Pop art emerged from decades of experimentation and creativity in the modern art period, which continually sought to redefine and re-imagine art, whether to purely break down the traditions of the past, or to push the boundaries of what art was or could be. At the end of this period, a generation of pop artists exploded onto the art gallery scene with work displaying bold, colourful graphics, iconisation of popular culture, and an embrace of mass produced and limited edition art prints in place of conventional original artworks. Like much of modern art there was a humour and positivity to it, though many people struggled to tell if it was a celebration, or mocking of the popular culture that inspired it; a duality that eventually heralded the jaded postmodernist art era. These are a few of the great names of the movement, that helped to shape, evolve, and define it.
Andy Warhol, one of the pop artists everyone knew
It’s almost impossible to talk about pop art without talking about Warhol, who created some of the most iconic and memorable images of the period, from his limited edition art prints of Elvis, Marilyn, and Mao, through to his fascination with Campbell’s Soup and Brillo packaging. He focused heavily on screenprinting to produce work, creating a studio called The Factory precisely because it included a production line of collaborators churning out these prints, every one of them challenging what art was; were these the works of artist Andy Warhol? Or just mass produced posters of celebrities? Warhol is often forgotten for also playing an important role in the evolution of video art; he was amongst the first to exhibit video as art.
Roy Lichtenstein, the newsprint comic Pop Artist
After Warhol, Lichtenstein’s work is probably the most recognisable, inspired by newsprint comic strips it was some of the earliest work with truly felt like pop art; it blended art with mass produced popular entertainment to explore new ways of expressing ideas. His process also toyed with similar ideas of originality to Warhol; whilst his work was mostly painted rather than produced as an art print, it was often based on existing images and comic strips. His lesser known images from later in his career moved away from comics, but similarly reworked images by Monet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh in his signature bold and bright style, bringing them new appeal for a modern mass audience.
Richard Hamilton, the first of the Pop Artists
One of the originators of the pop art movement, London artist Hamilton’s collages flipped Dada into pop and helped define and name the emerging style; “Pop art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and big business.” Like many British pop artists his work was more clearly parodic and cynical about the emerging consumer culture that American artists seemed far more comfortable embracing. Although his groundbreaking collages are his best known work much of his life was spent painting, printmaking, and working with digital tools such as Photoshop.
Peter Blake injected the visual art to pop music
Amongst the UK’s most famous artists, Blake often worked with collage and popular symbols and iconography whilst creating some of the most iconic works of its time, such as The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover, as well as work for The Who, Live Aid, and the Brit Awards. His work included sculpture, painting, printmaking and heavy use of graphics, adding bold colour schemes, patterns, and borders to many pieces. The bright aesthetics and patterns felt much more positive than many other British pop art works and, along with his high visibility on album covers, are probably integral to Blake’s popular success.
Robert Rauschenberg turned from expressionist to pop artist
Another highly multi-disciplinary artist, Rauschenberg worked with graphics, sculpture, painting, photography and print making and was a crucial bridge between the dominant abstract expressionism and the emerging Pop form. Along with Jasper Johns he was often referred to as a neo-Dadaist, incorporating found objects into collages and paintings, but he continually edged closer to pop, especially after experiencing Warhol’s process and focus on printmaking.
Of course any list like this is forced to omit far too many artists worthy of mention; David Hockney, though he never considers himself a pop artist, Keith Haring, who is also closely tied to street art, or artists who built the early bridges between Dada and abstract expressionism, such as Jasper Johns. For many though, the five artists above, found in art galleries around the world, defined the movement for the mainstream and drove through a huge number of its core ideals.