Pop art either side of the Atlantic; America viewed from within, and from afar
Like most artistic movements pop art gradually evolved from thoughts and ideas by many artists and precursor artistic movements. American artists moved from the “looseness” and personalised symbolism of abstract expressionism, to far more accessible and universal cultural touchstones, creating a fresh and youthful optimism as 50s consumer culture replaced the horrors of war.
British artists were equally fascinated by the emerging mass-produced popular symbolism in areas like advertising; it’s simplification sharing much with propaganda, but pushing a narrative seeming to improve the prosperity of American society. There was power and manipulation at work, but paradoxes too, and the pop art prints and collages coming out of swinging London often explored those dynamics; observations on American society from afar.
It’s also true to consider that the UK, and Europe as a whole, was still rebuilding from war, rationing only ended in the UK in 1954 so the explosion of colourful and simple optimism across the Atlantic was both curious and alluring. It caught the attention of British critics, curators, and UK art galleries, and in the early 1960s pop art first appeared in the Royal Society of British Artists Young Contemporaries exhibitions which included original artworks by David Hockney and Peter Blake; but it wouldn’t stay monopolised by Britain.
Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and the breakout of American pop art
American artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had already been bridging the gap between Dada and pop, and in the early 60s were joined by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein in a search for a fully realised American pop art style. They soon began to discover fresh directions by looking to the mechanics of the creation of original art, and the art print.
Lichtenstein looked to comic books and newsprint, painting with thick black lines, blocks of colour and Ben-Day dots to imitate their look and style. His dramatic compositions and fractions of romance-comic melodrama storylines had widespread appeal to popular taste; here was work not just fascinated by, or critiquing of pop culture, this was pop culture. And Warhol would take things a step further; why paint things to look like they were printed, when you could just print them?
By using a technique of mass production to create an “original” work of art, in reality just an art print, Warhol and others significantly elevated one of the questions that began the pop art journey; what is art?
Was it the print? The silkscreen plates? Maybe Andy Warhol himself? He recreated seemingly random items of consumable culture as scuplture; a cardboard box printed identically to those used for Campbell’s soup cans, something consumers would never even see, found itself in an art gallery valued at millions; the everyday, mundane, and mass produced had truly invaded the enclaves of high art, and was being sold in the millions as Lichtenstein and Warhol t-shirts, posters and art prints.
The mirror to end modernism, and a lasting artistic legacy
Pop art looked and felt like a party, the escape from the dark days of war, and emblematic of the ideals of modernism; a continual universal progress towards something better. As the 60s became the 70s the Vietnam war ground on, divisions widened in society, and economic woes loomed large on the horizon. Pop art became a mirror to blind optimism and over-simplification, self doubt began to sink in and postmodernism began to question everything that had gone before all over again.
It still holds some important lasting legacies though. Pop found unique ways to question art and it’s values, and new places to find inspiration; playing with paradoxes and ironies so deeply that we still debate to this day whether the movement adored consumerism or despised it.
Perhaps most importantly, it was resoundingly successful in breaking down significant barriers between high art and low culture. Pop brought food packaging to the art gallery and created an art everyone could feel familiar with, and as a result the work of Warhol or Lichtenstein remains hugely popular in art prints, clothing and culture to this day. Would Warhol despair at his 15 minutes of fame running eternally, or enjoy that for most it only exists as a mass produced poster, to ultimately be thrown away?