The decade of the 1960s was perhaps one of the most provocative, in terms of culture, politics and philosophy, of the 20th century. The amazing growth that transpired in America from the end of World War II through the cold war period of the 1950s resulted in a newly formed consumer culture. In the first years of the decade, Pop artists responded to this new commercialism and embraced consumerism as a fitting subject of their art. Hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism such as expression and gesture were replaced with cool, detached, mechanical illustrations of common objects, often based on advertising images.
Basing their techniques, style and imagery on certain aspects of mass reproduction, media-derived imagery and consumer society, Pop artists began to erode the gulf between high art and low art, taking inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop-window displays. For instance, mass produced supermarket food is often the subject matter of its art including hamburgers, French fries, sandwiches, soup cans, soda and beer cans, and cakes.
Among Pop Art’s famous examples are Tom Wesselman and his Great American Nude series, Andy Warhol’s canonization of the Campbell’s soup can, Roy Lichtenstein’s blowups of comic strips, James Rosenquist and his juxtaposed image stories and Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Store’. These artists believed that art had become too inward and unrealistic. They wanted their art to reflect the contemporary world of the mid-twentieth century city; they wanted to reflect a rapidly changing society. What’s more, Pop Art investigates the areas of popular taste and kitsch that were previously considered outside the limits of fine art.
Andy Warhol was an avant-garde American artist, filmmaker, writer and social figure. He was one of the founders of the Pop Art movement in the United States in the 1950s and who is claimed to have brought Pop Art to the public eye. His screen prints of Coke bottles, Campbell’s soup tins and film stars are part of the iconography of the 20th century. Andy Warhol had a lifelong interest in movie stars which first surfaced in his art in 1962 when he begun working on portraits of Marilyn Monroe.
Warhol attempted to keep his personal fascination with fame from showing through too clearly in his works, preferring to leave their meaning open to the interpretation of viewers. Warhol is best known for his extremely simple, larger-than-life, high contrast color paintings (silk-screen prints) of packaged consumer products, everyday objects, such as Campbell’s Soup, poppy flowers and the banana and also for his stylized portraits of the twentieth century celebrity icons, such Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.
Warhol’s early paintings show images taken from cartoons and advertisements. However, cartoons and comics were already being used by fellow artist Roy Lichtenstein. Warhol wanted a distinguishing subject of his own and his friends suggested he should paint the things he loved the most. In his signature way of taking things literally, he painted images such as his famous cans of Campbell’s soup, which he had for lunch most of his life. Yet, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, (1962, The Museum of Modern Art) can also represent other notions.
It can depict the cheapness of mass culture. It can also be viewed as a cynical joke about the American collector’s artistic nationalism or it may merely illustrate Warhol’s genuine love for his mother who constantly fed him canned soup. Campbell’s Soup Cans as well as Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe, (1962, Leo Castelli Gallery) are silk screened paintings based on the mass produced. These images are often presented in a series by which Warhol repeats the picture a large number of times on the same canvas or on separate canvases.
Each image in the series is slightly different from the next one. Warhol utilizes a wide range of color from the monochrome to the vivid and vibrant. In his Campbell Soup painting, numerous rows and columns of red and white Campbell soup cans are painted alongside each other. They are all identical except for the flavor of the soup that is written on each can. Warhol’s main aesthetic strategies were based on the fashion industry and mass media advertising. This means that he constantly used reproduction and incessant repetition in the art work.
But it was repetition and reproduction without a message. For example, the statement ‘Black Bean’ on the Campbell’s soup can is meaningless when it is reproduced in art, which is exactly how mass advertising works and Warhol wanted his artwork to have this same effect. However, Warhol’s Campbell’s soup did not only function as an illustration of commercial industry and advertisement, it was an intrinsic part of Warhol’s life and memories and popular culture. For him the soup represented a feeling of being at home with family. It was what the mass media declared a ‘comfort food’.
Andy Warhol was also particularly fascinated with contemporary icons like Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor. His many portrayals of them comment on America’s fascination with celebrities as well as the artist’s own long-life obsession with fame. Warhol either invented or best understood that concept of mass media celebrity. He saw the ‘Celebrity’ as plastic, fictive, repetitious, a matter of packaging and something that remained strangely passive. Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portrays all of these elements. Again this painting features rows and columns of recurring images of Marilyn Monroe’s face.
Each face is identical to the next, the only difference being the pattern of extremely bright colors and shades he uses for each image. Warhol painted in bright colors because they pointed at and highlighted the fabrication of the ‘celebrity’ notion as well as its media value. It represented the way in which images of such people are trivialized by the media. Therefore Warhol’s work functioned as a social comment and also illustrated a time when the mass media’s influence was growing in pertinence and plausibility. Roy Lichtenstein is another artist credited to the Pop Art movement.
In 1951, Lichtenstein began to paint pictures that he considered reinterpretations of themes of the American West such as the ‘Ten Dollar Bill’. Then in 1960 Roy began to introduce comic book figures in his paintings. Many of his ideas were generated from bubble gum wrappers and the comic books and heroes he had grown up with. Lichtenstein described his work as being “as artificial as possible”. Once commenting on the relationship between commercial and fine art he claimed that ‘the handsome man and the pretty girl is a kind of prototype in a classical way.
He believed that if Renaissance artists could exploit ancient myths and Christian iconography, then contemporary artists should co-opt images of their own times, such as Micky Mouse and Popeye. However, rather than attempting to simply reproduce his subjects, Roy Lichtenstein’s work tackled the way mass media would portray such subjects. Using oil and Magna paint, Lichtenstein created some of his best known works, such as Drowning Girl, (1963, Museum of Modern Art). This painting features his signature use of thick outlines and bold primary colors.
It also employs the technique of the ‘Benday Dot’ to give the illusion as if these images were created by photographic reproduction. For Lichtenstein verbal statements were also an integral part of his visual compositions. His most famous image is arguably Whaam! (1963, Tate Gallery) one of the earliest known examples of pop art, featuring a fighter aircraft firing a rocket into an enemy plane with a dazzling red and yellow explosion.
The cartoon style is heightened by the use of the onomatopoetic lettering Whaam! and the boxed caption “I pressed the fire control… nd ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky. ” Lichtenstein would take a common object and alter it with comic book design elements that include flatness of form, thick black lines that encircle the forms and obviously his classic use of primary colors and the Benday dot technique. He produced paintings based upon romance and war comics that deal with the dramas of human life. For example his painting ‘Blonde Waiting’ depicts an attractive girl waiting in front of an alarm clock, hence waiting for the time to come when she will be with her ‘hero’.
Lichtenstein also wanted many of his images to be stereotypes of classic American culture. Born in Grand Fork, North Dakota in 1933, James Rosenquist was also one of the first and leading American pop artists. His work merges commercial and fine art, juxtaposing the motifs of mass media, time, political issues and machine aesthetics. From 1957 to 1960 he earned his living as a billboard painter. This was perfect training for an artist about to explode onto the pop art scene. So in the late 1950s Rosenquist decided to apply what he had learned painting billboards to his own paintings on canvas.
Like other pop artists, Rosenquist adapted the visual, often vulgar and outrageous language of advertising and pop culture to the context of fine art. His specialty was taking fragmented, oddly disproportionate images and combining, overlapping and juxtaposing them on canvases to create visual stories. Rosenquist wanted to make people consider even the most familiar objects (e. g. a box of washing detergent) in more abstract and provocative ways. However the artist was not interested in telling just one specific story with the juxtaposed images. To him the bits and pieces and jumbled up images increased the possibilities of many meanings.
During the presidential election, Rosenquist painted President Elect, (1961, Centre Georges Pompidou). This was an influential piece of art work that combines images of John F. Kennedy with the icons of popular culture including the automobile and sex imagery. The painting was an oil on masonite and it utilized various methods to create an image which was a collection of things composed in a way that made sense. President Elect had a tripartite structure with, from left to right, was a close-up of John F. Kennedy’s face, a woman’s hands holding a slice of cake, and a portion of an automobile.
James Rosenquist himself explained that face was from Kennedy’s campaign poster. I was very interested at that time in people who advertised themselves. Rosenquist admired the work of other New York artists like Oldenburg who were incorporating objects or images of everyday life into their artwork. They wanted to bridge the gap between art and life while eschewing emotion as a primary source of inspiration. Oldenburg’s approach differs from that of pop artists Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. His idiosyncratic method to his subjects stems in part from his affinities to the earlier movements of dada surrealism.
In 1961 Claes Oldenburg opened The Store. This large-scale environment contained colorful plaster sculptures of shirts, ties, dresses, and food, all of which were sold as merchandise from a storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Store was an exploration of common everyday objects and reconfiguring food items, such as a hamburger and an ice-cream cone, and mechanical devices like telephones and typewriters. The store was a handmade, colorful, consumer-oriented, friendly temple to money and materialistic culture. In his store, Oldenburg introduced an innovation in sculpture.
The ‘soft sculptures’, which were objects constructed in fabric that permits them to change form. For example, Floorburger is one of Oldenberg’s soft sculptures made from canvas that is filled with foam and cardboard and painted to replicate a giant hamburger. Form, surface, color, and the evocation of the human figure are Oldenburg’s primary formal concerns. To realize the ultimate shape of an object, Oldenburg reduces it to a combination of simple geometric forms. He also once remarked that colorful, engaging objects employ humor to relax people and allowed him to get serious messages across.
Pie a la Mode, (1963, The Museum of Contemporary Art) is one very important object from The Store. Oldenburg fashioned the sculpture out of wire, muslin and plaster. He used layers of enamel paint to give the work color and its shiny texture. The object is oversized, drippy, gaudy, sensuous and vulgar. At first glace, this sculpture looks like a slice of blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream placed on the top. However, some critics have interpreted this work as a serious representation of the greedy consumer culture where “too much” is never enough.
Other critics felt that Oldenburg created simple art for simple minds. Yet, Oldenburg claimed that he wanted to make art that was accessible to everyone on there own terms. He encouraged his audience to bring there own experiences to his work and to associate and discover whatever they could about the form and meaning of his work. Oldenburg spent much of his life bending, inflating, melting and enlarging the ordinary objects of 20th century American reality. Throughout his career Claes Oldenburg has demonstrated the power of the imagination to transform the everyday environment.
Drawing inspiration from the ubiquitous and mundane, he has created artworks of varying scale and media that astonish with their wit, humor, and metaphoric associations. The fifth American Pop Artist is Tom Wesselmann. While his work wasn’t as important as Warhol’s or Lichtenstein’s (or even Oldenburg’s or Rosenquist’s), Wesselmann deserves credit for being one of the few artists of that era to tackle traditional art history themes such as the nude and the still life. Beginning in the 1950s, he made collages from magazine clippings and found objects, often incorporating female nudes.
So Wesselmann went to paint his variations on the Great American Nude that incorporated pink, heavily nippled female forms with neat pubic triangles, who were posed bathing and lounging. Subsequently Wesselman became best known for this “Great American Nudes” series. This series portrayed Wesselmans’s idealized version of the American male dream girl. His women were often extremely attractive with large breasts who struck suggestive poses. They looked like plastic cutouts of women and his painting Study For Helen, (1964, Gallery Schlesinger) is a classic example of his work.
In this painting a beautiful fair skinned woman is lying in a provocative position against a colorful background. The color of his background is arbitrary and the composition of the pale naked woman against the bright uplifting random shades is flattering and electrifying. On the woman’s body a white strip is set against her pink flesh and a delicately airbrushed suggestion of public hair shocks by creating an erotic charge and indicating that the white strip is an area of skin that has been protected by the sun.
Tom Wesselman’s 100-piece Great American Nude series of the 1960s indicates the flip and brash promiscuity of his style. In general, this series employed flat billboard colors and faceless but curiously erotic naked women painted to represent the media’s portrayal of classic American beauty. The work by these five American Pop Artists was undoubtedly characterized by their portrayal of any and all aspects of popular culture that had a powerful impact on contemporary life.
Their iconography was taken from television, comic books, movies, magazines and all forms of advertising. The images were then presented emphatically and objectively. Everything by these artists was rowdy, daring, playful and brash. The 1960s was clearly a time of delicious freedom, humor, irony, and witty commentary on the materialism and banality of mid-twentieth century America. All the images painted during this period can be read as both an unabashed celebration and a scathing critique of popular culture.