Pop Art was a movement that redefined the borders of the art world by both bringing in popular culture to pristine gallery walls and exporting high art to the masses. The term ‘Pop’ itself signifies something catchy and at the same time watered down to be easily consumed by people of all social and economic backgrounds. In fact, whether or not you are a student of art history, chances are you can identify at least a couple of Pop Art’s most iconic images.
The Origins of Pop Art
Pop Art and Advertisement
Largely influenced by the proliferation of the advertising industry in mass media, Pop Art was a bold style of art that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The earliest usage of advertisements wasn’t visually appealing at all. They mostly consisted of plain black-and-white print advertorials.
But as the field of psychology crept into brand marketing, visuals and messages were becoming more savvy, eye-catching, and simplified. Bearing in mind that the point of advertisement was to influence the consumer, design was used to shape the viewer experience. The text was reduced to drive quick simplistic messages, fonts were larger and easier to read, space was given around text blocks, and illustrations were introduced to draw the eye’s attention.
The Mobiloil brand advertisement seen below is a good example of what was later to become a kind of Pop Art template. Texts with bold fonts against colored backgrounds could be quickly read while loaded words like ‘Extra Protection’, ‘Change’, and ‘Fresh’ were used to stimulate deep emotions and a call to action in the viewer.
Such mobilizing words as seen in this advertisement are then carefully subdued with the reassurance of a smiling, unthreatening man in uniform showing approval. Altogether, these elements play subtly together to act on the viewer’s subconscious. The uncomfortable parallels between advertisement and design allowed Pop Art to use the language of commercialism as a tool for social commentary.
Pop Art as Social Commentary
In addition to drawing from advertisement design and mass appeal, Pop Art also descended from surrealist art styles such as Dada, a cynical movement popular in the 1920s that rejected logic and reason for a nonsensical approach in addressing the absurd. Dada mocked the severity of contemporary Parisian high art and, more widely, the political and cultural condition that had pushed Europe to its first World War.
Whether simply as a reflection of society or as a commentary on the increasing commercialization and materialization of culture, Pop Art was characterized as a response to the postwar era’s commodity-driven ideals, frequently employing mundane objects (such as soup cans, comic strips, hamburgers, and road signs) as the subject matter or as part of the work.
The Pop Artists’ direct forefathers were American painters Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, and, Jasper Johns, who in the 1950s painted flags, beer cans, and other such things using a painterly, expressive style.
Other early twentieth-century painters that influenced Pop Art were Fernand Léger and Stuart Davis, as they recycled imagery of mass-manufacturing, precision, and commercial materials of the machine-industrial period in their paintings.
For these early painters, familiar objects painted with rough edges and blocks of color and space were used to harken to advertisement design and also serve to reflect the industrialization of culture and the rise of the working class. Pop Art takes these basic elements and then combines them with and often tongue-in-cheek humor to draw attention to the gap between the promises of the American Dream, and what is actually being ‘sold’.
Iconic Examples of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? Richard Hamilton, 1956
Richard Hamilton’s works were heavily inspired by the seduction of celebrity and the growing influence of Hollywood in American culture. His collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, depicts a living room loaded with items and ideas that, according to Hamilton, were a distraction to society, suffocating postwar awareness.
Hamilton’s works and collages at this time often included actual pieces of plastic in them to highlight the artificial nature of his representations. In this work, the viewer’s attention is captured by the figure of a bodybuilder holding a large lollipop with the word ‘POP’ written on it. As a result, it’s no surprise that this collage is sometimes referred to as the earliest example of Pop Art.
This piece in particular takes popular mainstream culture in the form of movies and books and displays it inside what seems to be home, blurring the lines of public and private spheres.
Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein is a two-canvas artwork that looks like a comic strip depicting a rocket explosion in the sky. He recreated the panel below from a DC Comic titled All-American Men of War with acrylic paint and clean, stylized lines.
As a former soldier in the American Army during WWII, Lichtenstein was fascinated with war comics and by the idea of depicting extremely heated events in this detached, planned manner. His portrayal of violence represented as fiction reveals a disturbing disassociation with violence as part of popular culture. By reappropriating violence in comic books and giving them a sleek Pop Art appeal with cleaner and sharper lines, Lichtenstein points to the absurdity of the juvenile obsession with weapons of war.
Marilyn Diptych. Andy Warhol, 1962
Andy Warhol has almost become synonymous with Pop Art. His work questioned the creative ownership of popular images, reinvented the mundane into icons, and inspired through his ‘factory‘ countless clones of himself and his mission.
Warhol’s origins stem from the world of advertisement and commercial design. In the 1950’s he worked as a commercial artist for mainstream outlets such as Vogue and Glamour Magazine. He even produced an advertisement for Mobilegas.
Warhol’s passion for pop culture and celebrity prompted him to create a large number of screen-prints portraying celebrity images, experimenting with color, reproduction, and multiplicity of variations on one image. His Marilyn Diptych has 50 photographs of Marilyn Monroe, half of which are colored and the other half are black-and-white.
Juxtaposed side by side, the high key colored cleaned-up version of the image contrasts starkly with the black and white degraded Marlyin representations. One assumption is that the bare-bones crude black layer underlies the “finished version”. In addition, pointing to the mechanical printing process itself reveals the contrived nature of image repetition, while repetition itself is seen as essential to the creation of idols.
Ironically, albeit true to Andy’s legacy, this style of idol worship through repetition and the concept of mass production of an image itself has been replicated and reproduced in both art and advertisement countless times through the years.
“I’m still a commercial artist. I was always a commercial artist.”ANDY WARHOL, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL TAYLOR, , FLASH ART, 1987
LOVE. Robert Indiana, 1967
His LOVE artworks exemplified this sort of Pop-inspired obsession with the power of everyday words in both their meaning and in their font or text form. The original LOVE painting was painted in the three primary colors of RGB (Red, Green, and Blue).
The letters forming the word were stacked above each other rather than written out, while the only variation in the font lies in the tilt of the ‘O’. By treating each letter of the word ‘Love’ individually Indiana deconstructs the popular notion of Love as a package.
Through this powerful manipulation of design, Indiana extracts his social commentary on popular culture’s relationship and commodification of love.
As one of Pop Art’s most well-known pictures, and for its plethora of meaning and maybe even misinterpretation, LOVE has lived on beyond its original artwork, and has been borrowed and reproduced in the form of tapestries, paintings, sculptures, prints, banners, stamps, rings, and other items of sentimentality.
Pop Art’s Legacy
Pop art was one of the first movements to embrace advertising and commercialism as art forms. It’s a movement that seemed to swallow up the popular trends and styles of media and commercialism into an all-encompassing visual phenomenon where images are reduced and meaning is magnified.
Although Pop Art became less popular as a ‘style’ with the introduction of installation and video art of the 1970s, its use of irony and social critique fueled later critical and conceptual works we see today.
In 2008, artist Shepard Fairey put his stamp on that year’s presidential campaign with his stylized portrait of Barak Obama. Here, Fairey walks the line between Art, Propaganda, and Advertisement using Pop Art aesthetics as his vehicle.
Fairey’s stencil interpretation of a photograph taken by Associate Press Photographer Mannie Garcia was initially displayed as a grass-roots poster and sticker, as thousands of reproductions of the work were printed and displayed to promote the emergent political icon. Eventually, the Obama Campaign endorsed the image as it became a symbol and rallying cry of the 2008 election.
Taking a closer look at Obama’s Hope image, notice something familiar?
In addition to leaving its mark on Politics, Pop Art has also come to shape our daily designs and logos. Even the sleek minimalism of Apple’s identity, as well as the clarity of the multi-colored typography in the Google homepage layout, show pop art’s impact on our visual culture.
The minimalistic design that makes Pop effective for reaching the masses also can overwhelm our senses and dull our discernment in reading the sub-contextual social commentary which may or may not be present. But nonetheless, even if we have been desensitized to Pop Art’s aesthetic, through its loudness, boldness, and repetitiveness, we are still surrounded by its impact, even if simply as passive consumers.