Pop Art takes its name from the integration of commercialized popular culture into art—it is closely associated with the New York art scene starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Pop Art was, in part, a response to the dominant movement preceding it: Abstract Expressionism. The AbEx artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, Frankenthaler, and Rothko rejected traditional representational art as elitist. In their view, most traditional art required viewers to have a sophisticated knowledge of history, religious iconography, literature, and classical mythology.
Pop Art reintroduced representation into art but with a twist. Subject matter was culled from popular culture, so it could be readily understood by the average viewer. Works based on familiar, even mundane, subjects were instantly recognized thanks to the increasingly widespread mediums of advertising, movies, and television that overtook American culture in the late 1950s. Print-making was especially important to Pop Artists, as it reflected our culture’s shift towards mass production, and the lower prices garnered by prints and multiples meant Pop Art was not just more easily understood by a wider audience, but also more readily collected. The works often incorporate a sense of joy, whimsy, and humor. Not surprisingly, Pop Art, has found a renewed audience in and after 2020.
Andy Warhol is the best known of the Pop artists. His simple, linear style grew out of his work as an advertising illustrator, and often includes manipulated photographic images. His subjects ranged from the most mundane objects to the most glamorous figures in Hollywood. Quickly executed, bright, and eye-catching, Warhol’s images of Campbell’s Soup Cans, Marilyn Monroe, and Liz Taylor are still iconic.
Roy Lichtenstein was also a Pop star. He wasn’t interested in advertising or Hollywood glamour. His art borrowed its visual vocabulary from a very different aspect of popular culture: the comic book. Works like Shipboard Girl and Foot and Hand employ the black outlines, primary colors, and Ben-Day dots typical of comic books and the Sunday funny papers. Lichtenstein sometimes even includes speech balloons and thought bubbles in his compositions. Each work expresses a vignette of a larger narrative that is easily comprehended, and which fires the viewer’s imagination as to the rest of the story.
Robert Indiana didn’t depend on figures and settings to express his ideas. He was even more clear: he used words. His iconic LOVE from the late 1960s said it all and expressed the vitality and excitement of love with bright, simple colors, and four large letters. LOVE has become so widely recognized that it has been translated into multiple languages. Indiana even quoted his own work when he used a similar font and color arrangement for HOPE, designed for the 2008 elections.
Claes Oldenberg’s Pop Art took yet another approach. He depicted everyday household items—a badminton birdie, a cigarette butt, or a spoon—at monumental scale and often in playful ways. A pair of screws might become bowed and enlarged to support a suspension bridge or a plug adapter might become a house.
British artist David Hockney may deny that he fits into the Pop Art category, but he is nonetheless as eloquent in this genre as he is in the many other media and styles that he has embraced over his extensive career. Pembroke Studio Interior is almost cartoon-like with its linear design and simple, bright palette. It depicts a spatial experience akin to the work of Picasso, whom Hockney greatly admires. The result is a depiction of familiar everyday subject matter with a strong Pop sensibility.
Whether or not Hockney appreciates the Pop pigeonhole, his success, as well as the success of so many artists, has Pop Art to thank. The legacy of Pop shows up in myriad places, including the work of contemporary artists such as Shepard Fairey, Mr. Brainwash, Yayoi Kusama, and Banksy. Pop Art expresses a joy and youthfulness that is just as irresistible today as it was in the 1960s.
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