Cadillac tail fins, Coke bottles, Brigitte Bardot, rockets, JFK, superheroes, Elvis Presley, Maxwell House, comic books, Mickey Mouse, the Space Race, Lucky Strike … a case could surely be made that burgeoning consumerism, mass media and popular culture were to the artists of the latter half of the 20th century what nature was to those of the latter half of the 19th. From around the mid-1950s onwards, Pop culture — for want of a better term — underwent a massive postwar expansion. For a new generation of artists the modern landscape, a Mass Age version of the Sublime, became the new magnetic north from which the zeitgeist took its bearings, and even — should the image be allowed — a kind of chromium-plated Pantheism, in which new truths were sought.
A plethora of major exhibitions re-examining Pop art and its legacy are due to open next year — with specific interest in broadening its customarily assumed geographical scope. In London, for example, ‘The World Goes Pop’ at Tate Modern and ‘Post Pop: East Meets West’ at the Saatchi Gallery will include artists working with Pop in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. With such sustained appraisal in mind, it is worth asking the question (with apologies to Pop pioneer Richard Hamilton — the subject of two retrospectives this year, at Tate Modern and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts — for paraphrasing the title of his epoch-announcing collage of 1956): ‘Just what is it that makes Pop art so different, so appealing?’ For Pop would appear to retain its relevance and urgency, half a century after Andy Warhol observed in 1962 that there were kids growing up in America who had only ever known a total Pop world.
One answer to this question might be generational: that for today’s late-middle-aged, the new Pop world was a formative experience — its growth keeping pace with their own, its influence all pervasive. Pop art, by such reckoning, charted the scope and temper of this experience: at times celebratory, at times questioning, at times simply replicating the new phenomena that the artist found there — most notably what seemed to be Pop’s founding and enduring formula, that Pop = Sex × Mass Production. In this regard, it seems particularly relevant that much new research has been undertaken into Pop art made by women: two retrospectives last year, for example, highlighted the achievements of the British artist Pauline Boty, who died in 1966 (at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery), and the Belgian artist Evelyne Axell, who died in 1972 (a double-bill with Warhol at Cornette de Saint Cyr in Brussels).
Not wishing to mix metaphors, but if Pop became to artists of the 1950s and early ’60s what nature had been to their Romantic ancestors a century before — a subject, a language, a personal philosophy, an ideology — then it might also be seen in terms of a human lifespan. By this token, Pop was ‘born’ in 1956 — the year in which the exhibition ‘This Is Tomorrow’ (which included Hamilton, John McHale and architect John Voelcker’s seminal installation examining imagery and perception in relation to mass media) was held at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery and Elvis Presley’s first release, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, became a transatlantic hit. As John Lennon once remarked: ‘Before Elvis, there was nothing.’
From this date, therefore, we might track Pop’s growth through childhood innocence (‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’) to troubled adolescence (‘I see a red door and I want to paint it black’) to adult wisdom (‘You say you want a revolution, well you know, we all want to change the world’) and then, to borrow once more from Saint Andy, ‘back again’. If we acknowledge its power as resembling that of an archetype, Pop, by definition, was like Achilles: destined not to live long. It is a force inextricably linked to the glamour of youth, and — like some form of primitive paganism — appears to require its sacrificial victims on a regular basis, from James Dean through Brian Epstein to Ian Curtis, Michael Jackson and Mike Kelley. These victims, one might fancifully argue, seem to enable Pop’s life force to renew and repeat on a cyclical basis — maintaining the ‘total Pop world’ that Warhol observed all those years ago, until something else comes along.
As it is, something else has not come along, and a case could be made that we now inhabit a ‘total Warhol world’ of celebrity, consumerism, mass media and disaster — and have done so for quite a while. Pop art, meanwhile, has become an historic and historical genre, as much as Impressionism or Dada or Young British Art. The renewed interest in Pop art might thus derive from its place being confirmed and regarded with increasing seriousness within the lineage of problem-solving by which successive generations of artists around the globe are connected. How to make art that is new and alive on its own terms? Such is the challenge thrown down by, for instance, Ezra Pound towards the end of ‘The Cantos’ (1915 – 62): ‘I have brought the great ball of crystal. Who can lift it?’ Pop art, history now shows, rose to the task.
By responding to the sensory bombard- ment instigated by the accelerating mass media of the mid-20th century, Pop art, at its best, addressed a new life force and, in doing so (if you will kindly forgive the grandiosity of the claim), translated personal experiences into universal truths. So, when we look, for example, at one of Warhol’s ‘Electric Chair’ or ‘Elvis’ screenprints from the 1960s, we can only marvel at the finesse and completeness of the translation; for here is nothing less than a metaphysics of mass media, in which we seem to find the world and our place within it explained, enhanced and re-positioned.
Lou Reed once told me that, in his opinion, at the end of the day, there were just ‘very few great artists, very few great writers and very few great rock and roll bands’. He was, of course, absolutely right — and equally correct in claiming that Warhol was one of the few great artists, Raymond Chandler one of the few great writers and The Velvet Underground one of the few great rock and roll bands. In the case of Pop art, though, one might cite various examples of greatness, and ongoing international research reveals further candidates.
If 1956 was indeed a ‘year zero’, after which a new civilization was born — just as surely as an old civilization died in 1914 — then Pop art as an historic genre (it was all over, arguably, by the time ‘Pop Art Revisited’ was held at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1969) contributed to the understanding and consciousness of a new modernity. What might ‘art’ mean or become in an accelerating world of products and stimuli? The best answers ask new questions that artists continue to pursue — what lies beyond an image of an electric chair or a film star? Something. So now what? The great ball of crystal remains.
First published in Issue 3