Art Movement: Pop Art

Andy Warhol Pop Art. Campbell's Soup Cans.
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962. Courtesy MoMA

“The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second – comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, coke bottles – all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.” – Andy Warhol

  • Key dates: 1955-1965
  • Key regions: Britain and USA
  • Key words: Popular culture, mass media, consumerism
  • Key artists: Andy Warhol, Roy Lochtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney

What is Pop Art?

The British curator Lawrence Alloway invented the term Pop Art in 1955 to describe a new form of “Popular” art – a movement characterized by the imagery of consumerism, mass reproduction, the media and popular culture from which its name derives.

In 1957 English Pop Artist Richard Hamilton listed the “characteristics of Pop Art” in a letter to architects Peter and Alison Smithson. The list read as follows:

“Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.”

The Pop Art artists took inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop windows for their humorous, witty and ironic works, which both can be seen as a celebration and a critique of popular culture.

With Pop Art, art mirrored the times of mass-production and quick, banal entertainment. Everyday objects like Campbell’s soup cans and pop culture celebrities like Marilyn Monroe were transformed into art and have become icons of the movement. But how did Pop Art emerge, who were the key players, and what were their artistic aims?

David Hockney pop art pool. We Always See With Memory.
David Hockney, We Always See With Memory.

Leading Pop Artists

In American art, famous exponents of Pop Art included Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) and Andy Warhol (1928-87). Other American exponents included Jim Dine (b. 1935), Robert Indiana (aka John Clark) (b. 1928), Ray Johnson (1927-95), Alex Katz (b. 1927), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), James Rosenquist (b. 1933-2017), and Tom Wesselmann (b. 1931).

Leadning British Pop Art artists included Sir Peter Blake (b. 1932), Patrick Caulfield (1936-2006), Richard Hamilton (b. 1922), David Hockney (b. 1937), and Allen Jones (b. 1937).

Famous works of Pop Art

Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, 1962

Andy Warhol Pop Art. Marilyn Diptych, 1962.
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Courtesy Tate

The technique used for this painting was silk-screening. The work contains 50 images of Marilyn Monroe, half of which are painted in colour, the other half in black-and-white. The work was completed in the weeks following the actress’s death.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!, 1963

Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art. Whaam!
Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963. Courtesy Tate

Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! is a large, two-canvas painting composed like a comic book strip of a rocket explosion in the sky. Lichtenstein was interested in portraying highly charged situations in this particularly detached, calculated manner.

Keith Haring’s Radiant Baby, 1982

Keith Haring Pop Art. Radiant Baby.
Keith Haring, Radiant Baby, 1990. Courtesy Tate

In 1980s New York, Keith Haring turned the subway into his studio. Using chalk, he etched his signature designs onto the walls. One of these was his Radiant Baby, which to him was one of the purest and most positive human experiences. It became a recurring visual idiom of Haring’s throughout the years and is now considered the artist’s signature tag.

Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, 1956

Richard Hamilton Pop Art
Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, 1956. Courtesy Phaidon

Richard Hamilton’s collage presents a living room space filled with objects and ideas that, according to Hamilton, were crowding into the post-war consciousness. Drawing the viewer’s attention is the figure of a body-builder holding a giant lollipop with the word ‘POP’ scrawled on it. Not surprisingly, then, this collage is often referred to as the first example of Pop Art.

Robert Indiana’s LOVE, 1967.

Robert Indiana Love
Robert Indiana, Love, 1967. Courtesy MoMA

Born Robert Clark in Indiana, Robert Indiana took his native state’s name when he moved to New York in 1954. This type of Pop-inspired fascination for the power of ordinary words was never more clear than in his LOVE artworks. Indiana’s LOVE is one of the most well-known images of Pop Art. It was originally conceived as a Christmas card for The Museum of Modern Art in 1965. Since then, LOVE has taken the shape of prints, paintings, sculptures, banners, rings, tapestries, and stamps.

Reception by the critics versus the public

Pop Art was in part a reaction against the status quo. In 1950s America, the main style was Abstract Expressionism, an arcane non-figurative style of painting. While admired by critics and experienced museum-visitors, Abstract Expressionism was not “connecting” with either the general public, or with many artists.

On the contrary, Pop Art’s more figurative and down-to-earth imagery appealed to the public and though it was often scorned by critics for its low-brow focus, Pop Art became one of the most popular styles of art.

Pop Art in the US

In the US, artists were taking inspiration from what they saw and experienced directly from the culture around them. A very clear reaction to Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art represented a return to representational art. Hard edges, clear forms and recognisable subject matter now reigned, contrasting with the looseness and abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists. Also in stark contrast to Abstract Expressionism was the use of impersonal, mundane subject matter instead of the focus on deep personal feelings and symbolism.

New York was the main hub for American Pop Art, and the artists at the helm were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and Claes Oldenburg. Each of these artists drew on popular imagery and played with the commercial world of consumer goods. Most of these artists started their careers in commercial art. Andy Warhol was a magazine illustrator and graphic designer, Ed Ruscha was a graphic designer, and James Rosenquist started out as a billboard painter. Their backgrounds in the world of commercial art provided them with an excellent visual vocabulary of mass culture. Moreover, they learned techniques to jump effortlessly between high art and popular culture and to merge these two worlds.

Andy Warhol created his artistic hub in The Factory, his large New York City studio which had three different locations between 1962 and 1984. There, he worked on his iconic silk-screen prints which became some of the most famous images of Pop Art. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor are some of the celebrity faces that Warhol featured. With his famous paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and Brillo Boxes, Warhol placed plain everyday objects into the realm of aestheticism and art. From 1965, he focused most of his attention on making experimental films that critiqued the stuffy morality of mainstream American society.

Andy Warhol and his Brillo Boxes.
Andy Warhol and his Brillo Boxes. Courtesy HBO

Pop Art in the UK

Pop Art first emerged in the UK with the 1950s Independent Group (IG). They first came together in the winter of 1952-1953 and were responsible for the formulation of many of the ideas of British Pop Art. Key artists in the Independent Group included Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. The critics Lawrence Alloway and Rayner Banham, and the architects Colin St John Wilson, Alison and Peter Smithson were also part of the group.

The Independent Group put on the groundbreaking exhibitions Parallel of Art and Life in 1953, and This is Tomorrow in 1956. In these exhibitions, the artists emphasised their interest in popular and commercial culture. Instead of the general dislike for this ‘low culture’ that was common among intellectuals, they explored and consumed it with fervor. The movement in Britain was greatly inspired by American popular culture, seen from a distance. It explored what American popular imagery represented and how it manipulated people’s lives and lifestyles.

Collecting Pop Art

Pop Art succeeded in getting through to the general public in a way that few modern art movements did – or have done since – and art collectors like it, too. For example, the painting “False Start” (1959) By Jasper Johns sold in 2006, for $80 million: the 9th most expensive work of art in history at that time. The work “Green Car Crash” (1963) (synthetic polymer, silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen) by Andy Warhol sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2007, for $71.7 million, making it the 14th highest-priced work of art ever sold at that time. Not bad for a work of low-brow art.

Claes Oldenburg, Spoonbridge and Cherry, TK.
Claes Oldenburg, Spoonbridge and Cherry, TK. Photo by m01229, via Flickr.

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