overnight, visual shorthand for left-of-center political affiliation, takes things one step further: It attempts to undermine the Pop effect. Jacoby concurrently critiques the Guevara image first “Popped” by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick in 1968 for political ends, presciently pointing out how quickly the image of a revolutionary might be commercialized.

While the easy circulation and market status of images is central for Pop, the actual mechanisms of their distribution also became an important subject—and means of disruption—in Pop’s global iterations. A particularly acute awareness of the new information culture developed among artists in Buenos Aires who were supported in their endeavors by the avant-garde art space Instituto Torcuato Di Tella. An intense environment of experimentation resulted in events that examined the role of the mass media, while knowingly circulating art-products through existing channels of commerce and communication in order to expose the process of distribution and consumption (whether object or information). Take, for example, the Pop-Conceptual series of fake Happenings orchestrated by Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, and Raúl Escari, presented to the press through photography and press releases, and subsequently reported on in the daily papers (a simultaneous moment of production and circulation, the artists claimed); Dalila Puzzovio’s colorfully striped platform shoes, which were mass-produced by and sold in a major shoe store in Buenos Aires but also placed on display as an installation at Di Tella; or Costa’s “Fashion Fictions,” artworks inserted into fashion spreads in American Vogue. Like medical contrast agents in the body of mediation, these artists’ works visibly tracked the process of circulation.

Elsewhere, artists deployed ironic mimicry in order to address the forms of mass media as a specifically imperialist, capitalist, foreign structure. The Swedish Fahlström’s Mao-Hope March, 1966, staged a fake demonstration humorously and irrationally linking Bob Hope with the Chairman (whose image reproduction and distribution outdid those of any Hollywood star or corporate logo). Recorded as a faux documentary in which its participants speak of their experience in a manner directly recalling the recent and ongoing civil rights and anti–Vietnam War marches, Fahlström’s work reshoots the latest televisual motifs and vacuous vox populi commentary for a distinctly nondidactic, anarchic critique of news-lite coverage. Similarly, in Eastern Europe, the delayed arrival of consumer culture was highly fraught—and met with suspicion as both a “liberator” from and a continuation of older systems of mass information as disseminated by the state. Poland’s relatively open economy (especially after 1972) allowed for greater access to foreign goods and exposure to advertising, both of which are critically deconstructed in such works as the film Rewizja osobista (Personal Search, 1972) by Witold Leszczyn´ski and Andrjez Kostenko. Actual advertisements are collaged into a story of a family’s failed attempt to import European goods to Poland from Switzerland; the absurdity of the aspirational fantasy—symbolized throughout the film by a mountain of packaging with its accompanying labels and logos—is set in contrast to the final moments, in which the border guard and the matriarch of the family revert to nostalgic recollections of their youthful political commitment while the teenage son sets fire to the (imported) Fiat and its contents.

EARTH WASN’T POP’S ONLY FRONTIER: Space exploration from the late 1950s brought the possibility of new utopias, not only to those countries with space programs but to sites in which such fantasies had an altogether different register. The world was drawn along ideological lines: Sputnik versus Neil Armstrong. The Cold War space race, the presence of the female astronaut beginning in the 1960s, the notion of a new territory unbounded by the strictures of daily life, and a fascination with cutting-edge technology and materials resulted in a profusion of Pop around the planet that utilized the metaphors of space travel to explore new realms of national and personal identity. Sculpture materialized these interests in aggressive, alien robot weaponry, among them American Shinkichi Tajiri’s massively scaled steel, Plexiglas, and aluminum Machine No. 7, 1967, which made evident the tensions—erotic, military, and technological—underlying competitive space exploration. Taking a different perspective, numerous women artists were attracted by the lure of a radically equal society and by the androgynous clothing—helmets and space suits. Austrian Kiki Kogelnik frequently depicted herself and others in flat outline falling through space, and France’s Nicola L devised oversize space costumes as sexless soft sculptures, both women providing an alternative to the hypersexualized female space traveler Barbarella in the eponymous comics of Jean-Claude Forest and the 1968 film by Roger Vadim.

Delia Cancela, Corazón destrozado (Destroyed Heart), 1964, oil on canvas, wood, silk, ink on paper, 59 x 47 1/4".

If space travel offered the body a weightless, genderless existence, artists also explored its abject potential, wrested free from advertising’s airbrush. The body in parts, dismembered and disemboweled, is a recurring motif among women artists’ work such as Brazilian Anna Maria Maiolino’s Glu, Glu, Glu, 1966, a sculptural relief of a featureless (with the exception of the mouth) upper body and digestive organs using a bright Pop palette, and Argentinean Delia Cancela’s painting Corazón destrozado (Destroyed Heart), 1964, in which missing parts cut from a heart hang suspended from the canvas. For artists of both genders, the pronounced representation of desire was often commingled with political radicality, as well as uncertainty with regard to the outcome of the seismic changes taking place in the gendered social order. Antonio Dias’s remarkable works—for example, Nota sobre a morte imprevista (On the Unforseen Death), 1965—bring together soft sculptural relief elements that combine erotic impulses with dark, militaristic scenes; the environmental painting-sculpture of fellow Brazilian Wesley Duke Lee’s Trapézio ou uma confissão (Trapeze or a Confession), 1966, suggests both a male celebration of liberated female sexuality and the conflicting desire for a traditional domestic life.

While lowbrow culture provided global Pop with its most direct and obvious source, art’s own image archive was prime material for recoding history to the contemporary moment. Parroting the conservative criticism that Pop style was superficial and commercial, artists used Pop to debase or dethrone the artistic hierarchy or heritage from which they had emerged. Equipo Crónica, a group formed in Spain in 1964 by Manolo Valdés, Rafael Solbes, and Juan Antonio Toledo, made use of Picasso as a national myth, in particular applying a Pop gloss to works such as Guernica. The artists’ work of the same title from 1971 features a close-cropped image of the mural’s famous horse, exploded by Lichtenstein’s WHAAM! The work politicizes Picasso through its ambiguous connection to American popular culture’s iteration of violence while suggesting an ideological critique of the Franco regime’s cultura de la evasion. Elsewhere, both national and foreign heritage were called into question. In Japan, Ushio Shinohara, following Robert Rauschenberg’s visit there, began his “Imitation Art” series producing duplicates of the latter artist’s Coca-Cola Plan, 1958, thereby multiplying its unique, handmade Pop. Shinohara’s later “Oiran” series was based on images of geishas from Edo-period wood-block prints. These fluorescent works featured plastics as well as paint (flat, cutout figures against empty backgrounds) and represented the transformation of traditional prints into garish, faceless travesties of taste.

POP’S CRITICALITY was often misconstrued as it was first developing, and the critique employed by its many artists was often seen as a positive embrace of US-influenced commercial media or as an all too simplistic détournement. (This is particularly true of women Pop artists, who withstood the double exclusion of the movement’s male-dominated terrain and a rejection by other women artists for working in a mode that appeared contrary to feminism.⁵) The dialectic of Pop—immersing itself in a commodified environment while providing a language of mass appeal with which to critique and negate it—was felt by contemporary observers to be complicit with prevailing power structures, despite that very dialectic. And it is true, of course, that Pop art, even in its most politically utopian iterations, was necessarily cannibalistic, a kind of Ouroboros, feeding off and destroying itself. Pop carried within it what Jürgen Habermas has called a “performative contradiction” (which, ironically, he observed in the Frankfurt School’s own critique of the culture industry): that the denunciation of an ideology employs the very language of that ideological power. For Pop, this meant a dissolution of its own language and ethos within the banality of the everyday, an environment from which it could not always extract itself. Yet this negative conundrum was turned into a methodological opportunity in global Pop—in which there was never just one language of power—to simultaneously champion populist expressions and disavow the media’s ideological coinages.

While the past few decades have witnessed a thorough reexamination of global Conceptual art, and of the history of postwar abstraction beyond the parameters of the US and Europe, Pop’s equivocal international position has largely been passed over and dismissed as an (often-belated) artistic influence rather than as a complex, ambiguous, and self-reflexive response to contemporary culture. Pop’s compound relationship to Conceptual practice must be mapped more definitively, as we gradually free ourselves from the convenient monikers that have proved to be ready accomplices in maintaining a linear continuum of Western art history.

Equipo Crónica, Guernica, 1971, silk screen on paper, 29 5/8 x 21 7/8".

As recent exhibitions on Pop at Fundacíon Proa in Buenos Aires and at the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, as well as the recent solo exhibitions of work by Axell and Kogelnik, demonstrate, any effort now to redress history’s imbalance of global Pop coverage necessarily has to perform acts of retrieval, followed by a process of remapping Pop’s definition and potential. If McLuhan endowed Pop with the capacity to act as an “anti-environment,” an alternative realm, and provide a critical inquiry into the image saturation of twentieth-century life, his realization attains further relevance in a contemporary moment in which this condition has increased a hundredfold. Pop’s varied past, particularly outside the Western canon, needs to be reassessed and its meaning as an agitator and dissembler recognized. We must, in other words, become aware of the ways global Pop breaks into and breaks open our surrounding world.

Jessica Morgan is the Daskalopoulos Curator, international art, at Tate Modern in London.


1. University of Windsor Review 11, no. 1 (1966): 1–10; reprinted in Marshall McLuhan Unbound, ed. Eric McLuhan and W. Terrence Gordon (Corte Medera, CA: Gingko Press, 2005), 7–8.

2. See, for example, chapter 3 of Midori Yamamura’s thesis “Yayoi Kusama: Biography and Cultural Confrontation, 1945–1969” (Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, Graduate Center, 2012), “1960–1966, Objects into Art: The Canonization of American Pop and the Case of Kusama,” on the gradual exclusion of Kusama from the New York galleries that defined Pop art.

3. The connection to socialist realism, the other, often unacknowledged, realist movement of the time, is also in need of further examination.

4. This dual nature of the portrait is present throughout Warhol’s oeuvre, as explored by Richard Meyer, among others, in terms of sexuality and Cold War politics.

5. This subject has been addressed eloquently by the art historian Kalliopi Minioudaki in her essays “Pop Proto-feminisms: Beyond the Paradox of the Woman Pop Artist” in Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968, ed. Sid Sachs and Kalliopi Minioudaki (Philadelphia: University of the Arts, 2010), 90–141, and “Other(s’) Pop: The Return of the Repressed of Two Discourses” in Power Up: Female Pop Art, ed. Angela Stief (Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, 2010), 134–44.