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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Consumerism, Semiotics and the Landscape of Signs: Pop Art and Neo-Dada

By Alexandra A Jopp

When the Pop art movement emerged in New York 50 years ago, it immediately raised the question, what is Pop art? The most general explanation is that Pop art develops its imagery from popular and commercial culture.
In the early 1960s, “by imitating the look of mass-produced images – from comic books, newspapers, and packaging design – Pop artists began to blur the lines between commercial and avant-garde art.” Hence, American Pop Art was both a product of and a reaction to Abstract Expressionist painting. Artists like Rauschenberg presented images of the world, often drawn from the mass media, using conventional painting rather than new mediums. As the readings demonstrate, Pop art was a rebellion against established traditions in art and life and “can be seen as one of the first manifestations of Postmodernism.” It could be argued, though, that the boundaries between Pop art and Abstract art are deceptive. For instance, the best-known American Pop artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol, share with their abstract contemporaries a “sensibility to bold magnifications of simple regularized forms … to taut, brushless surfaces that often reject traditional oil techniques in favor of new industrial media … to expansive areas of flat unmodulated color.” In other words, Pop artists denied the traditional pictorial values that had been asserted by the Old Masters and replaced those sensibilities with “the directness and uncompromising mechanical look of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, Lichtenstein’s comic books, and Indiana’s signage.”

Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Oil on canvas. 137.2 x 137.2 cm / 54 x 54 inches. Collection of Agnes Gund, New York © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2004
Roy Lichtenstein, Kiss V, 1964. Magna on canvas. 36 x 36 inches. Collection Charles Simonyi, Seattle © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2003
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963. Oil and Magna on canvas. 30 x 40 inches / 76 x 102 cm. Private Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2003

Roy Lichtenstein, Image Duplicator, 1963. Magna on canvas. 61.0 x 50.8 cm / 24 x 20 inches. Collection Charles Simonyi, Seattle © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2004

Roy Lichtenstein, Half Face with Collar, 1963. Oil and Magna on canvas. 121.9 x 121.9 cm. Collection Gian Enzo Sperone, New York © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2004  

Roy Lichtenstein, ART, 1962. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 172.7 cm / 39 x 71 x 4 inches. Gordon Locksley and Dr. George T. Shea Collection, USA © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2004

Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962

Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases, Each canvas 20 x 16" (50.8 x 40.6 cm).

Andy Warhol, American, 1928-1987

"Pop Art reacted to the phenomenon of depersonalisation in mass society with styles which were equally impersonal, with pictures which had an equally objectivising effect. The media had changed the relationship between individual subjectivity and mass consciousness, and Pop Art therefore also wished to redefine the role of individuality in art" (Tilman Osterwold, Pop Art. Taschen: London, 1999: 53.)
However, the key question, as identified by the participants in a symposium on Pop art that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962, remains: Can Pop art be considered art within avant-garde artistic standards. According to some symposium participants, the analysis of Abstract art is non-representational and cannot accommodate expressionism or Dada or other Surrealist works. This kind of analysis is reminiscent of Greenberg. Considering Pop artists’ use of “low” subject matter and their uncritical treatment of it, though, one might think that most Modernist critics would have been appalled by it. Pop art moved art into an exploration of new areas and expanded the ways of presenting those areas in art. It unified artists such as Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg and others (not including Rauschenberg ) whose style, vision and quality could hardly have been more different. The one thing that they shared was subject matter.
For Rauschenberg, “There is no poor subject. A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil and fabric.” Leo Steinberg, in Excerpt from Other Criteria: The Flatbed Picture Plane, examines the differences and changes in the pre-and post-Modern image. Flatbed picture plane is the term Steinberg uses to explain Rauschenberg’s working surface. He describes it as a flat, horizontal surface on which anything can be placed. Steinberg also discusses Rauschenberg’s flatbed picture plane as a way to advance how art can interact with dimensions and space. If Rauschenberg needed a three-dimensional object, he simply added something to his surface.

Pop artists took what is often considered by art historians to be “low” art (e.g., commercial art) and turned it into “high” art. For instance, Umberto Eco in his essay “Lowbrow Highbrow, Highbrow Lowbrow,” however, suggests that the line between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” arts are very thin. In fact, he suggests that there is no such thing as “a pure lowbrow culture … for it is always infected by the dominant culture.”


  1. The Pop Art movement “uses elements of popular culture, such as magazines, movies, … and even [brand name] bottles and cans” to convey a message about the artist’s views on society. Using bold coloured paintings, soft sculptures, and printmaking, artists would create facsimiles, similar reproductions of popular merchandise and collages. The purpose was to emphasize the banality of any given mass culture. This was a response the post-war conservative society which focused on consumerism and the consumption of name-brand products. The American economy had significantly risen for the first time in 30 years which lead to the mass consumption of goods and conformity of the majority.

  2. Pop Art was essentially an American phenomenon that included European responses to the imagery of the post-war consumer culture pioneered in New York ad agencies. Like Neo-Dada, Pop Art exposed the limits of Modernism and the prevailing discourse on the aesthetics of painting. These two movements supported mixed media, mass media, hybrid objects and anti-art gestures, employing sources from popular culture, low art and advertising. Perhaps more interesting than the art was the new attitude of the artists—irreverent and business-minded, they thumbed their collective noses at the high-minded, humanist based Abstract Expressionism. But the biggest change wrought by the post Ab Ex movements was the return of representation, upending the dominance of abstract art.

  3. Hamilton's famous work, "Just What Is It that Makes Today's Home so Different, so Appealing?", is considered by many to be the first Pop piece because of its many references to popular culture and consumerism. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were some of the first Pop artists in America, and used popular imagery such as the American flag and beer cans in their paintings, prints, collages and "combines". Andy Warhol is known for his silkscreens of both famous people and everyday objects, while Roy Lichtenstein employed a comic strip style in his paintings and manipulated those illustrative techniques to great aesthetic effect. The leading Pop artists in Britain included David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, and Allen Jones.