The growth of art has been characterized by the emergence of various movements, proponents of which have fuelled the growth of the industry, through provision of pieces that attract the interest of certain groups of society. This essay seeks to analyze the movement known as Pop Art. To this end, a brief history of the movement shall be given, before the discussion delves into the themes and styles that characterize the movement, as well as the legacies that the movement is associated with. Art Research, like any other topical research only attains academic credibility once it provides reference to other written works, as well as provides detailed exemplification of ideas emerging in the discussion. In this regard, the research for the current essay shall be guided by various literature, on the topic. These include books, journals and published articles, collected from both physical and online libraries. By the end of the discussion, the essay aims to comprehensively cover the subject of pop art, in such a way that readers are able to narrate the history and origins of the art form, list a number of artists associated with the movement as well as explain the themes and styles they used to pass their message across.
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The origins of pop art
The phrase Pop Art can be traced to art critic Lawrence Alloway, in 1958, in his evaluation of the exhibition titled This is Tomorrow (Tansey, 1980, p.113). Studying the works of Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney, Alloway pointed out that there was a uniquely new approach to their styles, which he linked to the popular art that had taken prominence in American mass media (McCarthy, 2002, p.7). As a result the form of art was for a while referred to as popular art, much later adopting the shortened form of the word popular, to simply remain as pop art.
Pop art is an art movement that sprung up in the 1950s in the United Kingdom and the United States. This is form of art set itself apart from the traditional forms of art by the usage of lifted images from areas of popular culture including advertisements (Tansey, 1980, p.76). The material used in this form of art is more often than not taken from its usual context and paired up with other material, which is sometimes unrelated, in order to pass a specific message. Because of this apparent incongruence, most pieces of pop art are not generally easily comprehensible. As such, sometimes pop-art may not just sell as a piece of visually-appealing art, but as a package of a given message (McCarthy, 2002 p.77). This form of art tends try and express certain elements of a particular culture, and it distinctively uses irony to get this message across. Another key distinction of pop art from most other forms of art is the utilization of mechanical methods of reproduction and rendering (Jurgen, 2009, p. 96).
The origins of pop art were characterized by uniquely specific characteristics, depending on the region. In the United States for example, it developed as a form of abstract expressionism, which at the same time drew from hard-edged composition to deliver a message. In this regard, a lot of irony and parody was put into use in the development of pieces. In Britain, the development of pop-art took an academic stance and it used irony to try and illustrate how the popular culture in America had a profound effect on the rest of the world (Jurgen, 2009, p.3). As such, most of the modern forms of British pop art drew inspiration from the USA’s popular culture, but from an outsider’s perspective. The main differences between works by American and British artists, which eventually reflected in their works, was that while the Americans lived the experiences they put into their art, the British were simply observers (Tansey, 1980, p. 217). To some extent, pop art was seen as a form of developed Dadaism. This is because both forms of art in some instances studied the same subjects. However, pop art tended to be less destructive and unlike the Dada movement, it paid credence to the art present in mass culture (Gopnik and Varnedoe, 1990, p.65).
The Independent Group, a conglomeration of artists in the UK formed in 1952, was seen as one of the groups that triggered the emergence of pop art (Tansey, 1980, p.33). This group comprised artists as well as critics who went out to offer insight the modernist reception of culture. They also met regularly to challenge traditional opinion on art. During the group’s meetings, discussions went around popular American culture and how it was shaped by elements such as film, advertisements and technology (Haskell, 1984, p.117). The scholars in the group studied the culture in America and offered direction to the artists themselves, especially regarding the subject content and the materials to use. This group, by virtue of its varied constituency was instrumental in the development of pop art during the period, because their activities ended up giving undue attention to the movement.
Pop art in America, started towards the end of the 1950s but got its fire in the 1960s (Osterwold, 2007, p.6). During this period, advertising in industry in the USA had started picking ideas from modern art and ended up coming up with products that were of exciting standards. As such the Americans, unlike their British counterparts, had to use a consented effort in order to distinguish their work from the highly-artistic advertisements (Irving, 1978, p.255). The American artists, by virtue of living the culture, also produced pieces that had sentimental and humorous effects. Their works were bolder and more impactful than that of their British counterparts. This was shown by the ways in which they played around with their subjects of interests to come up with messages that were sometimes provocative, but mostly interesting to analyze.
At the beginning, Pop art had simultaneous movements that were happening in England and America, and the most successful (of these movements) was in America. In New York names such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann and Roy Lichtenstein were already being sung about by those in the art world (Osterwold, 2007, p.167). It was these artists – their paintings and sculptures which celebrated the style of urban culture. Comic strips, design, photography and advertising more often than not with critical and ironical intent sent shock waves through the elitist art scene of New York (Honnef, 2004, p.52). Pop art has generated enthusiasm since its beginnings, and has continually grown in popularity. The works that were produced still garnish an undiminished appeal for young generations.
In Japan, pop art draws its inspiration from anime and other forms of tradition Japanese expression. This makes pop art from the regional uniquely identifiable (McCarthy, 2002, p.18). Many followers of this art movement in Japan borrow ideas from Japanese Hentai, which is fundamentally sexually explicit material. As such, their works end up being easily catching the eye, while at the same time provoking a lot of discussion. Some of the most famous pop artists from Japan include Kaikai Kiki, Yoshitomo Nara and Aya Takano, all of whom produced works that when put on the global pedestal, have the distinct Japanese look on them (Honnef, 2004, p.24).
Styles and themes
Pop art, being a movement that has been in existence for over 60 years, has distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from other forms of art. These characteristics have been explained in detail below. With depersonalization in mass society Pop art reacted to the phenomenon with styles that were just as impersonal. Its pictures had an equally objectifying effect. The media had altered the relationship of mass consciousness and individual subjectivity. Lichtenstein has said that he owes his particular style to comics, but does not owe his themes. The typography, pictorial vocabulary along with the arrangement of texts and visuals in the comic are taken from the aggressive language of advertising.
In its initial forms, pop art assumed stances associated with paintings. However, as it developed into a uniquely independent style of art, it became more and more liberal, using material associated with popular trends bringing out pieces that not only depicted reality, but also went ahead to leave an unprecedented impact on society (Gopnik and Varnedoe, 1990, p.56). Like with most other forms of art, the development of styles pop art was by far and large experimental. Artists who delved into the style did not have a particular manual to follow, nor specifics on the kinds of materials that they could use. As a result, the pieces created were unique in their own specific rights, especially when it came to the style of presentation and the thematic backgrounds. Below are some of the notable styles used by the fathers of pop art. Some of their techniques have been adopted by their successors even though latter-day pop-artists have the considerable advantage of having a varied choice of materials to work with.
Richard Prince followed established Pop systems with his appropriation of existing images. He was associated with Metro Pictures, a gallery in New York that showed only representational work derived from the mass media (Phillips, 1992, p.17). In his first solo exhibition at the Metro he exhibited photographs of people and ordinary goods taken straight from advertising images. He later elaborated that he took the motifs out of their original context and deprived them of their intended purpose while stressing the stereotyped similarity of the various excerpts by showing them together (Irving, 1978, p.181). By this move, Prince not only showed that art does not have to be created from scratch, but also confirmed that any material could be turned into a piece of art, as long as it is in the right hands. The exhibition, made the viewers take time to critically assess the personalities and items that had previously been parts of a detailed composition (Gopnik and Varnedoe, 1990, p.79). As such the individuals who attended the exhibition could easily tell more about the persons, in ways that they could not when they were surrounded by text and other items in the body of the posters.
Jasper Johns, one of the names associated with pop art in the 1950s developed a distinct style that say him incorporate real objects into his paintings (Weiss, 2007, p.93). He initially set out by including plaster relief into his works and later went bold to use found objects in his compositions. Johns’ most renowned work is the painting titled Flag, whose inspiration came from a dream of the USA flag (Weiss, 2007, p.213). His other pieces also bore witness to consideration of the irony associated with pop art. Most of his work composed of flags, letter cut-outs and relief plasters (Weiss, 2007, p.12). His style was more elaborate and more labor intensive, compared to Prince’s style, primarily because he had to use multiple techniques in his works. For instance, aside from paintwork, Johns needed to understand, how to work with plaster, as well as come up with a better way of combining the two, without one overshadowing the other (Livingstone, 2000, p.56). The eventual product was very difficult to replicate and individuals who tried to do so ended up producing works that were uniquely different. In this way Johns joined other artists in confirming that it is virtually impossible to come with a standardized style of producing pieces that qualify as pop art.
Painters such as Keith Haring, Lee Quinones and John Matos appropriated the New York City street culture language: that of graffiti – drawn, sprayed or painted on the walls of public buildings and subway systems (McCarthy, 2002, p.78). They eventually transferred these techniques onto canvas so that the works could be bought and sold as commodities. Their initial decision to place their work in the public arena from which it was drawn was essential both in capturing a transient moment and in effecting a genuine convergence between their images as art and as signs of popular culture. Their works found favour in the eyes of the public because they were driven by issues that were of public interest (Livingstone, 2000, p.54). Their techniques were also both simple and visually-appealing, such that by the time they transferred them onto the canvas, they had already picked up a decent amount of following. On canvas, they still retained their spay-on styles, but combined them with cut-outs and other improvised techniques to create uniquely popular art pieces (Tomkins, 1980, 13). The three artists are among the most influential as far as the development of pop-art styles is concerned.
Robert Rauschenberg, a New York City artist first made an impression as a pop artist in the 1950s through his work, referred to as Painting Combines, which saw the use of non-traditional material, innovatively put together to form artworks (McCarthy, 2002, p.13). He made it a point to use material that was readily available, including items picked from trash and other items picked from the streets. Much later, he started using images, alongside photographs, which he transferred to the canvas using silkscreen techniques. The artist has been quoted as saying that while developing his art pieces, his inspiration came from the fact that he intend to come up with an item that he wanted to use material that he could not develop himself (Haskell, 1984, p.136). According to him, this approach had the element of surprise that was associated with the items he collected. He is one of the artists whose works were a cross between paintings and sculptures. His technique was also among the most complex of all the ones used by pop artists. This is because for one to effectively implement, it, a thorough knowledge of screen printing was needed as well as a good hand in traditional painting (Livingstone, 2000, p.59). The delicate nature of this style has made it one of the least favorite in the field of pop art, with most artists choosing to the less tactful methods of sticking found items on a base. However, individuals that have managed to study the technique agree that it yields pieces that are more visually exciting and bearing even stronger messages.
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Warhol produced a series of Marilyn’s in 1962 to reveal the authenticity of her image. He repeated a photograph of her face – or her lips – in rows (Warhol, 1975, p.77). With this he translated the inflationary character of her image into a mechanical and meaningless form. He used a silk-screen technique he arranged the designs in random sequence and transfers them to canvas in an imprecise way. Her face is then made up with various colors. This lack of subtly of her makeup looks like a mask in which the viewer is enticed to imitate and identify with. Warhol is able to in-still a quality which is unpredictable and alienating. Compositions appear off balance and full of tension (Warhol, 1975, p.93). Within the context of art the content gives a strikingly innovative quality. They are unfamiliar and feel like something new, but the reality is that they are commonplace. Like Rauschenberg, Warhol took time in the creation of his pieces, eventually coming up with techniques that only he could replicate effectively (Livingstone, 2000, p.47). His style was a complex combination of traditional paint on canvas with collages, with the final product being a well packaged message, which viewers could decipher at first glance. Warhol’s silk-screen technique, by its complexity clearly indicates that pop art is not necessarily an easy form, as it may appear from the final product (Michelson, 2001, p.57). His works are actually testimony of mature artistry, giving them the prominence that they have in the world of art.
Lichtenstein was able to identify and corner contemporary stereotypes of reality while at the same time keeping a distance as an artist, from both himself and his subjects (Hapgood, 1994, p.66). Lichtenstein pictures aim to objectify gestures and emotions. His paintings have a look as if they were produced mechanically, appearing perfect and quite anonymous. Any record of imprecision, alteration or error was erased. The comic strip has a number of other artistic processing techniques. Lichtenstein reduces the medium down to its basic elements, tightens the pictorial coherence and simplifies the production process of cartoon drawing (Hapgood, 1994, p.119). In the compositions the relationships between the characters to one another and also to their environment is made absolutely plain, while at the same time delineation of coloring, which include blue, red, yellow, green and black and white. As Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl shows individuals cannot escape the sentimentalism and stylization of the media. Society has become a champion of personal catastrophes (Gopnik and Varnedoe, 1990, p.52). Without disclosing what has led to them the media sensationalize catastrophes. Individual fate is far too insignificant to dampen the optimism of the times. Lichtenstein’s systematic approach leads to the leveling of all content. His subjects are stereotypical with abstraction so as to conform to a popular taste. Pop art conceptions of style come from the central them in art itself: art about art, the work of art as an object, the act of painting, art history, painting materials, composition (Gopnik and Varnedoe, 1990, p.67). Pop artists considered their work as anti-art, in relation to the traditional art. In Lichtenstein’s painting Art the concept of art is brought into question. The words which made the term Pop Art implies that art was to become pop.
Outside America comic strips were also enjoying a revival. In France rather than using established characters, artists used their inventions against the viewers’ knowledge of the comic strip art form. Artists such as Francois Boisrond painted flat outlined motifs in canvas and cardboard so that he could highlight their spontaneous and ephemeral look (Madoff, 1997, p.123). The most consistently pop in aspect, of all the paintings that were produced in England during the 1980s were made by the Canadian artist Lisa Milroy. Through her arrangement of painted images of objects that are usually laid out in rows in accordance to a grid system and sometimes in a more organic manner we are invited to direct our gaze at these manufactured items (Arnason, 1968, p.159). Items such as various types of metal hinges, rows of identical gramophone records, postage stamps, Roman coins and even Greek pottery were well utilized in these artworks.
Barbra Kruger would combine printed slogans with borrowed photographic images in a way that at first glance could be confused with posters of printed advertisements. With her subliminal association with the mass media she was determined to decode and render ineffective printed advertisements. Another artist, Jenny Holzer integrated her inverted versions of advertising into the public domain by printing provocative messages on paper that she then fly posted around the East Village in New York City. She also began to incorporate the new technology of the diode message board to broadcast her messages (Madoff, 1997, p.68). The uniqueness of her style drew from the fact that she did not go the extents of developing a complex technique, in the conveyance of her message. The incorporation of new technologies in her art work was also a first in the world of pop-art. This was a possibility that could not have been envisioned before her and even though her initial attempts were not received with acclaim, her later works received the kind of respect given to unique pieces of art (Michelson, 2001, p.37). Kruger opened the world of art to more possibilities as far as experimentation with style was concerned, and that is why she has been made a person of reference, in the study of pop art.
Keith Haring was a survivor and developed a cartoon like pictographic into a style that looked anonymous. It just happened that in functioned as his personal signature (Gopnik and Varnedoe, 1990, p.88). The boldness of the marks and simplistic linear motifs, fluorescent color along with humor were used to offset the sometimes violent and sexually provocative subject matter of his work. He adapted his work to use as badges, and set up his own shop in the East Village to sell merchandise. Andy Warhol, who purchased work by Haring and also became his friend, had said in 1975 that “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art” (Michelson, 2001, p.117 ). It was in Haring’s commercialization of his work that Haring turned himself into a Pop Artist during the 80s.
Pop art in both its traditional and modern forms covered a vast range of themes. These included mass production, mass culture and popular icons, as well as abstraction. The inspiration of pop art came from by everyday living (Lucy, 1966, p.89). This form of art, however, comes with the twist of advocating for cultural change, in terms of societal elements like anti-authoritarian education, women liberation and an objective approach to sexuality. This emergence of new attitudes about life and culture came with new approaches to self expression, which was well represented in the art world, appearing as pop-art (Livingstone, 2000, p.285). For instance, it was during this period that women’s fashion was getting into the limelight. The Hollywood effect had started getting into society, with habits such as smoking appearing elite and fashionable. All these aspects had found their way into the advertising industry, which subsequently saw them end up in pop-art, in the form of cuttings and screen prints.
During the course of the 1960s themes such as murder, the death of the individual and “scum” of the crime world became prominent in Warhol’s work (Michelson, 2001, p.112). His art portrays the fact tragedy may make a person famous for fifteen minutes, but that it is soon forgotten. “Life is cheapened by a repetitive stream of banal Hollywood clichés. For a person to become famous as a result of personal tragedy is a rare enough event, and yet our society expects such events as part of its daily diet.”
Legacies of pop art
Pop art, in its wake impacted the society and art scene in remarkable ways. First, it came out as an inclusive and relevant style of art (Livingstone, 2000, pp.21, 298). Its predecessors, such as abstract expressionism did not leave as big a legacy in American and British societies, primarily because the chosen subjects and media of expression did not resonate well with the general public. Pop art on its part picked on material and topics that were of interest and easily-relatable to by each and every member that had come in contact with items of mass appeal such as product packaging (Livingstone, 2000, p.158). As such, pop art drew away from the elitist brand that had been tagged with traditional forms of art and adopted a more populist stance. Pop art was credited for opening up the world of art to ordinary individuals. These were individuals who appreciated art depending on how easily recognizable it was. Pop art brought works that felt the average person on the street feel less intimated to attend an art gallery.
Pop art also had an impact of giving society a chance to look at itself from deep within. In this regard, instead of trying to undermine the bourgeois community, like Dada did, it lay focus on the material items of obsession that were distinguishable in American society (Irving, 1978, p.244). These were consumer items such as food, vehicles and sex. By use of satire and irony, artists in the pop art era were in a position to make critical commentaries to the society (Livingstone, 2000, p.38). Pop art, like many other forms of art that came before it, brought about certain legacies that had hitherto not found prominence. This impact was in the meaning, the choice of material and the message conveyed. The three items are explained in detail below:
The earliest proponents of Pop art wanted to convey a message that was instantly recognizable (Castleman, 1986, p.27). This is because the artists of the day had seen how difficult it had been for art lovers to get the message that artists in abstract expressionism were trying to convey. To this end, the artists made their works as simple and visually-appealing as possible (Lucy, 1966, 147). This was achieved by the use of materials from advertisements and posters of public figures, as well as cuttings from magazine pages. These items, combined with material from traditional forms of art, ended up producing art pieces that were both interesting to look at, as well as extremely thought provoking. The presentations also made it easier for persons, not keen on the traditional forms of elitist art forms to lift messages from visits to the museums and art galleries. Modern forms of pop art also strive to give emphasis to meaning even though the art piece themselves may sometimes appear like haphazard collection of unrelated materials.
Until the emergence of pop art, art could only be made from select materials. These included paint, for paintings and bronze and wood for sculptures. The subjects of inspiration were also limited to human and landscapes. Later, the art movement known as Dadaism came to the fore, to insist that art could be made from any type of material including items that are deemed trash. Immediately after, came pop art which furthered the idea of art being easily made from available material, irrespective of how low it appeared in terms of quality (Lucy, 1966, p.76). The usage of low-brow material is one of the distinguishing characteristics of pop art. In most instances, the artists who specialize in this form of artistic expression tend to use materials that are readily available, such as broken grass, scrap metal and beads in their compositions (Jamie 1996, p.11). It is under very few circumstances that pop artists would walk into a shop and buy each and every item they will use in their art work. This is one of the unique elements that make pop art stand out even in the midst of heated criticism, stemming from the perceived quality of art pieces (Harrison, 2001, 18).
Until the emergence of Dadaism and Pop-art, the items that made people flock the galleries were the art works themselves (Irving, 1978, p.132). Individuals from traditional forms of art concentrated on making the finished product as visually appealing as possible. Pop-art in contrast, did not particularly focus on the fine touches. Instead, the strength of any select piece of art was seen to come from the message and inspiration behind it (Jamie 1996, pp. 42, 50). Most if not all pieces of pop art, are made using a combination of items, which in their typical context are unrelated. For instance, some the famous pieces have had magazine cut-outs, paired with oil paints and found objects such as bottle tops, combined together into a single unit, bearing a particular message. In this regard, the uniformity and cleanliness that is traditionally associated with forms of art such as paintings and sculptures. This leaves the idea behind the art work to drive its popularity as exemplified by the works of some of the most popular pieces from the genre.
This is the summation of this essay. The project had set out to analyze pop art in both an in-depth and exhaustive manner. Starting with the origins the discussion continued into the styles and themes of pop art before concluding with the legacies associated with the style. It has been found that pop art is one of the youngest movements of art, and which is gradually evolving. The research has also revealed that pop art’s main focus is on the message conveyed, as opposed to the packaging, something that has made the approach receive its fair share of criticism. As per earlier plans, the research was primarily guided by available literature on the topic. Both physical and online libraries were visited, and material to comprehensively cover the discussion picked. In conclusion, it has been found that pop art is a post-modern art movement, which gives artists the room to experiment, with all approaches they find useable. However, the research also revealed that the subject has not been well studied by most scholars, with the available literary pieces mainly focusing on the artists themselves and their art works. This, therefore, leaves a lot of room for exploration into the topic, though it is also modest to note that no single discussion can cover each and every element of a particular item.
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