minneapolis

View of “International Pop,” 2015, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Foreground: Marisol, Dinner Date, 1963. Background, from left: Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #35, 1963; Ushio Shinohara, Drink More, 1964; Jasper Johns, Flags, 1965; Paul Thek, Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965. Photo: Gene Pittman.

“International Pop” and “The World Goes Pop”

Walker Art Center

View of “International Pop,” 2015, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Foreground: Marisol, Dinner Date, 1963. Background, from left: Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #35, 1963; Ushio Shinohara, Drink More, 1964; Jasper Johns, Flags, 1965; Paul Thek, Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965. Photo: Gene Pittman.

POP “WAS THE BIRTH OF THE NOW”: So claim curators Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan in the catalogue for their sprawling and ambitious show “International Pop” at the Walker Art Center, thus positioning the movement as a progenitor of our so-called post-Internet condition. Indeed, the curators write, Pop artists “were modeling behaviors that then seemed radical, but now are second nature: the image world as an extension of the self, the individual curating information via status feed, the rise of social media that is one of the most profound changes of our time.”

What is striking about this genealogy of the present is that Alexander and Ryan keep a self-conscious distance, in their account of historical Pop art, from the term global—a word that also arguably describes “one of the most profound changes of our time.” They make a subtle distinction between a previous model of the world and that of the present, claiming that the show is “a project about internationalism that could only have been made in today’s global era.” In other words, “International Pop” was an account of the recent past in which individual national art histories (such as those of the United States, England, Brazil, Japan, Argentina, Hungary, and Italy) were set alongside transnational aesthetic or formal dynamics that indicated an emerging “global style”: The mobility of pictures, for instance, was addressed in a section called “The Image Travels,” while in “Distribution & Domesticity” we saw artworks that confront the postwar explosion of commodities in everyday life. The exhibition thus tracked the nation-state giving way to multinational networks, markets, and cultures—to globalization—as a framework for understanding and encountering world art.

I dwell on Alexander and Ryan’s positioning of “International Pop” because it crystallizes precisely what is at stake in the organization of international or global exhibitions. International denotes, if only ideally, a confederation of equal yet distinct traditions; global indicates, on the contrary, either the erasure of geographic difference (in the so-called McDonaldization of the world) or the emergence of neo-imperial hierarchies that establish boundaries between rich and poor, or between cheap labor and metropolitan finance, that do not conform to the borders of national territories. “International Pop” grappled with these problems by allowing visitors to encounter distinctive national histories side by side, while simultaneously demonstrating how these genealogies merge into something that might be called global—in terms of both aesthetic convergences and geopolitical divergences (as in the Latin American ambivalence toward American Pop as both a compelling aesthetic movement and a cipher of the imperialist American policies to which that region was subjected).

By contrast, “The World Goes Pop” at Tate Modern, organized by Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri, collapses distinct historical genealogies into an entrepôt of works drawn from diverse places but grouped together in loose and often indistinguishable thematic galleries (“Pop Politics,” for instance, doesn’t look terribly different to me from “Pop Folk”). Bright walls of deeply saturated color punctuate the installation, creating environments so raucously cheerful that it is hard to see the art as anything but the high-culture version of the Disney attraction “It’s a Small World.” Take the “Pop Bodies” section, largely devoted to feminist art, which is displayed in a room whose walls are painted Pepto-Bismol pink, a crude, essentializing allusion to “femininity.” In “The World Goes Pop,” the global is submerged in a kind of shrill hilarity where politics can be just as fun as sex.

I think the crux of the theoretical difference between these two exhibitions may be found in the organizers’ opposing choices in handling British and American Pop, whose outsize influence in the international art world may accurately be termed “imperialist.” At the Walker, British and American Pop were inserted within a broader presentation of Pop’s manifestations in diverse locations. In other words, they were marginalized—or, to play on the title of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s important book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000), “International Pop” provincialized Warhol (and Richard Hamilton, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.). At the Tate, meanwhile, the histories of British and American Pop are excised altogether (though certain figures in the orbit of those worlds, such as Joe Tilson and Marisol, are present). This is a bold decision that was clearly intended to revise art-historical priorities and suggest a new aesthetic world order. While this choice deserves credit for its salutary intentions, I don’t think the outcome is convincing. History cannot simply be wished away—to do so does not benefit those who have suffered marginalization. As Chakrabarty puts it with regard to the challenge of producing a postcolonial history of India (and, by implication, other formerly colonized nations), European thought “is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India.” Any exhibition seeking to “decolonize Pop” (which each of these projects hopes to do in some way) must likewise acknowledge both the indispensability and the inadequacy of Pop’s dominant narratives as developed in the Anglo-American world. I believe this necessarily includes submitting such work directly to critique from artists living and working elsewhere.

One can therefore assess these two organizational strategies by considering their different treatments of similar works by the same artist. Take, for example, the Italian Sergio Lombardo’s silhouetted portraits of political figures such as John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev, one of which was exhibited at the Walker and two of which are at the Tate. In “International Pop,” Lombardo’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1962–63, was included in a gallery containing Jasper Johns’s Flags, 1965, on the one hand, and Brazilian artist Marcello Nitsche’s Alliance for Progress, 1965, on the other. The latter features motifs drawn from the American stars and stripes fitted into a kind of sheriff’s badge, with a handshake in handcuffs represented in the center. This juxtaposition, along with works such as Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s War Is Over!, 1969, located Lombardo’s assertion of the “blank power” of political rhetoric (as encoded in his silhouettes of politicians speaking) in a complex field of performative speech, manifest in images ranging from Johns’s formalist exercises to directly politicized assaults on the symbolic legitimacy of the flag. At the Tate, Lombardo’s John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krusciov, both 1962, are installed in a thematic gallery, “Pop Crowd,” with related works by Equipo Crónica and Jozef Jankovič addressing questions of social masses and deploying, like Lombardo, aspects of the profile or silhouette, but placed on adjacent walls of blinding orange and video blue in such a way that they look simply decorative—like supergraphics in a day-care center.

Another productive comparison between the two exhibitions arises from the Pop “style” that each proposes. Style is now widely considered an outmoded or, worse, regressive term, but in my opinion, the notion of“international style” as a shared vocabulary—one that can accommodate context-specific statements from diverse locations that nonetheless remain intelligible as they travel—may serve as a tool for theorizing the aesthetic dimension of art’s globalization. “International Pop” and “The World Goes Pop” project quite distinct stylistic models. The Walker show expanded on the more conventional (though by no means incorrect) understanding of Pop as a tendency rooted in the mediation and circulation of commodified images. At the Tate, however, a wide range of objects selected from diverse national traditions establish an interesting formal oscillation between cartoonish representation and a strong bodily affect arising from visceral modes of figuration. This is particularly, though not exclusively, true of the large number of works by women included in the exhibition—one of its main strengths. Of note are Anna Maria Maiolino’s Glu Glu Glu, 1966, composed of a shallow box holding a painted bust with a wide-open, screaming mouth atop a relief of brightly colored human organs; Teresinha Soares’s shallow reliefs such as So Many Men Die and I Am Here So Lonely (series Vietnam), 1968, blending televisual images of violence with intimate domesticity; and Evelyne Axell’s tour de force The Pretty Month of May, 1970, which is a kind of Déjeuner sur l’herbe for activist women artists. In assembling such works and many more of a comparable aesthetic, the Tate show has its greatest success in decentering Pop and untethering it—at least from its American model, if not from the surrealist ensembles of machines and bodies so closely associated with Richard Hamilton. Here, the famous “cool” of American Pop’s strategy of mediation, exemplified by Warhol’s transpositions of such horrors as car crashes and executions into deadpan silk screens, is replaced by a very hot version of Pop—one in which the submission of bodies to mediation need not drain them of their palpable eroticism or violence.

But in extracting a free-floating “pop-ness” from the history of Pop art and by extending its time line through the mid-1970s, “The World Goes Pop” opens itself to criticisms that the more historically specific “International Pop” avoided. Why, for instance, should the Tate show’s “world” not also include African “pop” practices, such as the painting of Congolese artist Chéri Samba and his compatriots, whose vibrant populist style was on display in the exhibition “Beauté Congo” at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, or so-called cynical realism from China? Since the Tate makes such a point of exploding the geographic boundaries of Pop, it seems arbitrary not to carry this deimperializing project even further to truly embrace the world. Such dilemmas in defining the exhibition’s limits arise from an imprecise grasp of historical methodology in favor of creating international connections based primarily on visual resemblances. In assessing the “birth of the now”—our borderless, neoliberal fantasy of a timeless global contemporary—history has never been more important.

“International Pop” is currently on view (through Jan. 17) at the Dallas Museum of Art; travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Feb. 24–May 15. “The World Goes Pop” is on view at Tate Modern, London, through Jan. 24.

David Joselit is distinguished professor at the graduate center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is After Art (Princeton, 2012).