• Pop Art & its Legacy

Pop and Beyond

The term Pop Art was coined in 1958 when the critic Lawrence Alloway reviewed the exhibition ‘This Is Tomorrow’ that included the work of British artists such as Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney. Alloway identified a new tendency in both their work and in work he had discovered in the United States, as “mass popular art” in which the products and imagery of mass media took centre stage. A few years later, a small gallery in Los Angeles held a series of exhibitions that established this trend as a significant force in American art. In 1961 the Ferus Gallery showed Andy Warhol’s now famous sequence of Campbell’s Soup Can paintings, followed by exhibitions by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Ed Kienholz and others. These shows were seen by younger artists who were fascinated by what they found. Among them was Ed Ruscha, who himself held one of his first exhibitions at Ferus in 1963 and whose language-based practice explored the imagery and culture of the US West Coast and Hollywood.

Vija Celmins also counted the Ferus Gallery exhibitions as a milestone in her own artistic journey, drawn to the idea of the ‘common-object’ that was prevalent in the shows. This concept relates back to Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the ready-made and Celmins began making paintings of combs, boxes and aeroplanes. These in turn led to her most well-known drawings and prints of seas, skies and deserts, with their extraordinary trompe-l’oeil effects. The work of Robert Therrien shows a debt to this legacy, in his transformation of utilitarian objects into extraordinary over-sized sculptures.

The phenomenon of Pop in the post-war context was due to the substantial shifts in society towards a more consumer-orientated market. Pop not only manifested itself in America and Britain but aspects appeared in artistic movements across Europe. In France, the Nouveaux Realistes (New Realists), influenced by Duchamp and Dada, explored the notion of mass consumption and its meaning for contemporary society. In Germany in the early 1960s, Gerhard Richter became interested in the new Pop Art, and was later associated with a group of artists who shared this sensibility under the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. In his paintings of the 1960s Richter drew directly from photographs he found in magazines, looking to contemporary imagery which had captured the imagination of a generation, such as the photographs of Jackie Kennedy grieving for her husband, the American president John F. Kennedy.

A lasting legacy of the Pop Art of the 1950s and 1960s was the concept of the production line, led by the practice of Andy Warhol. If Pop Art had a pin-up, it would surely be Warhol. His appropriation of commercial products, advertising, images of celebrities and technique of mass-production are among some of the most famous and iconic images of the last fifty years. More than any other artist, Warhol took on board the condition of post-war consumerism and commercial culture in both his work and his life, becoming a cult figure in his own right. He opened his first ‘Factory’ in the early 1960s, and this open studio became famous for its extravagant parties and the constant production of art, day and night.

A direct descendent of Warhol’s artistic empire is Jeff Koons who made his first works at the end of the 1970s, and gained acclaim in the early 1980s for his series The New – pristine Hoover vacuum cleaners displayed in sparkling vitrines. Since then Koons’s work has been characterised by an exuberant brashness that draws on popular imagery and kitsch. His illusionistic, hyper-real paintings and objects and highly polished, super-sized sculptures present us with a heightened expression of consumerism and mass production, and the extraordinary precision with which his works are manufactured relies on scores of specialist technicians, fabricators and assistants.