Though history has numerous examples of the intersection between fine art and popular culture (Shakespeare managed this feat quite easily), it was not until the post-World War II years that a large number of visual artists began to take direct aim at the rapid growth of consumer culture. Hollywood, Detroit, and Madison Avenue became producers of not only commercial products, but of inspiration to a generation of artists, providing the foundation of what came to be known as “Pop Art”. What is especially important about this half-century old movement is that its impact is still as vital and visible as ever, since each era’s generation of young artists has been influenced by its own unique forms of popular culture.
Ironically, the post-war boom first inspired a group of young British artists to create collages that, despite their modest size, encapsulated the fast-paced world promoted by magazines, television, and movies. In 1956, British artist Richard Hamilton created the collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? that featured images cut from magazines of consumer goods, a pin-up girl, and a male bodybuilder holding a large lollipop printed with the word “POP”. By not only illustrating the goods and interests of the moment but using commercial reproductions of these goods and interests, Hamilton showed his American counterparts how they could use art to address their own culture.
At the same time, some American artists were trying to find a path away from the heroic aims of the Abstract Expressionists. In the early post-war years, Abstract Expressionists created powerful paintings that demonstrated their unique gifts as artists and were testaments to the spirit of rugged individuality at the core of American self-identity. However, with the advent of the television era and the growth of the transportation industry, the American cultural landscape began to change rapidly. Those who would become known as Pop artists responded with an increased focus on depicting this country through the lens of the mass media: movies, television, billboards, magazines, comic books and newspapers.
This shift happened in part as an attempt by artists to reconnect themselves to the everyday, material world. This was indicated by the early work of Robert Rauschenberg about which he stated “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t. I want it to look like something it is. And I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.” Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had begun creating work that were described as “Neo-Dada”, works that brought mundane objects to the forefront and attempted to push the hand of the artist into the background.
By 1960 a new generation of American artists was beginning to adapt their varying interests in American culture to new forms of art. This exhibition features artists born between 1920 and 1937 who have made important contributions to American Pop Art. Many of these artists were recognized widely as young artists. Others are only now beginning to receive their due adulation. This exhibition includes work by Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, Wayne Thiebaud, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann as well as British artists Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney.
Because Pop Art is tied to the material culture of our country, it remains as flexible and important as ever. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and successive generations have adapted new media technologies and interests into their artworks, following the trail of the artists represented in this exhibition. For this reason, Pop Art’s influence will be felt for years to come.