Double or Nothing: Some liked it Pop
The turbulent, insurgent undertones of Pop Art: it wasn't only the
departure from Abstract Expressionism that proved to be controversial.
Cheryl Kaplan on the hidden battles among factions of the American art
scene of the sixties, the emergence of Conceptual Art, and the role
Artschwager's headstrong ideas and works played throughout.
Maybe it took a culture of leisure to finally loosen the stranglehold
abstraction had on art in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In both England
and the USA, camps were divided between those who would do or die in their
defense of art historical boundaries and those who simply had the nerve to
cut through categories, particularly the big ones such as mass culture,
everyday life, and the person doing all that buying. What would come of
this rift between
Abstract Expression and
Pop Art? As the critic and curator Lawrence Alloway observed in his 1974
essay for the
Whitney exhibition American Pop Art, "Pop Art turned out to be an
art of developable ideas."
Alloway, who first coined the term Pop
Art in the winter of 1957–58 during his tenure as director of London's
Institute of Contemporary Art, wrote that Pop Art "was meant as a
description of mass communications... but not exclusively visual ones."
American Pop Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1974
He added that Pop Art "is an art about signs and sign-systems." Literalist
critics often took this to mean signage, as in perhaps a spunkier version
Stuart Davis; in response, Alloway aptly quipped that Davis was "in the
supermarket as a visiting Cubist." Indeed,
Roy Lichtenstein's use of the comic strip or
Andy Warhol's references to packaging are frequently cited icons of what
Pop Art would come to mean in the world at large.
Roy Lichtenstein, Emeralds, 1961
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
On the one hand, there were the defenders of art as "process," and then there
was the group of artists attributed to "American Pop Art," such as Andy
Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein,
Edward Ruscha, and
Richard Artschwager, among others, who understood that the battle between
"system" and "process" was simply a stalling tactic designed to delay the
public's link to mass production and the information it was ready to
Claes Oldenburg, Notebook Page: Sketch for a Poster for the One-Man-Show at
the Dwan Gallery - Building in the Form of a Sitting Dog,1963
©Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; New York
The split between art as "system"
and art as "process" has its roots in two opposing ways of producing art.
In "process," painting occurs through a conscious and inquiring use of
materials to arrive at the subject. It is the artist's emotional
relationship to the materials and to the world that marks the work. In
"system-based art," mass culture and its methods of technological
production laid the foundation for a new visual language that connected
the everyday world with a general audience.
Jasper Johns,Three Flags, 1958
Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
Although it was often
criticized in the beginning as being style rather than substance,
Lichtenstein's use of the comic strip and his ubiquitous half-tone dots go
beyond a simple imitation of technological process, in this case printing
images in newspapers. In their detachment, his paintings comment on and
ultimately subvert the technology that appears to be at their foundation.
The concept of system is the reverse of process. System-based art
eliminates metaphor and engages more directly with the everyday world of
The argument between system and process is one that
waylaid the art world for a long time; it probably continues to do so to
this day. In assuming that Pop artists represented more or less a single
house style, several points of contention were consistently overlooked:
namely the discrepancies that did indeed exist among these artists,
especially the ones Lawrence Alloway included in his "American Pop Art"
exhibition, as well as the possibilities these artists presented for
future ways of thinking and creating. In retrospect, the indictments
against Pop Art as a movement not only seem provincial, they also seem
self-serving. The emergence of Pop Art as a movement, however it was
understood, happened so quickly and inspired such popular enthusiasm that
it almost seemed to overshadow the individual differences among the works
of each of the artists associated with "the movement."
Joe Goode, Staircase, 1970
©Joe Goode, Marina Del Rey
The privilege of looking at Pop Art almost thirty years after its dual birth
in England and the USA consists in the chance to investigate Pop Art's
turbulent and rarely discussed sub-text, which is based on difference as
opposed to uniformity, i.e. of a single Pop style. If we ignore the
argument concerning abstraction's rightful place in art history and the
accusation that Pop Art was the "charlatan," it might become possible to
begin seeing Pop Art's lead into Conceptual Art and why it was so critical
for these artists to reorganize their relationship to mass culture.
Edward Ruscha, Noise, 1963
©Ed Ruscha, Beverly Hills
Richard Artschwager's inclusion in Lawrence Alloway's exhibition American
Pop Art presents an important anomaly to this seemingly homogeneous
story still so often told from a point of view that either pits
abstraction against Pop Art or presents a version of Pop Art that
standardizes differences. Refusing to fit neatly into the package,
Artschwager, together with artists such as
Tom Wesselmann, Jim Dine, or Edward Ruscha, was billed as part of the
"Signs and Objects" section in Alloway's catalogue text – a section that
appears to be inconsistent, or at least uneasy with the rest of the
exhibition and the way Pop Art was understood in the 70s.