- 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
Of Janis’s abstract expressionist artists, only de Kooning came to the opening, pacing up and down in front of the paintings for two hours and leaving without a word. Later that evening, at an opening-night soirée thrown by the wealthy collector Burton Tremaine, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, Rosenquist, and Indiana were all being served drinks by uniformed maids when de Kooning appeared in the doorway. “Oh, so nice to see you,” said Tremaine, who owned a number of de Koonings. “But please, at any other time.”
“It was a shock to see de Kooning turned away,” Rosenquist recalled. “At that moment I thought, something in the art world has definitely changed.” Within days of the opening, Janis’s abstract expressionists held a meeting, at which all but de Kooning voted to leave.
It was a classic Oedipal situation, the pop upstarts eager to supplant their elders. When a Newsweek reporter asked Warhoi how he felt about abstract expressionism, the painter responded with an exquisite put-down: “I love the New York school, but I never did any abstract expressionism—I don’t know why, it’s so easy.” Oh so innocently, Warhol was waving a red flag at the abstract expressionists, whose fury lasted. Years after pop’s heyday, Warhol spotted de Kooning at a party in the Hamptons. Approach- ing the older man, Warhol held out his hand. “You’re a killer of art,” de Kooning screamed. “You’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter! I can’t bear your work!”
A less harrowing abstract expressionist-pop encounter occurred between Adolf Gottlieb and an Oldenburg soft telephone. Hilton Kramer tells the story. “Gott-lieb was at a party at some wealthy Upper East Side home. [How much of the cultural history of the sixties didn’t happen at parties?] At the end of the party, everyone was putting their coats on. Someone pointed to an Oldenburg vinyl telephone on the table and asked if it worked, and Gottlieb said, ‘Yeah. Pick it up and a voice says, “Hello, schmuck."'”
Despite Sidney Janis’s efforts to cast “new Realism” in a global light, the Americans dominated the show. The Europeans, Thomas Hess wrote, “look feeble in this line-up. Some Englishmen do comic strips that try to say ‘WOW but can only manage the equivalent of ‘Coo, matey.'” WarhoPs contributions to the show were Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19¢ , the huge six-byeight-foot 200 Soup Cans , and Do It Yourself (Flowers) , one of his appropriated paint-by-numbers exercises. Lichtenstein showed the fighter-pilot canvas Blam! and The Refrigerator , a woman’s smiling face looming alongside her new icebox. Rosenquist chose I Love You With My Ford and Silver Skies , and Oldenburg, aside from his lingerie, showed some of the Store’s ersatz pastry.
The critical response was heated, voluminous, and overwhelmingly negative. In The New Yorker , Harold Rosenberg wrote of “appetite-wrecking collations” (that would be Oldenburg’s pastries), “contrivances,” and “misplaced home furnishings, advertisements, and comic strips.” The outspokenly conservative Hilton Kramer, zinging thunderbolts from The Nation , called the art “puny,” “slack,” “feeble,” and inadequate to the “brute visual power” of popular culture, which was “too robust” for it. But as every open-eyed observer realized, “New Realists” was a turning point. Not only did it represent the dethroning of the abstract expressionists, but it generated an immense amount of publicity, sending out shock waves to every major museum and gallery in the country and many overseas.
The timing of Warhol’s first New York show, at the Stable Gallery, was perfect: It came a week after the Janis opening and quickly sold out (even if the well-known art historian Dore Ashton called Warhol “witless” and the Stable show “the sine qua non of vulgarism"). Each of pop’s major protagonists- Oldenburg, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, and Warhol—had now made his New York debut, to progressively more noise.
On December 13, the term “pop art” was officially introduced. The occasion was a “Symposium on Pop Art” organized by the Museum of Modern Art. Present in the packed house were, as Henry Geldzahler said, “many idols and sacred monsters": John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Leo Castelli (soon to become pop’s leading dealer), Janis, the collectors Robert and Ethel Scull, and a figure many were blaming for pop: Marcel Duchamp, the founder of Dada. The audience was more hostile than sympathetic; Ivan Karp said he felt “surrounded by Apaches.”