Pop Art in the collective mind is almost synonymous with American artist Andy Warhol’s colourful Marylin Monroe prints. Although Warhol was indeed a crucial figure in this movement, the emergence of Pop Art dates before him and can trace its tentative roots back to the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray. Irony, parody and mass culture decorate the altar of this style, while modernism, ‘elitist’ art and any subculture that takes itself too seriously lies ripped to shreds by its discerning and satirical tone.
Emerging in both Britain and the US in the 50s, Pop Art reached its peak in the 60s and is often considered one of the early manifestations of Postmodernism as a whole. In Europe, its sister movement Nouveau Réalisme was on the rise. A London-based group of young painters, writers, critics and sculptors, The Independent Group, pioneered the exploration of Pop Art in Britain and coined its name as well, to denote art stemming from popular mass culture. Although the US caught on a few years later, it gave the movement the impetus to keep going. Bombarded with more advertisements and popular culture imagery than anyone else, American artists immediately brought a bold, uncompromisingly current and hard-edged touch to Pop Art. Some prominent artists of the movement were Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Tom Wesselman and Richard Hamilton.
The object is key to Pop Art; a product, a mass-produced image, a popular symbol, a consumer commodity and the advertisement are the tools at hand to be manipulated and re-contextualised. Roy Lichtenstein’s work brought in comic book style to this movement as well. In defiance to the prevailing orthodoxies in art at the time, Pop Art used ‘low culture’ to reveal the contradictions, ironies, absurdities and fashions within urban, modern living. Compositions are hard-edged, the subjects often impersonal, mundane and satirical. Collage, printing and illustration feature prominently in this movement, as does a trend towards immortalising, parodying or idealising iconic figures from the movie and music industries. Pop Art finds the visually distinct in what one barely even registers as visual communication in daily life, due to the sheer amount of commercial stimuli. By displacing everyday objects or images from their intended commercial purpose, it re-defines its own function in order to worry the boundaries and question the very existence of ‘high’ culture.
Works of Pop Art
The artworks of Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) and Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987) come almost immediately to the mind’s eye even if you don’t know their names – they have become the faces of the peak period of American Pop Art.
Lichtenstein’s work defined the movement in terms of its tone of parody. He used cartoon images and techniques that lend the appearance of commercial painting, with one of his most famous works being Drowning Girl (1963). Looking at first glance to be straight out of a comic book, there is boldness in both line and colour. Many artists challenged its originality, insisting it is simply comic book illustration, but his response was clear: “My work is entirely transformed in that my purpose and perception are entirely different.” Indeed, Drowning Girl invites one to appreciate the power of harshly lined, flat figures and capturing a moment of danger and movement in both a dynamic yet narrative way. We are left thinking of the before and after of this story, but the displacement of this image forces us to confront our own preconceptions of commercial illustration.
Warhol is the iconic figure of Pop Art, but his work actually showcases a later and slightly transformed stage of this movement. Warhol’s work leant towards an attachment to the image of American pop culture rather than a parody of it. In many ways his style could denote the final destination of pop art, wherein which human affectation and subjectivity have been removed to leave you and the product or image itself. This idealising or iconising tone has been immortalised in his prints of Marilyn Monroe, for instance. The block colours and multiple versions of her portrait mirror the concept of the ‘star’ as it was really coming into being at the time: particularly the way in which their image is re-represented again and again for consumption and idolisation.
Evolution and Continuation
Many parodies of Warhol’s colourful print exist today – we are still drawn to its connotations of glamour, urbaneness, and its playful jibe at ‘high’ culture. As technology and media evolves, more and more methods emerge through which advertisements and consumer images are communicated to us. Along with them, Pop Art always has a platform to work from, and it does so in many artistic forms. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar emerged by making low-budget pop art movies (simple images, photographic compositions) and still always produces a fake commercial to be inserted into every film. Japanese pop art draws its inspiration from the culturally significant anime and hentai art forms. Pop Art’s idea of displacing objects to re-assign their meaning arguably helped give roots to the rise of Conceptual Art in the long run. Its celebration of popular culture helped fuel the emergence of the underground ‘Lowbrow Art’ scene, popular in the late 70s and the precursor to street art and graffiti culture.