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Art: Pop Art – Cult of the Commonplace

8 minute read

Obeying the occult rules of what’s “in,” decorous little teen-aged girls from fashionable Manhattan schools must this spring climb, white-sneakered, to the top spiral of the Guggenheim Museum. Low-voiced and appreciative, they stand there taking notes for essays on an enormous painting that has an all-over pattern of gooey brown and a row of real, 3-in. buttons running down the middle. It is called Coat. The girls do not laugh. Coat is pop art. And pop art, much as it may outrage Pop, not to mention Grandpop, is the biggest fad since art belonged to Dada. Symposiums discuss it; art magazines debate it; galleries compete for it. Collectors, uncertain of their own taste, find pop art paintings ideal for their chalk-walled, low-ceilinged, $125,000 co-op apartments in new buildings on Park Avenue. Even Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art has bought a pop art sculpture called Dual Hamburger.

Butterscotch Pie. Hamburger is an admirable choice; it embodies all the values of pop art—which is essentially a mild, unrebellious comment on the commonplace made by picturing it without any pretense of taste or orthodox technical skill. It is nothing new to transform nonart materials into works of art; but seldom have artists been so willing to forgo the transforming. They may paint a soup can and enlarge or repeat it; but the can remains a can, designed by the Campbell Soup Co. In defense, Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann says, “Objects like Coke bottles have powers. Brand products are here to stay.” Ten, 20 or 50 years ago, any artist would have been snubbed from 5th Street to the Left Bank for such unimaginative, unintellectual literalism; most of the leaders of abstract expressionism can’t swallow it; but profit-minded galleries and collectors of whatever’s new are off and running with it.

Satire, or a bit of wit, might have given pop art a certain charm. But the pop artists do not expose the vulgar; they merely exploit it, down to the last pecan-covered butterscotch pie.

A group of British intellectuals, including Curator Lawrence Alloway of the Guggenheim Museum, coined the term pop art back in 1956 to describe how certain serious artists were incorporating images from TV, movies and other forms of popular art into their work. But until a few galleries began picking them up, U.S. pop artists were barely aware of one another. Today, they are the new bandwagon; and since the avant-garde public is so hungry for more and more avant, the pop artists are in the chips. Wesselmann can sell a collage for $2,500; a Claes Oldenburg Floorburger is priced at $2,000; and JarLes Rosenquist can fetch as much as $7,500 for a painting.

“It is the most important art movement in the world today.” says Pop Art Collector Philip Johnson, whose architecture is the essence of elegance. ”It is a very sharp reaction against abstract expressionism, and as such, it is a great relief to see, because we recognize the pretty girls and the pop bottles.” But Surrealist Painter Max Ernst, who belonged to the Dada movement, hoots down such paeans: “It is just some feeble bubbles of flat Coca-Cola, which I consider less than interesting and rather sad”

Off the Billboard. The nude in Wesselmann’s Great American Nude might have been done by a distant—very distant—relative of Henri Matisse. But only a pop artist would insert her between a panorama photograph of a city and a bed of red and white stripes straight from Old Glory. Wesselmann, 32, talks a good deal about the “esthetic relationship” between what is painted in a collage and the object that is stuck onto it, but his esthetics often turn out to be a bag of raucous gimmicks that merely assault the nerves. He pictures one of his nudes with a real TV set, and he once put a telephone into a collage in order to “make it come alive when the phone rings.”

James Rosenquist, 29, used to paint billboards, where he found that “sometimes things get so close that they disappear, and only the strength of the arabesque is left.” In Lines, for instance, the background is a woman’s face over which swirl images that might be in her mind. Rosenquist uses space “to bring about mystery,” and however billboardlike his technique, the mystery is there.

If there is any mystery in the work of Claes Oldenburg, 34, the son of a former Swedish consul general, it is in his extraordinary explanations for doing what he does. He calls his giant Floorburger a “metaphor of the human body” because its skin feels a bit like flesh and it is an object that only a human being would create. “I create forms from a living situation: a hamburger is something a living form would create.”

What Is Art? Roy Lichtenstein, 39, is best known for blown-up comic strips full of POWS, BLAMS, and unfinished quotes in big balloons. He says that such things are not done so easily as they seem. Though he uses real comic strips as models, he does not copy them exactly; there is enough change so that he can claim to impose his own order on them. This, he says, makes the viewer “wonder what the original was. It brings out the question, ‘What is art?’ ” Indeed it does.

Lichtenstein should ask it of himself more often, and so should Jim Dine, 27. When Dine builds up paint into outsize neckties, suspenders or coats, he says he is after “a personal statement, memories. I am interested in things that have happened and have to be recorded.” Just what the urgency of such memories is is hard to figure out, but Dine switches projects with every season. He has made a painting out of a green-spattered lawnmower, has exhibited in Europe a whole series of tools. He has also produced bathrooms.

Robert Rauschenberg, 37, remembers an art teacher who “taught me to think ‘Why not?’ ” Since Rauschenberg is considered to be a pioneer in pop art, this is probably where the movement went off on its particular tangent. Why not make art out of old newspapers, bits of clothing, Coke bottles, books, skates, clocks? “A painting is not art simply because it is made of oil and paint or because it is on canvas,” Rauschenberg argues. He also uses waste materials because, with Manhattan being torn down and built up, “this is our landscape, and I love it.”

In making his “combines”—works that involve combinations of painting, college and construction—Rauschenberg shows himself to be a man of ingenuity and imagination. “Every minute,” he says, “is an assemblage of materials and conflicting ideas and desires.” It is this feeling that Rauschenberg tries to catch in his art: all the crossfires of a split second bashed together into a single, isolated work. The fact that many viewers find Rauschenberg’s materials ugly baffles him. “When they find so much ugliness and lack of interest in the things around them, I wonder how they get through their miserable days.”

Which Is the Flag? Jasper Johns, 32, is, along with Rauschenberg, a dean of the movement. His paintings have a beauty that is rare in pop art. In his early flag paintings, he was concerned with the elusive borderline between reality and art, that moment of ambiguity when an object could be either or both. The flag posed a problem: “You don’t see it because you are busy knowing it is a flag.” The problem was to turn it into “a visual situation only. How could it be altered so that it could become a painting?” Sometimes, Johns painted the flag in its normal colors, and the flag became flag first and then painting. Sometimes he made it all grey or all white, and made the painting appear first. He was also mesmerized by the seeming permanency of the flag: “I stopped painting it when they changed the number of stars.”

Of all the artists, Andy Warhol. 31, best plays the part of what a pop artist might expectably be. In his studio, a single pop tune may blare from his phonograph over and over again. Movie magazines, Elvis Presley albums, copies of Teen Pinups and Teen Stars Albums litter the place. Warhol is known for his literal renditions of soup cans, his rows of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Troy Donahue. He stencils them onto the canvas by the silk-screen process, then touches in the colors. Though the result can be excruciatingly monotonous, the apparently senseless repetition does have the jangling effect of the syllabic babbling of an infant—not Dada, but dadadadadadadada. In his own way, Warhol is perhaps the truest son of the age of automation. “Paintings are too hard,” he says. “The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?”

Obviously, most people want to be human beings and to look at human art. Pop art has exposed as rarely before the wholesale gullibility of the kind of people who fear that unless they embrace every passing novelty they will some day be labeled Philistine.

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