Jonathan Morgan has taught college-level courses in art and philosophy for over 9 years. He has a BA in Liberal Arts from Hofstra University, an MA in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Art at the University of the Arts London, and is currently a Philosophy Doctoral Candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.
Background & Definition
Pop Art became most famous in the United States, but actually has its roots in the United Kingdom in the 1950s. After World War II, the Britain enjoyed an unusual period of economic prosperity with more and more people having significant amounts of disposable income. This combined with the massive infrastructure of factories and mass media generated during the war created an explosion of consumer goods and advertising to promote them. People's homes almost became shrines to post-war productivity, and social status became even more connected to the things you owned and displayed for others to see.
Later, in the 1960s, this new obsession with material goods and advertising reached its peak in the United States as it began glorifying popular culture while criticizing it. Advertisements, comic strips, supermarket labels, even the celebrities of TV and film make up the subject matter of Pop Art. The witty and ironic exploration of these parts of visual culture contributed to the success and longevity of the movement with its iconic style and work remaining a recognizable part of our daily lives. Put simply, Pop Art is art about everyday life in this newly consumer-driven world.
One of the earliest players this movement is Richard Hamilton, an artist from the UK. His piece Just What is it That Makes Today's Homes so Different, so Appealing? from 1955 is arguably one of the first pieces of Pop Art.
Even the name of the movement comes from the art critic Lawrence Alloway referring to it as 'pop art' due to the large Tootsie Pop Hamilton's piece features. The piece is a collage made from advertisements and such that reflects the visual chaos of the time in a serious tone. The male and female figures are meant to recall the story of Adam & Eve and their fall from the Garden of Eden. Having lost paradise, they try to recreate it with the numerous consumer goods they display in their home. 'Adam' appears as an overly buff body builder striking a pose while 'Eve' is posing on the couch, topless. Neither are paying attention to each other or their home which shows Hamilton's critical view of this new way of life. It may be an absurd image, but that absurdity is intentional and meant to make you question things.
Clean American Graphics
While Hamilton's work from the UK questions the societal values of his time, Pop Artists in the US in the 1960s take a decidedly different approach. These artists created a far more refined and slick visual style that directly reflected the trends in advertising at the time. Images are less jarring and more comfortingly familiar to the everyday viewer. It's this accessible visual language used by artists like Roy Lichtenstein that lead to Pop Art taking the US by storm. His work took something every American knew, the comic book/strip, and turned it into gigantic hand painted works. He even takes the technique of Benday Dots used in commercial printing, the tiny dots of solid color that give the illusion id shaded and blended colors, and recreates it by hand.
When looking at pieces like Oh, Jeff … I Love You, Too … But … (1964) and Hopeless (1963) we see that Lichtenstein zeroes in on a single cell from the comic, often featuring strong emotions in the characters. In some ways, his work causes us to consider the value of culture by taking these scenes out of context and glorifying them. The emotions in the two works above can seem trivial for works of art, especially on such a scale. But, it also takes events that we can all relate to and makes that the focus of the work; not some ages-old epic tale of gods and men, but our own everyday lives blown up and thrown onto the canvas.
This idea of monumental artwork focusing on everyday life can also been seen in the work of Claes Oldenburg, the iconic sculptor who created works like Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks.
The sculpture shows a gigantic tube of red lipstick set atop of a pair of tracks like those used on construction vehicles and tanks, creating a dissonance and tension that bears Pop Art's signature tone of seriousness laced with humor and absurdity. Works like this really get to the heart of Pop Art: taking recognizable parts of daily American life and turn them into what would be considered high art.
Consumerism as King
There is one artist above all others who succeeded in doing this: Andy Warhol. For many, he is the Pop Artist. Warhol grew up incredibly poor in the industrial city of Pittsburgh. As a young man, he moved to New York City and began his career as a commercial illustrator. Though slow to start, he became wildly successful and used his new-found wealth to make the kind of art we use to visually define Pop Art. The subject matter of his art, as seen in works like Campbell's Soup I and Heinz Tomato Ketchup, revolves around mass-produced consumer goods.
Supermarkets and the inexpensive foods available inside amazed Warhol and he saw them as representative of democratic equality. The critic Alastair Sooke recalls that Warhol held the soda Coca-Cola very close to his heart since nobody could get a 'better' bottle of Coke than anyone else. Both you and the President get the same bottle of soda, so a work like Green Coca-Cola Bottles is pretty universal in appeal.
He not only made art about these things, but adopted the clean and graphic style of their packaging and advertising to make his work. He even used the commercial screen printing process to create his work instead of hand painting them. This visual style is also seen in his works revolving around celebrity like the Marilyn Diptych exploring the film actress Marilyn Monroe.
Bright and garish colors recreate the starlet's face on the left as a mask that she had to wear in public and on film, with the right side of the piece recalling the very medium that made her famous: film. Warhol was also clever in capitalizing on the familiarity of these images and seemed to provoke the media to ask 'Is this really art?' As a result, his work and the work of other Pop Artists was present all over the media. As these artists explored the visual aspects of popular culture, their work became part of that very culture.
The movement of Pop Art took visuals from our everyday lives and re-imagined them as worthy of being called 'high art' and being displayed as such. No matter who you were, you could identify with these artworks and even see a piece of your own life on display as noteworthy. In this way, it empowered both the artist and the viewer as the star of the work and popular culture, overall.
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