Pop Art: Can’t Buy My Love
“Good business is the best art.” – Andy Warhol
“I am for the art of underwear and the art of taxicabs. I am for the art of ice cream cones dropped on concrete.” – Claes Oldenburg
“Pop Art: Can’t Buy My Love” examines Pop Art and its relation to commerce over more than four decades. From its origins in the 1960s to its influences on Contemporary Art, the exhibition traces the movements origins and developments through key artists including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, James Rosenquist, Mel Ramos, Claes Oldenburg and more.
YOU’RE GONNA BE POPULAR!
Pop Art emerged in the decades after World War II. In the immediate aftermath, Abstract Expressionism became the dominant style (see our exhibition Abstract Expressionism: Transcending the Radical) but with the war fading in the rearview mirror, artists began to question AbEx’s supremacy and the homogenizing culture of consumption in the United States. Although Pop Art started in the United Kingdom, it was the mass marketing and commercialism of the United States that provided fertile ground for Pop artists.
While artists of other movements channeled their angst and emotions, Pop Artists took the shiny surface of consumption and conformity to reflect it back at an unsuspecting audience.
Some artists created a cool irony in their works such as Roy Lichtenstein appropriating comic art. The power of his work lay in the tension between “low” and “high” art. Others, like Claes Oldenburg, utilized humor to analyze the propagation of images and mass production.
Not all Pop Artists utilized a detached irony. Jim Dine mined his own personal experience and Jewish identity. In particular, Dine drew on his childhood memories of growing up in his grandfather’s hardware store. The work in the exhibition subtly hints at these memories with the use of the plumb bob.
For James Rosenquist, Pop Art could also be a vehicle to honor and mourn a close friend. The painting in the exhibition employed everyday objects to touch on topics of life, death, and friendship.
However, artists like LeRoy Neiman created Pop Art in bright and beautiful silhouettes, celebrating the color of life in all shapes. Neiman often drew on sporting events and figures. During his life, Neiman was one of the most popular artists leading Warhol to quip, “I want to be successful like Neiman.” Warhol saw in Neiman an artist that could tap into popular tastes to become a financial bestseller. Warhol even hoped that his photographs and paintings of Muhammad Ali would turn out as well as Neiman’s nine-foot-tall painting of the boxing legend. The lack of irony or seriousness can be a shock in today’s world but the bright world he created with his paintings fills us with an optimism that Pop Art often scrutinized.
A DECADANT DECADE
While the heyday for Pop Art was in the 1960s and 1970s, it was in the 1980s that the movement found new expression. That decade was marked for rampant capitalism best acknowledged in a quote from the movie Wall Street, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
For artists like Warhol, it was a chance to use every opportunity to explore the depths of the free market and commercialism. The exhibition showcases the diversity of Warhol’s vision through his Polaroids, screen prints, and even a drawing. Everything was for sale and Warhol made sure to let us know.
However, the 80s was not all glamour and glitz and not all artists portrayed the excesses of the era. The AIDS epidemic decimated communities and lives; artists like Masami Teraoka portrayed the emotions and concerns through art. Teraoka is inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcut prints. The epigonic nature of the prints align with Pop Art’s fascination with mass production and consumption.
Blending Japanese style with American icons, Teraoka found the intersection of humor and incisive social commentary. The ‘80s in the US were also fraught with a supposed wave of “Yellow Peril”, particularly from Japan. Looking at the stigma of AIDS and layering cultural identities, Teraoka’s art of the 80s touched on sensitive topics with grace and wit.
See more about the art and artists of the 1980s in our exhibition It Was Acceptable in the 80s.
EVERYTHING MUST GO
You want it? It’s yours! That was a sentiment many Pop artists explored and often exploited. Returning to Warhol, we see artifacts of the objects that captured his imagination – a box of candy, shoes, and even the stampede-inducing Cabbage Patch Doll. What other artist could better embody the spirit of American pop culture and consumerism than a Cabbage Patch Doll photographed by Warhol? Even Warhol’s drawing of a Ford car (a throwback reference to his start as a commercial artist) taps into the nation’s fascination with retail and marketing.
On the flipside to Warhol’s focus on glamour, Keith Haring provided a vision of Pop Art derived from the streets and was open to anyone. Warhol may have had an egalitarian, if detached, view of consumerism in the U.S., but it was Haring who put equitable ideas into practice. Perhaps one of his best examples was the Pop Shop. As Haring observed:
Here’s the philosophy behind the Pop Shop: I wanted to continue this same sort of communication as with the subway drawings. I wanted to attract the same wide range of people, and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx. The main point was that we didn’t want to produce things that would cheapen the art. In other words, this was still an art statement
Such was the power of Haring and his philosophy that even Warhol became a close friend and supported Pop Shop.
If Warhol reflected back consumption and Haring created equitable distribution with their works, Mel Ramos made subtext into text with his paintings. Ramos paired sensual nudes with popular commercial icons, recontextualizing the role of advertisement and desire in America. The proliferation of advertisement with the nudes creates an environment of optical opulence in which the viewer delights in both visual and savory fantasies.
Pop Artists contextualized and confronted consumption finding both inequal and democratizing characteristics in the surface values of America’s commercialism. Mass consumption and the marketing tied to it has an equalizing but flattening effect. Warhol coolly noted, “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long and it must make them miserable.” – Robert Rauschenberg