It was a time of optimism and post-war economic boom for many people. Supermarket aisles were filled with consumer products. Advertising and glossy magazine told people what to buy and make them want to buy it. Movie stars filled the silver screen—giving rise to celebrity culture, and the youth fought for freedom. Out of this new popular culture, pop art was born.
The Independent Group (IG), founded in 1952 in London, is thought as the initiator of pop art movement. They were a group of young subversive painters, architects, writers, sculptors, and critics who were questioning modernist approaches to culture and traditional views of fine art. The discussion centred on pop culture implications from medias such as movies, mass advertising, comic strips, and product design.
At the first IG meeting in 1952, co-founding member and artist Eduardo Paolozzi presented a lecture using collages titled Bunk! It comprised of “found objects” such as comic book characters, advertising, and various mass-produced graphics that mostly exhibited American popular culture. Among the collages was his artwork I was a Rich Man’s Plaything (1947), which features the first use of the word “pop”, shown in a cloud of smoke coming out of a revolver. Following his impactful presentation, the IG then focused mostly on the imagery of American pop culture, especially mass advertising. The term “pop art” itself was officially introduced later in December 1962 in the Symposium on Pop Art held by Museum of Modern Art.
A Gimmicky Appreciation of Pop Culture
Pop Art appreciates pop culture. It does not, in any way, critique the consequences of consumerism and materialism, which was dominant thereat. At the time, the trend among young people was acquiring consumer goods, reacting to witty advertisements and seeking a more effective form of mass media like television, newspapers, and magazines. The young generation was revolting against the arcane vocabulary of abstract art, aiming to express their optimism in a brand new visual language.
Pop Art strives for straightforwardness, featuring a bold swatch of primary colours straight from the can or tube of paint. Advertising methods like silk-screening and mass-production were adopted in Pop Art, undermining the idea of originality. An antithesis of the Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art favoured realism over expressiveness, sometimes showcasing parody, and involved every day, even mundane imagery, drawn from popular media and products. Fictional characters from comic books, newspaper photographs, cans, condiments, and celebrities, were all subjects of Pop Art.
An innovative trend in itself, Pop Art style was flat, colourful, graphic, and commercial-like. It was popular, expendable, transient, low cost, witty, sexy, and gimmicky. Back then, critics were sceptical to Pop Art, questioning how everyday objects like soup cans became art. Truthfully, pop artists were just referencing the world in which people actually lived. Just as Andy Warhol put it, everything is art.
British Pop Art vs American Pop Art
Although Pop Art trended in many countries, it was exceptionally dominant in the UK and USA. British Pop Art was quite different compared to American Pop Art. In the UK, early Pop Art was fuelled by American pop culture viewed from afar. It was also focused on a lighter tone and frequently employed humour and parody due to its less-commercialized nature. Richard Hamilton was amongst the first to reference pop culture using cut-outs from American magazines. He was then followed by Peter Blake and David Hockney. Together, they celebrated—and questioned all thing American.
American Pop Art, by contrast, was a comeback of representational art. American pop artists, notably Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, filled their canvas with flags, targets, and tires. They were inspired by what they saw every day from the mass-produced imagery. It was quite interesting since by the post-war era, American advertising was so advanced to the point it adopted elements of modern art and functioned at a sophisticated level. Therefore, American artists had to make an extra effort to distance their artworks from clever commercial materials.
Andy Warhol’s Commercialization of Art
There are a plentiful of remarkable Pop artists, but the most iconic was definitely Andy Warhol. While Roy Liechtenstein turned comic book into high art, Claes Oldenburg turned toilets into cushions, Andy Warhol burst onto the scene with his screen prints, taking the reign as the king of Pop. Instead of making arts as advertisement, he started making advertisements as art. He chose subject matters that would traction with the emerging field of Pop Art. He made paintings of Coca Cola, S&H green stamps, and his infamous art-piece, the Campbell’s Beef Noodle Soup cans picture.
Warhol developed a technique that allowed him to mass-produce his artworks. He started out using rubber stamps and stencils to make paintings but soon landed on silk screening to speed things up. Warhol built a place for mass production and called it The Factory instead of “studio”, a term which most artists were proud to use. He worked with assistants, rolling out product after product, showcasing them in warehouse-like arrangements.
Warhol was also highly interested in products of the human variety. So he started making paintings of celebrities, reproducing images from publicity stills, newspapers, and magazines. Beside celebrity paintings, subjects that recurred in Warhol’s work included shoes, products, money, celebrities, wealthy people, disaster, death, even himself. He made thousands of commissioned portraits based on photos taken in photo booths. By the 1970s, commissioned portraits were a majority of his income.
Along with his service, Warhol was also keen to trade his own image, creating numerous self-images throughout his life as Pop artist, and offering himself up for endorsements. He turned himself into a globally recognized brand—a brilliant move in a marketing sense. He believed art and business were not, and never should mutually exclusive.
Just like art critic Arthur Danto once said, Warhol was “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has ever produced”.