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
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.”