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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 of a 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 Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, 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 provide.

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
Deutsche Bank Collection

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
©VG 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 mass culture.

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 Joe Goode, 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.

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