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. 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.

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

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 51×41, courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.

Pop Art emerged in New York and London during the mid-1950s and became the dominant avant-garde style until the late 1960s. Characterized by bold, simple, everyday imagery, and vibrant block colors, it had a modern “hip” feel and helped to narrow the divide between the commercial arts and the fine arts. It was the first school of art to reflect the power of film and television, from which many of its most famous images acquired their celebrity. Common sources of Pop iconography were advertisements, consumer product packaging, photos of film-stars, popstars and other celebrities, and comic strips.

Whaam! 1963 Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997 Purchased 1966 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00897

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.

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

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).

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1964, oil and silk-screen ink print on canvas, 2.1 x 1.5 m. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York, photograph Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago.

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.

David Hockney, We Always See With Memory.
David Hockney, We Always See With Memory.

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