Pop was one of the most enthusiastically embraced art movements of the past century, hitting the timeline from the mid-1950s to early 1970s. It was carried on the visages of movie stars, neon, Coca-Cola, comic book lips, Brillo boxes and food — lots of food — all the things that shouted from billboards, newsstands and television sets.
Artists appropriated the images of popular culture, the low art, that were the vehicles of massive advertising campaigns and consumerism, making pop universal.
At the time, in the United States, it seemed very American-centric, with a smattering of U.K. involvement. But, in fact, it began in Britain in the early ’50s and crossed the sea. It was reinforced by British bands, fashions and the street scene from London in the early ’60s, which made it even more irresistible. Here in the U.S., we believed it to be a U.S./U.K. phenomenon.
Because it was carried on the winds of mass communication, though, it circled the globe, and while we might not have acknowledged it then, curators are doing so now. Pop was insidiously spreading like kudzu in Japan, Hungary, Germany, Czechoslavakia, Brazil and Argentina.
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Tracking the global reach of pop is the current exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, “International Pop.” Concurrently, the Tate Modern in London is mounting “The World Goes Pop,” along the same theme.
125: Number of artworks in the exhibit
“Pop was intersecting with other movements throughout the world, the graphics in Asia, the media out of England; it was more than what was happening in the U.S.,” says Darsie Alexander, curator of “International Pop,” which was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; she is now the executive director of the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. “This is not about a style, it’s not about America, and it’s not about the claims of where pop began, which aren’t all that interesting anymore,” she says.
“It is about an important opportunity to reexamine the era as a time that set in motion our current age of globalization, consumerism and social network,” writes Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker, in the exhibition catalog.
Curators Alexander, Bartholomew Ryan and the DMA’s Gabriel Ritter have compartmentalized the exhibit by themes and context. In doing so, they have physically carved the spacious barrel vault in the DMA into claustrophobic rooms.
13: Number of countries represented on four continents
“We think of it as the hexagon, the brain or the hub,” says Ritter. “You literally have spokes on the wheel creating sight lines that draw you from the central hub into the other parts of the world.” Which might work if the museum is sparsely populated. It won’t be for this exhibition.
The micromanaged little spaces are divided into geographic galleries of Britain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Japan, and thematic rooms such as New Realism, Pop & Politics and Distribution & Domesticity, among others. These divisions may not seem apparent and are probably much more vivid in the minds of the curators.
More than 100: Number of artists whose works are shown
Alexander and Ryan at the Walker gathered more than 125 works from 13 countries on four continents and from more than 100 artists. So there had to be some way of making a cohesive presentation, but perhaps they overreached with their subdivisions. By physically compartmentalizing their themes, they were forced to hang disparate sizes of work together, creating a visual discord.
There are new names and new takes on the 60-plus-year-old movement — new to us, at least. Dallas doesn’t have much history with pop art, which is one of the reasons the exhibit is here, says Alexander.
It is about an important opportunity to reexamine the era as a time that set in motion our current age of globalization, consumerism and social network
Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker Art Center
The American artworks were easy to find. Artists Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol are still in the news, as their works are now selling for eight-figure amounts. However, this makes their artwork very expensive, and the cost of the insurance underwriting for the exhibit was almost a deal breaker. The artworks from foreign shores were much harder to find, as many of those artists and their works were languishing in obscurity.
There is one group that is obviously in short supply — female pop artists, although the few that are included have some of the most compelling art. While they are squeezed into the Love & Despair section, they are not in Pop & Politics, which is surprising, as the politics of feminism and female equality or inequality was quite rampant at the time — as it is again.
The female pop artists depict women as sex objects. Nowhere is this more blatant than in Marjorie Strider’s Triptych II (Bikini Girl), which has three panels of a woman striking a pinup pose with 3-D mammaries bursting from the picture plane. Evelyne Axell’s woman licking an ice cream cone comes in a close second.
The paintings of food, more than Warhol’s silkscreens or Lichtenstein’s comic book riffs, seem the most pop-ish pieces in the exhibition.
Marisol Escobar’s Dinner Date is a three-dimensional tableau of two women carved from blocks of wood at a dining table; their posture, presence and accessories are perfect, while they are inanimate.
The paintings of food, more than Warhol’s silkscreens or Lichtenstein’s comic book riffs, seem the most pop-ish pieces in the exhibition. Foodscape by Erró, an artist from Iceland, is a billboard-size painting of 1,000 taste temptations. It pulls visitors from across the room as if enabled by a tractor beam. In the same gallery is Wayne Thiebaud’s, Salads, Sandwiches and Desserts, a buffet array of mouthwatering delights.
The glory of the entire exhibition is Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #35, another wall-size artwork. This still life of a loaf of bread, tobacco products, meat, fruit on a folded fabric, a lovely blonde and a window that shows the far-off city next to the aquamarine waters under an ultramarine sky is an old trope. Except Wesselmann’s blonde is the Sunbeam bread girl, the beverage is a six-pack of Royal Crown Cola, the meat is Libby’s beef stew, and, well you get it — you recognize every item because the brand names are seared in your memory.
Nothing says 1960s like pop art.
The memory cues are the strongest part of pop. Consider the JFK assassination: Do we remember the images, Jackie in her hat and veil at the memorial service, or in her pink suit and pillbox hat from that day in Dallas? Do we remember the Zabruder film, Walter Cronkite, or Warhol’s silkscreens? They have all melded into one, and now pop art is used as the shorthand reference material for the time.
Pop art is so much of the fiber of the time that is has come to represent the time, more than the films, the television shows, the music, or the album covers. Nothing says 1960s like pop art.
- Through Jan. 17
- Dallas Museum of Art
- 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas
- 214-922-1200, www.dma.org