When Pop Turned The Art World Upside Down

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“It was like a science fiction movie—,” wrote the late curator and art critic Henry Geldzahler, “you Pop artists in different parts of the city, unknown to each other, rising up out of the muck and staggering forward with your paintings in front of you.” Geldzahler’s lines, with their playful lugubriousness, were apt. When the innovators of pop embarked on their mature work, much of which was uncannily similar and all of which explored the same terrain—American consumer culture—almost none knew what any of the others were doing, or even that they existed. Pop arose spontaneously, an authentic movement, an organic response to new realities.

Geldzahler’s zombies-from-hell imagery, moreover, perfectly captured the art establishment’s horrified reaction to pop’s inexorable rise. Pop shocked the shockers: the avant-garde, the entrenched, self-appointed keepers of the gate between high and low culture. It was the first postmodernist art, its principles a departure from the tried-and-true humanism of even such a radical genre as its predecessor abstract expressionism. In its levelling instinct, it helped lay the groundwork for the upheavals that would define the sixties. Critically savaged as lightweight ("mindless” was the usual characterization), it was, in fact, knottily complex, its essence and nuances discernible only in retrospect.

Unlike abstract expressionism, which had spent decades underground before winning widespread recognition, pop zoomed to pre-eminence within two or three years, climaxing its rise in the last two months of 1962. “The new vulgarians,” as one hostile writer dubbed its practitioners, took the art world by storm.

In 1960, Andy Warhol, at 31 one of New York’s most successful fashion illustrators, rebelled against the fey good taste of his advertising work and began filling his Upper East Side studio with big, stark, intentionally banal paintings. He took his subjects from the lower reaches of popular culture: comic books, and later tabloids like the New York Daily News and movie-star publicity photos. As clever as he was ambitious, Warhol knew that nothing would enrage the art world—and gain its full attention—more than imagery originally created for the base amusement of lowbrows.

 
 
 
 
 

Meanwhile, out in the Jersey suburbs, the 37year-old Roy Lichtenstein, a Rutgers University art professor, was smuggling comic-strip characters into his otherwise unremarkable abstractions when it hit him: Why not make paintings that look just like comic books? And in a loft in lower Manhattan, a 27-year-old former North Dakotan named James Rosenquist came home every night from his job as a Times Square billboard painter, his mind reeling from staring at 50-foot Pepsodent smiles and whitewall tires from a foot away. He transferred his fragmentary images onto canvas, jarringly juxtaposed.

All around the city, artists were suddenly obsessed with popular culture. Claes Oldenburg, born in Sweden in 1929 and raised in Chicago, lived on the Lower East Side, a sculptor and onetime journalist. “I am for an art that is politicalerotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” he declared in a 1961 manifesto, one of the great pieces of writing by a contemporary artist. In December of that year, he filled his East Second Street studio with brightly paint-splattered, eccentrically shaped plaster replicas of dime-store merchandise, christened it the Store, and declared it open for business.

Everything in the Store—shoes, pants, shirts, dresses, hats, ladies’ lingerie, ties, pies, cakes, fried eggs, sandwiches, candy bars and more—was for sale at prices ranging from $21.79 for an oval mirror to $899.95 for a statue of a bride. Behind its grubby facade, “the Store” was a complex entity, an indication of the metaphysical sleights of hand about art, life, and their interaction that would characterize pop. It was an art gallery filled with wonderful pieces; it was a neighborhood store—of sorts—where you could walk in, browse, buy, or shoot the breeze with the genial if opinionated proprietor; and it was a philosophical critique of the division between art and life, an effort to wrest art from its pedestal: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap . . . [that is as] heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”

Reviewing the Store for Arts magazine, Sidney Tillim wrote the first American article on the emerging tendency, coining a lofty name for its creators: “In mass man and his artifacts, . . . the New American Dreamer . . . finds the content that at once refreshes his visual experience and opens paths beyond the seemingly exhausted alternatives of abstraction. . . .” Almost at once, the names proliferated: Commonism, Popular Realism, AntiSensibility Painting, the New Sign Painting, Factualism, Common Object Art. “Pop,” which didn’t come into use until later in 1962, had been coined in 1958 by an English critic. An English pop movement actually preceded America’s but lacked the latter’s fiery energy, just as a group of California pop-related artists never produced anything to rival the New Yorkers’ powerful icons.