Peter Stämpfli, Rallye (Rally), 1964, oil on canvas, ca. 68 1/16 x 74".

Peter Stämpfli, Rallye (Rally), 1964, oil on canvas, ca. 68 1/16 x 74".

“The Pop Years”

There is, it seems, no definitive way of organizing a Pop art exhibition. No lineup was ever official, even in the United States, nor was there a roster of participating countries, and some accounts have managed inexplicably to exclude even the movement’s major pioneers, as with the 1992–93 “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition” at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which left out Tom Wesselmann. Every fresh look at the subject seems to expand its parameters in another direction, and the impulse for curators to cast a wide net—or, conversely, to focus on local varieties—though understandable, is potentially hazardous. Where does one find a balance? Americans often wrongly assume the movement to have been contained within their country’s borders, or based solely in Manhattan from 1960 to ’65, exemplified by the work of the usual suspects—Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, and Wesselmann. Indeed, as early as the ’50s, British artists Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, and Eduardo Paolozzi were examining the iconography that would later characterize Pop, yet they have frequently been excluded from American accounts. The Menil Collection’s recent “Pop Art: US/UK Connections, 1956–1966” was, remarkably, the first major exhibition on American soil to present the two countries’ offerings on equal terms.

Despite the long-standing need for a corrective, the Pompidou’s roundup, “Les années pop” (The Pop years), goes a little too far in its revisionism, not just by overstating the French contribution (mainly at the expense of the British) but by including much work that is only tangentially related to Pop concerns. The very title of the exhibition, emphasizing the period rather than the movement, betrays the intentions of curator Catherine Grenier and her team. Their main claim to expanded coverage is a substantial section devoted to architecture, which perhaps should have been presented as a small show in its own right, and a less persuasive sprinkling of furniture and design, from Tupperware containers to a baby’s plastic bath and potty by Luigi Colani. Given the constraints of space, with works hung cheek by jowl throughout, it seems misguided to have taken on so much. A selection of badly worn album covers and a scattering of posters does little justice to the vitality of graphic art during the ’60s; the curators’ fragmentary knowledge of this area of music and design is obvious from the inclusion of progressive-rock titles (e.g., Pink Floyd) at the expense of rock ’n’ roll, just as the piped-in exhibition sound track of The Searchers and the 13th Floor Elevators betrays a hopeless misunderstanding of the musical climate. The curators are on surer ground only when links to artists can be directly documented, as with the Beatles LP covers designed by Blake and Hamilton, or the Velvet Underground performances as part of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

The exhibition layout, a series of interconnecting alleys and spaces, adds to the confusion. Visitors are repeatedly taken down winding paths that turn out to be dead ends; this sense of art leading nowhere becomes an unfortunate leitmotif, sending out a powerful message quite different from what was intended. The organizers’ ambition in allowing visitors to meander at will was clearly to re-create the atmosphere of limitless possibilities associated with the ’60s, but the result is a jumble rather than a well-judged clash of visual signs and languages, and the lack of any overarching historical, geographical, or even conceptual framework is distinctly unhelpful. Spectators are constantly asked to readjust their expectations as they wander from small sections devoted to particular bands of artists to cross-cultural thematic groupings and to mini solo exhibitions; Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Hamilton, Martial Raysse, and Alain Jacquet are among those rightfully singled out, but no such spaces are devoted to others equally deserving, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, Edward Ruscha, and Blake. Some major artists, represented by only a work or two, are thus rendered almost invisible. Why is Colin Self’s sinister, haunting sculpture Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber No. 2, 1963, tucked away under two Hockney paintings in the early British section, where it seems sadly stranded, rather than shown alongside other images of war in the area devoted to political imagery? Why is Allen Jones’s provocative 1969 sculpture of a woman on her back, in the form of a chair, installed next to Bernard Rancillac’s sculpturally fanciful but functional Elephant Chair of 1966 and displayed in such an unkempt state?

Peter Stämpfli, Rallye (Rally), 1964, oil on canvas, ca. 68 1/16 x 74".

Even the most instructive thematic section, devoted to the comic strip as a source of imagery, is aesthetically jarring in its disregard for scale, medium, and technique; however effective the works might be as illustrations in a book or as slides in a lecture, they kill each other on the walls. But having taken this route, with the inclusion of a section on advertising and another on utopian dreams and political protest (incongruously mixing Malcolm Morley’s Beach Scene, 1968, and a Hockney swimming-pool painting, Sunbather, 1966, with agitprop posters of May ’68), Grenier and her colleagues might have been better off rehanging the entire show thematically. With the works already selected, for example, they could have brought together Raysse with Mimmo Rotella’s Marilyn, 1962, Peter Phillips’s For Men Only—Starring MM and BB, 1961, Hamilton’s My Marilyn, 1965, and Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, 1964, as part of a group of celebrity and cinematic images as diverse in their emotional tone as in the processes by which they were achieved, making use of screenprinting, overpainted photographs, hand-painting, collage, and décollage.

Occasionally the collisions between artists and cultures are exhilarating and informative, as with the framing of Warhol’s single-image Marilyn and Liz paintings by Raysse’s tinted photographs of seductively made-up women. Here, for once, is a real sense of dialogue, with attention focused on the uses of photography, cinematic influences, and mechanical procedures as well as on themes of fame and glamour. The presentation in an adjoining space of four of Hamilton’s “Swingeing London 67” series, 1968–69, closely hung on a single line, makes evident the notion of seriality and repetition so central to Pop. It seems willful not to show this exemplified also in Warhol’s work, but perhaps even the Pompidou had trouble obtaining the necessary loans.

Given the show’s international perspective, the British were shamefully treated: Apart from Hamilton, not even the pioneers are given a chance to shine. Blake is represented by just three paintings, including one tiny work in the comic-strip section, and Paolozzi by a single sculpture (Diana as an Engine I, 1963–66) and a few collages of the late ’40s. Clive Barker’s chrome-plated object sculptures are nowhere to be seen, though there is an entire case accorded (quite legitimately) to small works by his American equivalent, Robert Watts. The painters Derek Boshier, Gerald Laing, and Richard Smith, major players in the early ’60s, are conspicuously absent, and such important figures as Patrick Caulfield and Joe Tilson have only one work each on view. Caulfield’s Engagement Ring, 1963, with its bold black-and-white grid and centrally placed image, represents well the sign-painter’s language with which he established his reputation but is not enough to convey the subtleties of his later development as a supreme colorist; Tilson’s A–Z Box of Friends and Family of the same year, a key piece in the history of British Pop, consisting of compartments containing miniature works by Blake, Hockney, and Hamilton, among others, would have benefited from a wall label detailing authorship of its individual components.

The French, by contrast, are given a fighting chance. This seems only fair, especially on their home turf, in light of the variety, originality, and speed of their responses to Pop issues. There are some high-spirited works on display by the Nouveaux Réalistes, in whose expanded ranks (as “new realisms”) the curators rather outrageously include not only Johns and Rauschenberg but other American artists involved with Junk Art and assemblage, as well as the German Wolf Vostell. The painters associated with Figuration Narrative, including Rancillac, the Haitian-born Hervé Télémaque, the Italian Valerio Adami, the Icelandic Erró, and the American Peter Saul, are mainly segregated in the sections devoted to comics and consumer imagery, as is the Swiss painter Peter Stämpfli. Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter are accorded the dignity of being shown together in a space of their own.

Three major Lichtenstein paintings—As I Opened Fire . . ., 1964; Oh, Jeff . . . I Love You, Too . . . But . . ., 1964; and Big Painting No. 6, 1965—should have been a high point, but their power is dissipated by their incongruous confrontation with two equally forceful “Disaster” paintings by Warhol. And the re-creation of Oldenburg’s Store with small-scale plaster sculptures resting oddly alongside large soft sculptures of the same year, 1962, is hardly historically accurate in its insensitive installation on plywood sheets surrounded by a Plexiglas fence. It must be said, though, that the loans are first-rate: To see two masterpieces from New York’s MoMA, Floor Cake (Giant Piece of Cake) and Floor Cone (Giant Ice-Cream Cone), both 1962, is reason enough to attend and testifies to the Pompidou’s powerful negotiating position.

A mere three paintings, two by Niki de Saint-Phalle and one by Vija Celmins, in addition to some performance videos and films by Yayoi Kusama, Carolee Schneemann, and Yoko Ono, convey the contribution of women to Pop. It is true that painters like the British artist Pauline Boty or the American Rosalyn Drexler remained minor figures on the fringe of a movement dominated by men, but in a show of this size one might have expected at least a reference to the work of sculptors Marisol and Jann Haworth.

But for all these reservations, especially concerning the sidelining of the British contingent, “The Pop Years” has to be counted among the most comprehensive exhibitions ever accorded the movement. (The Menil’s small and focused show was full of gems but came with omissions, too: It passed on Johns, Rauschenberg, and Larry Rivers—all thankfully present here—on the grounds that they were precursors rather than pure Pop artists.) However badly arranged, the Pompidou exhibition is crammed with great works and full of energy. The catalogue, edited by Mark Francis, and organized—unlike the installation—strictly chronologically, is likewise a substantial addition to the ever-growing literature on the subject of Pop in terms of its illustrations and reprinted texts of the period, among them Allan Kaprow’s 1958 article “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” and Hamilton’s “For the Finest Art Try—Pop” (1961). It’s a pity, though, that it is published in French only and misleadingly includes reproductions of many works not in the exhibition.

On the whole I applaud the show’s attempt at inclusiveness, with its generous European contingent and the presence of Americans too frequently left out of these accounts (even in the US)—Richard Artschwager, George Brecht, Celmins, and Kaprow, to name a few. Robert Whitman’s Shower, 1963, complete with running water and a back-projected filmed image of a woman washing herself, is a revelation, a kind of missing link between the work of Rauschenberg and George Segal. The diverse activities of the Pop years are also filled out by the inclusion of poems by Gerard Malanga, filmed documentations of performances, an installation of Warhol movies, and photographs and films—including some of the urban “Pop” environment dating back as far as the ’30s—by Rudy Burckhardt, Fred W. McDarrah, William Klein, and Billy Name. On this level, at least, the messiness of the show works: The sense conveyed of a range of artistic practices seeping into one another is in many ways truer to the period than a cleaned-up version of events could ever be.

Marco Livingstone is a London-based curator and the author of Pop Art: A Continuing History (Abrams, 1990), as well as monographs on Allen Jones, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, and Duane Michals.

The Pop Years” will be on view at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, until June 18.