Articles and Features

Art Movement: Pop Art

By Shira Wolfe

Andy Warhol Pop Art
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

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.”

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?

What is Pop Art?

Pop Art emerged in 1950’s Britain and America, heralding the final days of Abstract Expressionism and reaching its peak in the 1960’s. The movement’s name derived from “popular art.”

Pop Artists drew inspiration from popular and commercial culture. The idea was to blur the boundaries between “high” art and “low” culture. There was to be no hierarchy of culture, and art could borrow from any source it pleased. The movement started as a revolt against the traditional views on what art should be. Many young artists felt the things they were being taught at art school had nothing to do with their everyday lives and experiences. They were instead inspired by sources that they felt closer to, such as Hollywood movies, advertising and popular music. Common household objects and consumer products as well as different types of media including comics, newspapers, and magazines were used by Pop Artists. Often, the art works were created using commercial or mechanical techniques like silk-screening. This was in a sense a way of rejecting the grandiose and seemingly distant subjects and methods of Abstract Expressionism.

Key dates: 1952 – 1980s

Key regions: United States and United Kingdom

Key words: popular culture, consumer products, everyday objects, mass-production, art for the masses 

Key artists: Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselman, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Richard Hamilton, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Keith Haring, Robert Indiana

Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art
Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963. Courtesy Tate
Andy Warhol Pop Art
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Courtesy Tate
Robert Indiana Love
Robert Indiana, Love, 1967. Courtesy MoMA

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.

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

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.

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

Famous works of Pop Art

Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, 1962

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’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

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’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.

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.

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

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