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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
To have begun the year as a nameless rumor and end it as the focus of a packed event at the world’s leading modern art institution was remarkable. Still, it’s hard to avoid seeing the symposium as a setup. How could the temple of pure, difficult abstract art afford to ignore the hottest thing going? The solution: Rather than plan an exhibit (as the Guggenheim was already doing), hold a one-night discussion with a stacked panel. The event’s organizer and moderator, Peter SeIz, the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture exhibitions, loathed pop and invited three more detractors: Dore Ashton, Hilton Kramer, and the poet Stanley Kunitz. This left Leo Steinberg, who was ambivalent about pop, and Geldzahler, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the panel’s only out-and-out pop advocate.
Despite the uneven sides, the symposium produced sparks. Listening to a tape recording of the evening feels like eavesdropping on history; even the printed proceedings have a palpable electricity. “Like many people at that time,” says Kramer today, “I had to wonder whether the art world was coming to an end. Certainly the whole abstract expressionist circle, Rothko, Motherwell, Gottlieb, looked upon this as the end of the world. Whether you were for it or against it, everybody felt that an enormous change had occurred.”
Sounding callow and fearful (he was only 27), Geldzahler got things rolling. “The artist is looking around again and painting what he sees,” he said. ”... There is no way of escaping the modern electronic world. It seems now that an imagery so pervasive, so insistent, had to be noticed.”
Perhaps terrified of all those Apaches, Geldzahler sought to placate his fellow panelists. The abstract expressionists had slowly and with “heroism,” he said, built an audience that could accept daring and unconventional work. Adventurous artists no longer had to suffer for years. It has often been said that pop ended the notion of the avant-garde; Geldzahler, impressively, was pointing this out as it happened.
HILTON KRAMER CALLED THE ART “PUNY,” “SLACK,” 8220;FEEBLE,” AND INADEOUATE TO THE “BRUTE VISUAL POWER” OF POPULAR CULTURE, WHICH WAS “TOO ROBUST” FOR IT.
Here came Hilton Kramer, promptly landing one of his arrows in an unlikely target. Excoriating pop’s antecedents, Kramer lit into Marcel Duchamp, unaware that the old man was in the room. Duchamp, said Kramer, was “the most overrated figure in modern art.” According to the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston, during the intermission an unperturbed Duchamp suggested that Kramer was “insufficiently lighthearted.” But Kramer’s memory is very different. A friend of his, he says, was sitting with Duchamp and told Kramer afterward that when he made his remark, Duchamp’s eyes filled with tears. Had Kramer felt remorseful? “Not at all,” he says. “I felt he had many sins to live down.”
Pop, Kramer argued, was significant only as a reaction to abstract expressionism. On its own, it amounted to almost nothing; it was art “by default, only because [it is] nothing else.” What especially irritated him (and Ashton, SeIz, and Kunitz) was its failure to transform its subject matter, its “shanghaiing of the recognizable,” as Kramer put it.
Of all the panelists, Kunitz was the most undone by pop. He represented the old-guard avant-garde that had come of age Fin the thirties and forties, staunchly Bohemian and abstractionist; seeing pop challenging both stances, he hit back as hard as he could. Bourgeois society and art had always been enemies, he said, yet pop’s “signs and slogans and stratagems come straight out of the citadel of bourgeois society, the communications stronghold where the images and desires of mass man are produced, usually in plastic” (this got a big laugh). The New York school, he said, had been “notable for its courage and selfreliance; its self-awareness . . . [and] its rich spontaneity of nervous energy. . . .” It was “an art of beginnings, misdirections, rejections, becomings, existences, solitudes, rages, transformations.” How could Kunitz feel anything but loathing for pop, slayer of his beloved abstract expressionism? He consoled himself: The new form, he said, was “neither serious nor funny enough to serve as more than a nine days’ wonder.”
Steinberg, whose lectures on modern art had packed the Modern’s auditorium not long before, looked on pop’s evident espousal of bourgeois values not with Kunitz’s Old Testament fury but ironically. Pop, said Steinberg, treated popular culture “as Duccio would treat the Madonna, Turner the Sea, Picasso the Art of Painting—that is to say, like an absolute good.” Focusing most of his remarks on Lichtenstein, Steinberg confessed to “not lik[ing]” the painter’s work; it would take time for the work’s formal virtues, if they existed, to appear. When Caravaggio and Courbet had emerged, he pointed out, their contemporaries, too, had recoiled in horror “against the incursion of too much reality.”
In leapt Kramer. Steinberg was discussing pop as though it was art, Kramer said, even though he claimed not to have made up his mind. Sure it was art, said Kramer: failed art (big laugh).
No indeed, said an aggrieved Geldzahler; pop was “an art of decisions and choices of composition,” his flustered zeal sending the audience into gales of mirth. “Roy Lichtenstein changes the comic strip he’s working from,” Geldzahler said. “I’ve seen the comic strip, I’ve seen the painting, the colors—”