Six years ago, Tate Modern staged a major exhibition exploring the legacy of Pop Art. Called Pop Life: Art in a Material World, it took as its mantra Andy Warhol’s notorious pronouncement that “Good business is the best art”, and argued that the soul of the Sixties movement was, in essence, a cold, hard dollar sign. Many of the featured artists working in Pop’s shadow – Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami – were shown to be interrogating moneymaking and capitalism, producing glossy art, precision-engineered for our era of high finance.
Now Tate Modern is examining Pop Art once again – yet the new exhibition is so radically opposed to its predecessor, you’d think it was considering another movement altogether. As a result, I have no doubt that The World Goes Pop will prove divisive: for some it will be a revelation, for others it will be intolerable. Either way, this courageous and enterprising exhibition gleefully rails against the oft-told orthodoxies of Pop Art like nothing I have witnessed.
To understand what I’m talking about, consider two oil paintings, in the final room, produced in 1973 by the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. In each case, an “icon” of American Pop Art appears damaged by an unspecified apocalypse. Warhol’s tin of Campbell’s tomato soup is a sorry-looking, charred and threadbare thing. A fragment from Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 comic-book painting As I Opened Fire fares little better. These images are as close as the exhibition comes to presenting Pop Art’s big-hitters. The Tate owns Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych and Lichtenstein’s Whaam! (1963), two out-and-out masterpieces of classic American Pop. Yet, surprisingly, there isn’t room for either in the 10 galleries, containing around 160 artworks, of the new exhibition. In a sense, then, Komar and Melamid’s paintings represent the polemical argument of the exhibition as a whole. Incendiary and confrontational, The World Goes Pop puts a torch to everything we thought we knew about Pop Art.
Yet if none of the well-known grandees of Pop Art are on show here, then who is? The answer is: a raft of artists you’ve never heard of. The point of this exhibition is to move away from the hoary story of Anglo-American Pop Art, which was invented in London during the Fifties by the Independent Group, including Richard Hamilton (another notable absentee from the Tate show), before exploding in New York in the early Sixties.
Accordingly, The World Goes Pop showcases little-known artists from all four corners of the Earth, from Brazil to Japan, who engaged with Pop’s “spirit” during the Sixties and Seventies.
Hands up if you were already well versed in the oeuvre of the Polish artist Jerzy Ryszard “Jurry” Zielinski (1943-80). I certainly wasn’t. Yet here, in the opening gallery, is his brilliant painting Without Rebellion (1970): a close-up of a sickly white face, with two Polish eagles in front of red suns in place of eyes. From its bottom edge, a scarlet pillow, representing this unfortunate ghoul’s tongue, lolls out into our space, pinned in position by an enormous metal spike.
Like another work by Zielinski on show nearby, The Smile, or Thirty Years, Ha, Ha, Ha (1974), in which three ominous blue crosses stitch shut a pair of red-and-white lips floating against navy, Without Rebellion attacks censorship in the People’s Republic of Poland with great economy and formal poise – and a brutal frisson of menace. As Lichtenstein might say: KA-POW!
Zielinski is typical of the many artists in this exhibition who worked within the Pop mode pioneered in London and New York, but adapted it to their own political ends. In fact politics – in the sense of raging protest and mass demonstration – is an essential part of the curators’ new vision of global Pop. Everywhere we turn we find hard-left dissatisfaction with the political status quo. American imperialism, the Vietnam War, nuclear bombs, the corrosive promises of capitalism: all come in for a drubbing. Jeremy Corbyn would be in seventh heaven.
When it works well, as in Zielinski’s case, this sort of militant Pop is memorable: Norfolk-born Colin Self’s Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber No 2 (1963) is also a good example. This ambiguous artefact – part toy US bomber, part pink phallus – is clad in leopard skin, and sprouts alarming nails from its snout. It’s a Surrealist Object reconceived for the post-nuclear Pop age: horrifying – and great.
Too often, though, the politicised artworks offer little more than one-liners of protest – the sort of thing that would work well as a slogan on a placard, but is less interesting in a gallery. Indeed, some of the pieces in this vein are laugh-out-loud bad: Spanish duo Equipo Realidad’s Divine Proportion (1967), a pastiche of Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian Man as a US soldier, is both so woeful, aesthetically, and blunt, in terms of meaning, that it would barely pass muster as a newspaper cartoon.
Aside from politics, the other, arguably more successful theme is sex – specifically, the way that women are presented in the media. In the past, Pop Art has occasionally been criticised for being sexist. Recently, though, a number of forgotten female Pop artists have been rediscovered. Half a century ago, they were making important work focusing on their own subjective experiences, rather than presenting women as sex objects. The Tate exhibition offers a primer on their output.
Martha Rosler’s punchy photomontages fuse titillating fragments of naked bottoms, bellies, and breasts with white goods, including dishwashers, refrigerators and hobs. French artist Nicola L mines a similar seam in her playful yet acerbic “furniture”: her vinyl Woman Sofa (1968) is a jumble of female body parts.
Feminist Spanish artist Eulalia Grau is represented by her nightmarish but unforgettable Ethnographies series: in Pànic, the boot of a swish pink car opens to reveal the surreally large face of a woman stuffed inside, silently screaming, like the victim of a serial killer. Vacuum Cleaner is just as disturbing: a vacant, doll-like bride lies stiff on a carpet, at risk of being dusted into oblivion by a gigantic suction nozzle above her.
Judy Chicago, meanwhile, who attended an auto-body school in Los Angeles as the only woman in a class of 250 men, spray-paints vibrant patterns evoking wombs and women’s genitals onto car bonnets with acrylic automotive lacquer – at a stroke deflating America’s macho car culture. Chicago’s work appears in a small section towards the end called “Pop Folk”. This is a deliberately provocative oxymoron, since sleek, mechanical Pop is usually seen as the antithesis of homespun, handcrafted folk art.
For some, this gallery will prove too much – extending an already elastic definition of Pop Art to snapping point. Moreover, while revisionism may be a good thing, full-on regicide – omitting founding fathers of Pop Art such as Warhol and Lichtenstein – is strange. Warhol is a god of 20th-century art because he forged the visual language so readily adopted, consciously or not, by most of the artists in this exhibition. The final room, for instance, showcases German artist Thomas Bayrle’s Laughing Cow wallpaper from 1967, which makes sport of the logo of a famous brand of processed French cheese. Yet there is no mention of the fact that it would have been inconceivable without the precedent of Warhol’s own wallpaper, featuring huge pink cow heads floating against bright yellow, exhibited a year earlier.
Too many of these artists, then, are dressed in borrowed robes. They are the Pop equivalent of the Salon Cubists, who worshipped at the altar of those pioneering explorers of form, Picasso and Braque.
Other objections could be raised too. But, I suppose, this is par for the course with a show like this, which re-imagines Pop Art from top to bottom, transforming it from a nimble, knowing art form, specialising in flip irony with an ambiguous attitude towards capitalism, to a right-on movement of one-note sincerity and radical political beliefs. Such a profound overhaul will not be everyone’s tin of Campbell’s soup.
Overall, though, this raucous exhibition not only provides an exhilarating snapshot of the global counter-culture during the Sixties and Seventies, in all its neon, vinyl, faux-leopard-skin glory. It also refuses to tell the same old story.
And such an original approach – challenging accepted taste, as Pop Art did from the start – deserves respect.
Thurs -Jan 24; info: 020 7887 8888
Alastair Sooke’s Pop Art: A Colourful History (Viking) is out now
The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern: How pop art was used as dissent
Tate Modern’s autumn show changes ‘the traditional story of Pop Art’
xxx by Andrzej Zieliński Todd-White
Monday 14 September 2015 17:06 BST
In his 1975 autobiography Andy Warhol wrote: “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.” Perhaps he was being ironic, which is worse.
I’ve never been taken by the mystique of Warhol, the most famous exponent of Pop Art. Rather, I think the rage of the late art critic Robert Hughes in his 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse was righteous. Hughes hated the cult of wealth and emptiness which is Warhol’s legacy to the art world. Thankfully, there are no soup tins and Marilyns in the new exhibition, The World Goes Pop, at Tate Modern, London, though Warhol’s shadow is everywhere.
The intentions of the exhibition are good: rather than focus on the British and American tradition, the curators have searched hard for lesser-known artists from around the world who made Pop Art in the Sixties and Seventies as a form of dissent against systems of power: military dictatorships in Latin America, the war in Vietnam, the oppression of women. The aim here is not to idealise consumerism, but to “explode the traditional story of Pop Art”. Unfortunately, the exhibition is a mess.
The term Pop Art was coined in Britain in the 1950s. The British artist Richard Hamilton described it as “Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short-term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at Youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; and Big Business”.
Few works by American artists are included in the exhibition, but the works by international artists often use the visual language of American pop culture to critique American political and cultural domination. In this way, America remains the focus. A lot of the work feels too much in thrall to the charisma of the bully.
The walls are painted in lurid colours: bubble-gum pink and sour yellow. The aesthetic is often migraine-inducing, a frenzied mix of high and low culture, with hysterical montages that rail against their own raw material: the mass media. It’s great that so much feminist art is included, but a lot of it is not very good. This is a shame: the exhibition could offer an important archive of a period of intense female creativity.
A whole room is dedicated to the Czech artist Jana Želibská’s installation, Kandarya-Mahadeva (1969), named after a Hindu temple in India. The walls are adorned with huge, white, female figures and garlands of flowers. The genitals of the figures are covered by mirrors in which the viewer can see herself. It is a mystical homage to female eroticism. This is not a good use of space; it feels dated.
The novelist Angela Carter wrote on this tendency within the women’s movement: “If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission (a technique often used on them by men).”
More successful is Consumer Art (1972-75), a film fragment by the Polish artist Natalia LL, which plays on a loop. It shows a close-up of a beautiful young blonde woman seemingly experiencing sexual ecstasy as a white foamy liquid dribbles out of her mouth. The film is a parody of the use of pornographic imagery in advertising, which gained force alongside the sexual revolution of the time. But it is not just absurd; it is magnetic. In this way, the artist ensnares the viewer in a trap of desire. She makes you want what she is mocking.
Some of the best works in the exhibition come from Spain. The Punishment (1969) by Rafael Canogar is simple and stark. It is a sculpture of a man in a black suit who has fallen at the feet of an authority figure. The latter is no more than a dark shadow on wood, truncheon raised. The fallen man’s face is hidden. Perhaps the title of the work refers to the possible consequences of making the artwork itself. Franco had not yet died. This is art with much at stake.
A painting which hints at the horror beneath the surface of Franco’s Spain is Isabel Oliver’s Happy Reunion (1970-3). It shows a scene in a middle-class living-room: women are laughing and talking. It’s polite. But outside the window, a Dali-esque landscape of melting forms and swirling colour can be seen; it appears a psychosis, held at a distance. The image is undermined by the inclusion of a giraffe on fire. This makes the whole seem tacky.
Another striking work from Spain is Concentration or Quantity becomes Quality (1966) by the collective Equipo Crónica. The series of nine paintings shows a transformation from isolation to collective strength. In the first painting, a few solitary individuals are surrounded by vast grey space. Over the course of the series, the space fills up with people. In the last painting, there is a dense crowd. This work, too, was made in the last decade of the Franco regime: at that time, it perhaps reflected hope, rather than reality.
One of the worst paintings is Big Tears For Two (1963) by the Icelandic artist Erró. It shows a cartoon version of Picasso’s painting The Weeping Woman (1937) alongside a Disney cartoon of a weeping train. It is awful. The implication is that high art and low art have been levelled; one is no more profound than the other. Both expressions of grief are equally valid. Except that they are not.
Picasso’s painting conveyed the pain of a woman who was living through the Spanish Civil War. Her tears were representative of all those who had lost their loved ones during the fight against fascism. The crying cartoon train is an aberration in this context. It is offensively facile. The painting is quite hateful.
Yet Erró also made the American Interior series (1968), some of the most affecting anti-war images in the exhibition. These paintings on fabric show calm American suburban homes invaded by Viet Cong soldiers. They articulated a primal fear of American society, and reversed the reality: American soldiers were invading the homes of the Vietnamese at the time.
Some of the best works use graphic design in the service of activism. The French artist Gérard Fromanger’s Album the Red (1968-70) includes an image of a “bleeding” French flag. The red stripe drips into the white and the blue. It symbolises the wounding of the French establishment in the era of May 1968. Another imaginative protest work is The Red Coat (1969) by the French artist Nicola L. Made of bright red vinyl, this vast, tent-like coat can be worn by eleven people at once. They share a “collective skin”.
Several feminist works seem ripostes to the British artist Allen Jones’s female furniture, which caused outrage at the time because it showed women in positions of extreme submissiveness. Woman Sofa (1968) by Nicola L is a silver vinyl assemblage of female limbs, designed to be sat on. Whereas Jones’s fibre‑glass female dummies on all fours were grotesque but stylish works of art, Woman Sofa is just ugly. Perhaps ugliness here is a political principle.
Man Chair (1971) by the Czech artist Ruth Francken is a chair in the shape of a headless man. It is sleek and white and elegant, but it does not point to a new dawn of equality. Rather, it reverses the old power dynamic of master/slave. Mattress (1962) by the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín is simply a dirty old striped mattress; it shouldn’t have been included in the exhibition.
While much of Pop Art rejected the idea of “good taste” as elitist, good taste is badly needed in this exhibition. Too many of these works are nostalgic at best.
Tate Modern, London, 17 September to 24 January (www.tate.org.uk)
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Sep 18 2015 at 12:15 AM Updated Sep 18 2015 at 12:15 AM
Tate Modern exhibition reveals the dark side of Pop Art
In a new exhibition at Tate Modern in London, the political, purposeful side of the Pop Art movement comes under the spotlight.
The work is at the heart of The World Goes Pop, a new exhibition about the global dimensions of Pop Art that opens at Tate Modern in London on September 17. The painting imitates magazines’ juxtaposition of fashion and news reporting, and pulls them together tightly with the title. The work can be hung either way up, the reversible composition presenting each exhibitor with a difficult decision: highlight the horrors of the Vietnam war or go for the latest fashion fad?
The choice encapsulates the paradox that is Pop Art, a movement that adopted the aesthetic of commercial design and popular culture – with its clear figuration, distinct colour, neat outlines, bold text and humour – for its own ends. Every work can read as eye-candy or erudite criticism; it can show froth or fury or both.
The World Goes Pop addresses this dialectic. Bringing together 160 works from the 1960s and 1970s and from across the world, it contests the idea that Pop was merely an adoring reflection of consumer culture and places the political, purposeful side of the movement under the spotlight. Its geographical range also forces a reassessment of the idea that Pop Art radiated solely from a small nucleus of artists based in New York and London.
There are works here from Japan, the Soviet Union, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. Barely any of the names frequently associated with it – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Peter Blake – are included. Filling the colourful rooms instead is work that has never been shown in Britain, by artists whom most visitors will not have heard of (many of them, through ignorance or through active indifference, did not even see themselves as part of a Pop Art movement).
Despite the diversity, a striking, playful aesthetic unifies the show. There are works that echo Warhol in their use of primary colours, brand logos and press photography. There are also the hard-edged lines, Ben-Day dots and comic-strip figures that frequent Lichtenstein’s work, and three-dimensional collages similar to Blake’s.
But the messages that these artists seek to convey are various, a point made straight away by the work in the introductory room. Among them is Ushio Shinohara’s Doll Festival, a striking triptych, three metres wide, in which blank-faced figures in traditional Japanese dress surround a man in a black Stetson in a surreal, yet prescient, comment on the Americanisation of Japanese culture. There is Evelyne Axell’s Valentine, in which a zip runs down a sinuous, painted silhouette, in a provocative gesture of female sexuality unleashed. Big Tears for Two, 1963, by Erró, an Icelandic artist, transmutes Picasso’s Weeping Woman into a jaunty cartoon, looking to expose the myths behind image making. Each represents a type of protest against the established norms. Passing through themed rooms with titles such as Pop Politics, Pop at Home and Folk Pop, it becomes clear that, across the world, artists were using a particular visual vocabulary, learnt from popular culture and commercial art, to give voice to political, personal and local concerns.
This is not a comprehensive exhibition; Pop was not always protest. A lot of it celebrated everyday culture. Tate deliberately underplays these frivolous dimensions – it chooses the Vietnam war, not the underwear models. But this is a timely reassessment, given that works of Pop Art have become astoundingly expensive commodities, representative – cliches even – of a powerful luxury market. By throwing light on the darker side of Pop, Tate reveals its hidden depths.