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July 31, 2022 11 min read
Pop Art is an art movement that began in Europe and the United States in the 1950s. The movement started as a challenge to the traditions of fine art or higher art of abstract expressionism, characterized by elitism and a hierarchy of culture. Pop art is undoubted one of the most significant artistic developments of the 20th century that changed the consumption and perception of art. Since its inception, the epicenter of the pop art movement has been to take inspiration from popular icons, pop culture, mass-produced objects, comic books, etc. The pop art movement aimed to bridge the gulf between high art and contemporary culture by making art extracted from everyday, mundane objects.
As the pop art movement emerged as a reaction to the consumerism of the 20th century, mass media, and popular culture, its primary features include transience, expendability, low cost, mass-production, gimmicky, glamorous, and youth-oriented. The movement, at its core, aimed to solidify the idea that art can draw inspiration from any source and altered the direction of modernism to an absolute 180! The three main visual elements that provided blood and flesh to the Pop Art movement include the incorporation of recognizable imagery, bright colors, and the usage of irony and satire. Commercial items like soup, soda cans, Coca-cola, road signs, celebrities, etc. frequented the iconography of pop art style. Moreover, vibrant colors, exceptionally bright yellow, red, and blue, were prominent in various pop artworks. Likewise, several renowned pop artists appropriated contemporary subject matters to poke fun and throw jibes at the status quo of the time. However, it is noteworthy that the pop art movement's tried to dismantle the power dynamics of the time by adopting a very nonchalant and 'coolly ambivalent approach against the 'hot' expression of its contemporaries. This quality of the movement serves as a double-edged sword as whether its ubiquitous nonchalance is a shocking withdrawal or a passive acceptance is still up for debate.
Despite seeming superficial, basic artistic themes such as trauma were an intrinsic part of the pop culture movement, albeit represented differently. For example, the art that rivaled the pop art movement from the 1950s to the 1970s – Abstract Expressionism – searched for trauma in the soul. On the contrary, pop art looked for traces of that trauma in mediating everyday objects such as cartoons, advertisements, and popular artists. Likewise, famous pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein used innovative printing techniques, such as lithography, to achieve their signature visual styles. So, against the criticisms of being 'boring' and 'unoriginal,' the pop art movement was ahead of its times in many ways. Nowadays, it is widely believed that pop artists were the first group of people who realized that 'unmediated' access to anything in the world, even the soul, is a façade. Nevertheless, dualities, coupled with love-hate responses from the public and critics alike, were one of the primordial features of the pop art movement.
Lastly, although one section of the population massively loved the pop art movement for appealing to the masses, it was also the epicenter of heated debates. The pop art movement raised questions on what exactly is an art and if there is a hierarchy of culture, and if yes, then what is its justification or premise! Several detractors of the movement deemed pop art style bland, useless, and hollow. Likewise, many opined that continue to opine that artists who create easy, slow, and lazy work sans any depth led the pop art movement. Another point of contention has been the movement's self-proclaimed challenge to high-art of elite abstract art. Some people believe that by appropriating iconic icons in the first place, the pop art movement is a facilitator of capitalism and a mirror image of the society wherein higher-ups take over the novel ideas of those without power and turn them into moneymaking machines. Thus, a kind of love-hate response from the people was a dimension of the pop art style that made it truly unique and scintillating.
Now we will discuss the various dimensions of the pop art movement. So, let us get into its other nitty-gritty.
The Pop Art movement originated in Britain in the mid-1950s was a culmination of several aspects of the Post War era. In Britain, the social, economic, and cultural devastations of the Second World War hardly left any space for people to think about arts. On the contrary, during the same time, the United States of America was experiencing a period of unprecedented economic boom, which fostered the novel phenomenon of consumerism. In Britain and Europe, the roots of the pop art movement were more academic, whereas, in the USA, they were reactionary at their core. Nevertheless, the pop art movement was the brainchild of a group of young and provocative artists, including painters, poets, sculptors, and photographers, of mid-1950s Britain, known as the Independent Group, who began to discuss the various notions of fine art and culture of their times.
Although the 'official' hoisting of the pop art movement began in 1956, the pop art style and culture have precedents that transcend history. Consider the lengthy history of art and modern culture fusion on billboards, packaging and print advertising. Gustave Courbet, a French realist painter, included a posture from an affordable print series titled Imagerie d'Epinal into one of his paintings in 1855.Thus, by invading high art with a low' form of art, Courbet flagged off the pop art movement in a minuscule fashion. Likewise, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso 1913, who is a household name now, used the same strategy in his artworks, wherein he took inspiration from human's obsession with shopping and took a jibe at this behavior by creating a woman out of a label and an ad from the department store Bon Marche in 1913. Although Au Bon Marche of Picasso is not the first pop art collage, it sowed the seeds for the movement.
It is noteworthy that British art critic Lawrence Alloway in a 1956 article titled 'The Arts and Mass Media,' officially christened the pop art movement. Art history books claim that British pop artist – Richard Hamilton's collage – 'Just What is That Makes Today's Homes So Different and So Appealing?' of 1956 fueled the ushering of the pop art movement. The college was showcased in the 'This Is Tomorrow' art show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, and thereby legitimized the artistic expression as well as validated the presence of the pop art style. However, one should remember that although the 1956 Richard Hamilton incident was a milestone in the pop art movement, several pop artists enjoyed illustrious careers even before.
When we talk about the origins of the pop art style, it is essential to highlight the influence of the preceding Dadaism. To begin with, Dada or Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 1920s. It developed as a reaction to World War I and comprised artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of the modern capitalist society. Dadaisms artworks spanned visual, literary, and sound media to include collage, sound poetry, and cut-u writing by embracing irrationality and nonsense. Marshal Duchamp, a pioneer of the Dada art movement, propelled Picasso's consumerist deas by introducing actual mass-produced objects into exhibitions, such as a bottle rack, a snow shovel, and an upside-down urinal. He named these objects Ready-mades, an anti-art expression characteristic of the Dada movement.
Early pop artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg followed Duchamp's footsteps by returning to imageries during the peak of the Abstract Expressionism movement in the 1950s. By selecting 'low brow' popular imagery, early pop artists reproduced or incorporated 3-dimensional objects into their artworks, a feat known as Neo-data or early pop art. Examples of early pop art include Jasper John's 'Beer Cans' of 1960 and Rauschenberg's 'bed' of 1955. Lastly, pop art, for the most part, completed the Modernism movement in the early 1970s with its optimistic investment in the contemporary subject matter. It also marked the end of the Modernism movement by holding a mirror to contemporary society. After that, the post-modern ear began, which looked hard and long into the mirror. As such, self-doubt and skepticism took over, and the party atmosphere of pop art faded into obscurity.
After discussing the origins of the pop art movement, let us try and gauge its founder.
Many regard Richard Hamilton – founding member of the Independent Group – as the founder of the pop art movement. Also known as 'the Father of the Pop Art Movement,' Hamilton was shaking up Britain's pop art world by introducing mass production painting techniques long before American artists like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist came into the picture. Hamilton's artwork – The Funhouse – built for the London exhibition, is deemed the first creative manifestation of his credentials. It is said that visitors had to squeeze their way down a short corridor lined with pin-ups, hundreds of ads, movie posters, and spinning colors, all the while Elvis Presley and Little Richard alternately played on the jukebox. Consequently, guests were allowed to talk and participate in a microphone. However, it was Hamilton's other artwork – 'Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? That received an iconic status and officiated the beginning of the pop art style. Made using cutouts from magazines, the artwork depicts a domestic living space cluttered with consumer items such as a vacuum cleaner, TV set, a tape recorder, and so forth. The work illustrates Hamilton's cynical interest in popular culture and modern technological developments. It is noteworthy that Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce, an Irish author known for his novel Ulysses, heavily influenced Richard Hamilton's pop art models of the mid-1950s.
Now that we have discussed the founder of the pop art movement, let us look at some of the most renowned artists who shaped the movement.
Undoubtedly the most notable figure of the pop art movement, Andy Warhol was a prolific and trailblazing creative genius who gained worldwide fame in the late 1950s for his vivid silkscreen prints and paintings. Glamour Magazine recruited Warhol as a commercial illustrator to create shoe commercials. In due course of time, shoes became his object of fascination, and he translated them into many of his famous artworks. Warhol was fixated on commercial culture and went to translate photos of everyday objects, including the famous Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell's soup cans, into mass-produced paintings. Warhol was a divisive figure who evoked emotions of appreciation and repudiation among the public of the then-America. Warhol was criticized for celebrating capitalism and the consumer culture, and at the same time, some people feel that he made American consumer goods icons of global stature.
Another pioneering figure of the pop art movement in 1960s America, Lichtenstein is best known for his paintings inspired by comic books. He created vibrantly and high-impact works, many of which were inspired by pre-existing commercial images and comic strips. Some of Lichtenstein's famous artworks include The Girl with Ball figure was inspired by an ad for the Mount Airy Lodge in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, while the Drowning Girl figure was based on a comic book cover. Lichtenstein's act of 'copying' pre-existing work was heavily criticized, and the original artists were not even credited. However, he justified his works by asserting that he is restating the copied items in other times by providing them with a different texture and placing them in an entirely different context. Towards the end of his career, Lichtenstein moved away from comic-infused artwork and started taking inspiration from the masterpieces of Van Gogh, Monet, and Cezanne.
He was an American artist who propagated the pop art movement in America through an assortment of mediums, including paintings, sculptors, and photography. With Andy Warhol's help, Rauschenberg became a silkscreen printer after visiting his studio in 1962. On represent the disorder of the media, he began putting pictures from papers and magazines to his canvases.
Born in 1937 in England, Hockney was a vital figure in the early pop art movement in Europe. Hockey studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where he became famous as the first student to be awarded a diploma solely based on his artworks, as he refused to write the essay required to graduate. Since then, he continued to work as a painter, transiting between Los Angeles, Paris, and London. Being a gay man himself, Hockey's works had heavy themes of homosexuality and often included a gay man, and gay love, coupled with occasional self-portraits. At one point, Hockney held the record for the highest price of a painting sold by any living artist at 90 million dollars.
He is an American pop artist whose paintings almost always depicted the American flag or another topic associated with the United States. Born in 1930, Georgia, Jones received success early on in his life when he displayed his artworks at his lover – Robert Rauschenberg's studio. After that, Leo Castelli discovered his works and provided him with his studio. Jasper Jones has been one of the highest-paid living painters multiple times, and his paintings like White Flag and False Start sold for millions of dollars.
He was one of the most illustrious Pop photographers, printmakers, and painters. Much of his work focused on a unique and colorful blend of Hollywood imagery, the Southwestern landscape, and commercial culture. Many see Ruscha's early experiments as the interplay between text and language, something that he went on to build later.
He began his career as an underground graffiti artist in New York but shot to international fame in the 1980s. Haring used pop art to explore topics of social and political importance. Thus, his artworks dealt with heavy themes such as homosexuality and AIDS. Aiming to make art accessible to everyone, Haring opened his Pop Shop in 1986, where he sold posters, t-shirts, etc. When he was only 31, he died from AIDS-related complications, ending his life abruptly.
He is a renowned artist credited as a stalwart figure of the early pop art movement. Blake achieved success early on in his life and had his first solo exhibit at 28 years. His paintings attained inspiration from multiple pop culture elements, usually collaged with references from other artists' works. Blake reached the peak of fame in the 1950s and 1960s when he commissioned paintings for musicians such as The Beatles and Eric Clapton, and likewise for their album covers as well as their posters.
Known for diverse artistic ventures, from sculptors to paintings and films, Kusama was a pioneering figure of the pop art movement whose works focused on feminism and minimalism and included psychological and sexual content. Born in 1929 in Japan, Kusama gained notoriety in Japan in the 1950s and moved to New York eventually. Kusama created infinity rooms – her most helpful piece of art. Unfortunately, her idea was stolen by some of her male contemporaries, who even made greater profits. During the Vietnam War, Kusama received national attention after her many art protests and even personally called our President Ronald Reagan at one point.
He was a Scottish sculptor and graphic designer and is generally deemed as one of the ancestors of the pop art movement. Paolozzi became famous in the 1950s with a series of mesmerizing screenprints and Art brut sculptors. In 1952, he founded the Independent Group with Richard Hamilton. His seminal collage from 1947 – 'I Was a Rich Man's Plaything' is regarded as the first standard bearer of Pop Art.
So, there we have a comprehensive overview of the dimensions, origins, founders, and pioneering figures of the pop art movement. Although Richard Hamilton is deemed the founder of the pop art movement, various artists like Paolozzi and Peter Blake are regarded as its forebearers.
The Pop art movement reacted to the economic boom of 1950s America. By rebelling against the unreachable and esoteric lexicon of abstract art, the pop art movement aimed at expression through a youthful and visual language. Pop Art, thus, celebrated the United Generation of Shopping. Although by the 1970s, the movement died down, its influence continues to reverberate even in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the pop art movement's message and influence had become so ubiquitous by the 1970s that the movement was no longer needed. However, its style finds cognizance in modern video games and online gaming sites. For instance, Sun Bingo has used pop art style to inspire its site theme, design direction, and retro feel. Likewise, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has an active section dedicated to the pop art movement and style.
We can assert that the ushering in of the 'influencer' era is a direct throwback to the pop art movement wherein low art was amalgamated with high art, thereby blurring boundaries between what precisely art is. Artists such as Andy Warhol incorporated the paintings of drag artists in their work. They legitimized a domain of art that is sleazy and titillating, and it does not shy away from embracing its materialist gaze. The ripples of such unbeknownst artistic expressions of the 1950s and 1960s can be felt even today.
Lastly, as the pop art movement itself is at its crux an appropriation of the then-modern symbols of commercialization and mass media, the contemporary borrowing of inspiration of the movement for video games and other media is an extreme extension of the pop art movement itself.
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