- Historic Sites
When Pop Turned The Art World Upside Down
Andy Warhol and friends oversaw the death of a centuries-old tradition and the birth of the postmodern.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
ANDY WARHOL SOLD THE 32 PAINTINGS OF SOUP CANS IN HIS FIRST EXHIBITION FOR $1,000; BY 1996 THE GROOP WAS VALUED AT $15 MILLION.
Lichtenstein, too, rebelled into impersonality. Copying a comic-strip frame by hand, he put the copy into a projector and traced the magnified image onto a canvas for the outline of his painting. His trademark Ben Day dots (the tiny dots used by printers and cartoonists for shading) made his canvases look printed, not painted. “I wanted to look programmed,” he told an interviewer. The hand, bearer of individuality, was fetishized by abstract expressionism. Pop slapped it away.
By the time pop arrived, the New York school had already taken some hits. To oversimplify, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had reintroduced real-world content into avant-garde painting. Weakened or not, abstract expressionism kept its hold on artists’ imaginations. So when Warhol and Lichtenstein started experimenting with comic-book imagery in 1960, each dutifully daubed his canvases with abstract smudges, swirls, and drips. “You can’t do a painting without a drip,” Warhol told his early supporter Ivan Karp in 1961. One evening in mid1960, Warhol showed his friend Emile de Antonio two paintings of Coca-Cola bottles, one half-covered with drips, the other drip-free. De Antonio told him: “Come on, Andy, the abstract one is a piece of shit, the other one is remarkable. It’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other.” Yet even after de Antonio’s verdict, Warhol couldn’t find it in himself to abandon the drip for another year.
Clement Greenberg and most of the abstract expressionists had always maintained a rigidly elitist stance toward vernacular culture. In his most famous essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg called pop culture “ersatz culture . . . destined for those who are insensible to the value of genuine culture.” By 1960 Greenberg’s kitsch—television, advertising, magazines, movies, and other mass media—had lodged itself deeply in America’s consciousness. Media-generated imagery was too urgent, too omnipresent, for artists to ignore. Like the Beats a few years earlier, the pop artists were discovering America. Driving through the commercial bustle of the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street in 1960, Claes Oldenburg felt “that I had discovered a new world. I began wandering through stores- all kinds and all over—as though they were museums. I saw the objects displayed in windows and on counters as precious works of art.” But the best pop passage about encountering America comes from that unlikely wanderer in the heartlands, Warhol.
“The farther West we drove,” he wrote, describing an earlysixties cross-country trip, “the more Pop everything looked on the highways. Suddenly we all felt like insiders because even though Pop was everywhere—that was the thing about it, most people still took it for granted, whereas we were dazzled by it—to us, it was the new Art. Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again. . . . I was lying on the mattress in the back of our station wagon looking up at the lights and wires and telephone poles zipping by, and the stars and the blue-black sky. ... I didn’t ever want to live anyplace where you couldn’t drive down the road and see drive-ins and giant ice cream cones and walk-in hot dogs and motel signs flashing!” Pop reveled in America, but not, like Whitman, in the nobility of the multitudes. Pop reveled in America’s supermarkets. In its magazines and TV shows, in its rising tide of commodities.
Pop arrived on October 31, 1962. This is only a slight exaggeration, for not only was the big “New Realists” show, which opened on that day, spectacular in itself, but the show’s location had special significance. The Sidney Janis Gallery on East Fifty-seventh Street was, as Harold Rosenberg put it, “the leading emporium of American abstract art.” Less than a decade earlier, it had been Sidney Janis’s backing that had legitimized the New York school in the eyes of the world. In 1962 the gallery still represented most of the major abstract expressionists, including Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell, Adolf Gottlieb, and Philip Guston. Depending on one’s perspective, the “New Realists” show was either a betrayal or a housecleaning; in either case, “the show was an implicit proclamation,” as Thomas Hess, editor of Art News , wrote, “that the new had arrived and it was time for the fogies to pack.”
Janis, a hot-jazz enthusiast, one-time vaudeville dancer, and self-taught art scholar with several books to his credit, invited a whopping 54 artists: 12 were American (including Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Rosenquist, Warhol, Wesselmann, Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Wayne Thiebaud, and George Segal), 7 French, 5 Italian, 3 English, and 2 Swedish. His gallery couldn’t hold all this art, so he rented an empty store across Fifty-seventh Street and filled the window with Oldenburg’s garishly painted ladies’ underwear from the Store, a touch of dumpy Orchard Street on soigné Fifty-seventh.