When Pop Turned The Art World Upside Down

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That May, when the first mass-media overview of pop appeared (a neutral to dismissive feature in Time ), “pop artists” were still an undifferentiated bunch, bit players like MeI Ramos lumped in with future superstars. As the year progressed, the latter emerged: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Oldenburg. Tom Wesselmann was often included in that list; today, he is usually omitted. In fact, two painters, Warhol and Lichtenstein, made almost all the essential pop artworks, and to take things even further, Warhol’s work and pithy remarks come close to defining pop by themselves.

In July, Warhol finally had his first solo exhibition, but in Los Angeles, far from the pacesetting world of Fifty-seventh Street. At Irving Blum’s Perus Gallery, he showed 32 paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, one for every flavor. A nearby gallery filled its front window with Campbell’s cans and a sign that said: “Buy them cheaper here.” Warhoi sold the set to Blum for $1,000; in 1996, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired it, the group was valued at $15 million.

Oldenburg introduced his enormous “soft sculptures” (a six-foot hamburger, an eight-foot ice cream cone, and other majestically inflated items) in September at the Green Gallery. A half-dozen other pop shows were scheduled for the fall, all at prestigious venues. “The art galleries are being invaded by the pinheaded and contemptible style of gumchewers, bobby-soxers and worse, delinquents,” wrote Max Kozloff in Arts International .

Until pop arrived, vanguard American art had fought its battles in private. “Up through the fifties and even in the early sixties,” Hilton Kramer says, “the New York galleries showing serious art you could count on the fingers of two hands. By the end of the sixties, the number of galleries had increased by four or five hundred percent. Pop art not only changed the tone of the art world, it changed its size.”

Mass-circulation magazines may have peered under abstract expressionism’s lid from time to time, as Life did with its famous 1949 Jackson Pollock article, but the passions of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, or Pollock, for that matter, were too arcane for steady coverage. Pop, on the other hand, lent itself easily to glib phrasemaking. The national magazines and big newspapers picked up on it as soon as, or even sooner than, the art journals. But their response was overwhelmingly disparaging; if the mass media helped pop to prominence, it was through their energetic contempt. After a few tentative forays, Time and Newsweek roared out in high, superficial dudgeon, scandalized and loving it, and long after pop had entered the mainstream, the newsmagazines lost few opportunities to pillory these . . . these . . . these . . . Who the hell are these guys? They’re artists all right—con artists!

The new art was a response to two forces, abstract expressionism and the postwar explosion of popular culture. Rebelling against the first, it embraced the second. In the mid-fifties, after years of rejection, the abstract expressionists, or New York school—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and their colleagues—had finally prevailed. For the first time in history, American painters were recognized as the dominant force in international art. As the art historian and critic Leo Steinberg puts it, the New York school “was the first American cultural product after jazz to really conquer the world.”

All too quickly, abstract expressionism became art-world dogma, its tenets vigilantly enforced by the critic who had played as big a role in formulating the style as the artists themselves. Clement Greenberg disparaged any deviation from the abstractionist straight-and-narrow. Reference to the outside world was a serious lapse; the painter didn’t represent physical objects, he objectified inner states. A painting was produced spontaneously, unfolding in response to itself, and the successful painting expressed the artist’s individuality in every brushstroke, every drip.

Against this backdrop, Warhol’s famous remark that he wanted to be a machine takes on its proper meaning. It’s not a statement of alienation, or a death wish; it was Warhol, the young Turk, baiting the New York school. Nor was it just talk. Warhol’s found imagery infuriated the abstract expressionists, with their stress on originality. He made multiple copies of a painting—another outrage, this time against the emphasis on uniqueness. Taking on spontaneity, he planned everything ahead of time. What mattered was choosing the right image; as Warhol often said, anyone could do the actual work on his paintings. Almost all his ideas—ready-made imagery, mechanical procedures, mass production, de-emphasis of spontaneity, and an emphasis on impersonality—were darts hurled at abstract expressionism.