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Contemporary Art

7 Things You Need to Know: Pop Art

From comic books to the kitchen sink, for Pop artists emerging in the 1950s and 1960s the objects of daily life served as artistic inspiration. Reacting against the overt seriousness of Abstract Expressionism, artists including Andy Warhol, Roy LichtensteinJames Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman and Claes Oldenburg captivated public attention with witty, brightly hued artworks derived from the imagery of popular culture. Their irreverent creations ignited critical debate and forever altered the understanding of what art could be. Below are some facts about Pop art and its continued impact today.  

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EDUARDO PAOLOZZI, I WAS A RICH MAN'S PLAYTHING. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.

1. English origins, American culture: After World War II artists on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the aesthetics of American mass culture through magazines, advertisements and Hollywood film, but it was in Britain that Pop officially began. The Independent Group, the movement's first organized affiliation, formed in London in 1952. Led by Eduardo Paolozzi, the IG included British Pop pioneers Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale and William Turnbull. It was in Paolozzi's 1947 collage I Was a Rich Man's Plaything that "Pop" first appeared, in red letters within a cloud of smoke emanating from the barrel of a gun. Britain's influence on Pop was anything but short-lived. Over a decade later, David Hockney catapulted to stardom with his Pop-infused work at the Royal Society of British Artists' groundbreaking 1961 Young Contemporaries exhibition. 

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ROY LICHTENSTEIN POSES AMONG SOME OF HIS PAINTINGS.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF MARIO DE BIASI PER MONDADORI PORTFOLIO / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.

2. Former Lives & Printed Matters: For Pop artists the imagery that streamed into the collective cultural imagination through daily life was both subtle and powerful. It is perhaps unsurprising that many of the movement's leading artists came from commercial art backgrounds. Andy Warhol's early work as a commercial illustrator often crossed into his art making both in technique (the lithograph) and with his subject matter that embraced aesthetics of branding (his Campbell's Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes). Roy Lichtenstein likewise alluded to commercial printing techniques, mimicking Benday dots in his comic-book-inspired canvases. Los Angeles's Ed Ruscha, like Warhol, had jobs in advertising, sign painting and typesetting before becoming known for his word-based paintings, while James Rosenquist's years employed as a billboard painter influenced his monumental Pop canvases. 

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TOM WESSELMAN, ROY LICHTENSTEIN, JAMES ROSENQUIST, ANDY WARHOL AND CLAES OLDENBURG IN WARHOL'S LOFT, NEW YORK CITY, 1964. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED W. MCDARRAH. COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES.

3. After Hours: Pop lived beyond the gallery walls. Warhol’s studio, originally on Manhattan’s 47th Street, was better known as The Factory. There, he hosted outlandish parties where artists, musicians, writers and performers mixed, often collaborating on new artworks and projects. Amid his coterie actress and model Edie Sedgwick became particularly famed, as did several other of his 'Warhol superstars' including artists Candy Darling and Ultraviolet. The Factory was but one destination on a late-night circuit. Max’s Kansas City and restaurant Mister Chow’s were other iconic art world destinations of the 1960s and 1970s. The decadence took a toll however with many, including Sedgwick, succumbing to overdoses before the age of 30.

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CURATOR HENRY GELDZAHLER, EDIE SEDGWICK, ACTOR FU-FU SMITH AND ANDY WARHOL AT A PARTY, NEW YORK CITY, 1965.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE SCHAPIRO. COURTESY GETTY IMAGES.

4. Tragic Muses: Though at first glance a lighthearted aesthetic, Pop explored America's darkest cultural consequences. The playfulness of Wayne Thiebaud's confectionary still lifes and Claes Oldenburg's food sculptures were contrasted by images of the Vietnam War and the atomic bombings. The celebrities of Warhol’s artistic fascination – Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elvis Presley – were each colored by personal despair, violence and tragedy. Looking back to his pivotal 1962 canvas 129 Die in Jet!, Warhol remarked, “I realized that everything I was doing must have been death…when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect.” 

5. World of Pop: Though indelibly linked to American visual culture, Pop art was a global phenomenon. In the years that followed World War II, major innovations in telecommunications and international travel brought the imagery of American consumerism to all corners of the world. In Japan – as American military occupation lasted into the 1950s – Pop art grew among the avant-garde including polka-dot-enthusist Yayoi Kusama and artists Ushio Shinohara, Keiichi Tanaami and Osamu Tezuka. Nouveau réalisme, led by Yves Klein, Arman and Jean Tinguely, offered a French interpretation of the movement. Meanwhile in Latin America, Pop’s subversive political possibilities were utilized by artists including Wanda Pimentel and Antonio Diaz in Brazil, Antonio Caro in Columbia and Marta Minujín and Edgardo Giménez in Argentina.

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ANTONIO CARO, COLOMBIA, 1976. COURTESY MIT LIST VISUAL ARTS CENTER.
CARO'S WORK WILL BE FEATURED IN THE NASHER MUSEUM'S EXHIBITION POP AMÉRICA, WINNER OF THE INAUGURAL SOTHEBY'S PRIZE.

6. Subversive Seductions: From the earliest of days women numbered among Pop's disciples with painter and collagist Pauline Boty as a founding member of the Independent Group. Many of these artists, including Yayoi Kusama, satirically engaged representations of sexuality, with advertising’s provocative depictions of women proving fruitful subject matter for artists including Evelyne Axell, Rosalyn Drexler and Marjorie Strider. Women's influence in Pop was far from limited to gender politics, however. American Jann Haworth, for instance, was the co-creator of The Beatles iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. 

7. Today’s Pop Hits: Andy Warhol famously quipped that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, but for Pop artists the decades have not diminished their legacy. Many of the leading contemporary artists avow its principles, among them the unabashed Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and even Jonas Wood.  

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