Published on February 8, 2013 | by Rowan Curtis-Nevett


Pop art’s grand return

Warhol's Marilyn Monroe

Andy Warhol, responsible for this Marilyn Monroe portrait, found success as a magazine illustrator. [Flickr: oddstock]

It was the art movement that swept through Britain and the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s capitalising on the changing popular culture of time.

Gone was the desire for post-war abstract expressionism, replaced by a carefully considered, often ironic celebration of celebrity icons, consumerist society and all things kitsch.

Now, the so-called ‘youthquake’ of the era will be roused in a series of exhibitions across the country, showcasing some of the key players who brought about huge change in the public consciousness.

But what is it about pop art that makes it so different, and so appealing?

Emerging from the blues of World War II, Britain and the United States experience profound changes in culture and means of expression.

Rock ‘n Roll was born, the concept of ‘teenager’ emerged from darkened bedrooms, all who were served by a boom of products being pumped into society by big corporations that offered everyone the secrets of a perfect existence.

Television advertisements depicting the happy family home were peddled with a new promise of self-improvement and an ambitious professionalism that hadn’t been seen since the roaring twenties.

A new wave of young artists saw through the glossy sheen of the consumer age, choosing its extravagant nature as a main basis for their work. Pop art was born.

Origins and motivations

To this day, there are varying ideas about the origins and motivations of the movement that sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Early American pop artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg hoped to counter the spontaneous style used by the abstract expressionists by taking clinical looks at objects of mass culture, while keeping a distinct sense of parody.

In Britain it was that very essence of American media and advertising, and the effects it had on society, which provided inspiration for artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton.

“Lichtenstein was one of the more intellectual Pop artists – commenting on the artifice of painting and the notions of authorship and originality in the context of mass media culture” Tate Retrospective co-curator, Iris Candela

The work of the most celebrated pop artists conveyed a kind of rigorous discipline that seemed unusual considering the unconventional subject matters they depicted. It was perhaps no coincidence that the majority involved came from commercial art backgrounds.

Andy Warhol originally found success as a magazine illustrator and Ed Ruscha equally as a graphic designer, professions that provided a certain level of controlled training.

The technical skills he acquired transferred into his seminal paintings, combining typography and photo-realist landscapes to great effect.


It was a fascination with commercial art – and printing in particular – that influenced another one of pop art’s most important figures, Roy Lichtenstein.

A retrospective exhibition of Lichtenstein will soon be held at the Tate Modern, that highlights his lasting impact on the creative world.

The much-anticipated exhibition will bring together 125 paintings and sculptures from his vast collection and will show from February 21 until May 27.

Lichtenstein burst onto the scene along with many of his peers in the early 1960s after spending time as a teacher at Rutgers University in New Jersey, among other institutions.

A keen interest from renowned art-dealer Leo Castelli propelled the native New Yorker into the forefront of the pop art movement where his legacy remains.

Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963) features the artist’s trademark comic book style [Flickr: zrysztof]

Lichtenstein’s unique style of comic book cartoon detail has become iconic, perhaps most notably with his painting “Whaam!”, which features permanently at the Tate Modern.

The instantly recognisable piece shows a North American fighter aircraft firing a rocket into an enemy plane, with a speech bubble capturing the pilot’s afterthoughts.

It is now seen as a standout example of the pop art movement and a thought-provoking example of comic-book narrative.

Despite this, the painting wasn’t free from criticism at the time, with many arguing that it lacked originality due to the fact it was based directly on a cartoon panel found in comic book American Men of War.

Lichtenstein’s abilities were also questioned; one New York Times critic described him as “one of the worst artists in America” in response to the brash colours and mechanical style he often favoured.

Lichtenstein himself described his work as “industrial painting,” a term that suggests an impersonal approach that was considered unusual when considering the highly personal abstract expressionists that had gone before him.

It is perhaps for these reasons that many critics of the day couldn’t warm to him.

Prevailing ideas

However, like so many chastised artists in the past, Lichtenstein’s ideas prevailed and he is now considered one of the most important innovators of the twentieth century.

Iria Candela, co-curator of the Tate Retrospective, said: “Lichtenstein was one of the more intellectual Pop artists – commenting on the artifice of painting and among other things, the notions of authorship and originality in the context of mass media culture.

At the same time, his paintings have a sensational visual power, and emulate high doses of humour and wit.

“When we started this project, it was surprising to discover how many areas of his varied and expansive practice remain comparatively unknown. This is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist ever attempted.

“We therefore conceived the exhibition as a long overdue reassessment of his artistic achievements exploring both famous and little-known aspects of his work.

“Working on this exhibition took four years of preparation, extensive research followed by curatorial travel and loan negotiations to be able to secure many works that are kept in private collections, some of which have never been publicly seen.”


Roy Lichtenstein

One of the founding fathers of Pop Art, Lichtenstein’s art was seen as ugly upon his debut [Tate Pictures]

The work of Lichtenstein is not alone in its celebration this year, as the Tate Britain will be exhibiting the talents of German artist Kurt Schwitters, who is considered by many as the pioneer of pop art as we know it.

A child of the Dada art movement, Schwitters worked across many media to produce sculptures, paintings, poetry, and perhaps most famously, collages scrapped together from everyday items like newspaper cuttings and food labels.

It was this distinctive style that proved to be a strong influence on pop artists like Richard Hamilton and Robert Rauschenberg.

However, Schwitters’s life was not without its troubles and at times he cut quite the tragic figure.

Persecuted and forced into exile from the Nazis for being a “degenerate”, Schwitters arrived in England in 1940 only to be held in an internment camp as an enemy alien.

To his surprise the camp based on the Isle of Man wasn’t as unpleasant as he had imagined, despite being seen as a slightly pathetic character by the other exiled artists incarcerated there.

Settling in the Lake District

Upon his release, he struggled to make a living as a largely unknown artist in a foreign land, eventually settling in the picturesque Lake District where he began to piece together his “Merz Barn” – a collage made from old and found materials that completed the interior of the small farm shed he rented as a studio.

It was abandoned in the years after his death, only to be salvaged and rescued by leading pop artist Richard Hamilton.

Despite Schwitters’s time in England, being marred by isolation and misunderstanding from the establishment, it is the main focus of Tate Britain’s forthcoming retrospective.

A new wave of young artists saw through the glossy sheen of the consumer age. Pop art was born

Curator Emma Chambers comments that: “The exhibition explores Schwitters’s interaction with Britain in multiple ways, seeking to trace his connections with British art and culture between 1940 and 1948, visible both in the new materials and themes of his works and his interaction with the British art world and in showcasing the rich holdings of Schwitters’s work in British collections, many of whose owners have a direct family connection with Schwitters.

“Schwitters’s collages and assemblages were made from everyday materials that he found around him, so his physical location had an enormous impact on the nature of his work. In London his materials ranged from bus tickets and Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts sweet wrappers to a scrubbing brush and even a metal toy motorcyclist collaged alongside a clothes peg and fragments of China.

“In the Lake District his work increasingly began to focus on the natural world, seen in abstract collages such as “C 77 Wind Swept”, but through his correspondence with friends in America, he also looked further afield to the imagery of American popular culture.”

Robert Rauschenberg's untitled piece

American painter Robert Rauschenburg’s Untitled Piece (1963) [Flickr: Mjuri]

Tate’s year of Pop Art

At the Tate Liverpool, the fabulous era of seventies glam art will be explored in February and March.

Glam! The Performance of Stylewill bring together more than 100 artworks exploring the themes of androgyny, eroticism and dandyism.

The exhibition will feature major pop art figures such as David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Allen Jones and Richard Hamilton from 1971-1975.

Cindy Sherman is another artist that will feature heavily in the exhibition; the American photographer has gained a glowing reputation for her conceptual portraits that examine the role of women in media and society, themes that have lead her to win multiple awards including the Guild Hall Academy of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award for Visual Arts in 2005.

Also on offer are the truly unique works of Gilbert and George, the dynamic duo that have divided opinion in the art world since their rise to fame in the seventies.

Photographs that supposedly glamorized East London skinheads and another of an Asian man with the word “paki” written on his forehead have meant their works are rarely free from controversy.

However the pair’s inclusion seems an obvious one when considering their distinctive services to camp and colourful art.

While building from the key foundations of popular culture, the extravagant nature of the works featured in Glam! The Performance of Style convey a certain amount of expression that perhaps shies away from the technical machine that was pop art.

The exhibition will look to reveal the fine art ideas that infiltrate the front line of popular culture and other creative mediums. Themes of identity and gender definition will also be explored in the exhibition that should appeal to anyone with a penchant for flamboyant art.

Glimpses of the divinely decadent and the joys of performance will make Glam! a truly unique celebration of the transitional period that followed the swinging sixties.

Influence and legacy

Indeed, 2013 is set to offer a nostalgic gaze into one of arts most exciting and transcendental movements with special insight into the key players that made it so.

The influence and legacy of pop art is clear when examining the style and processes adopted by many artists since, from the troubled genius of Jean-Michel Basquait to the chaotic yet strangely disciplined collages of Kevin Cherry.

Street artist Shepard Fairey is another artist that continues to adopt pop art principles and a bold graphic design style not dissimilar to Robert Indiana and the other pioneers of his day.

“Schwitters’s collages and assemblages were made from everyday materials that he found around him” Tate Britain curator, Emma Chambers

Pop was a definitive point in history when art gained a sense of humour and self-parody, characteristics that have often been attempted in recent years, with varying results.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of pop art’s legacy are the brilliant sketches of a consumer society that still exists today.

In fact, with consumer culture arguably stronger than ever, it’s difficult to imagine what artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein would make of banking online, shopping online and adverts for price comparison websites that flash up on our television screens on a daily basis.

But with the ever-growing internet age comes room for new art that reflects a changing society, and beneath it the origins of pop art will never be far away.

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