POP ART AND AFTER
In England the interest in "pop art," as it has been called during the past year, has been quite unprecedented. In view of the fact that its exponents are very young, i.e. in their early twenties, the general enthusiasm for their work has been something of an event. Today when we speak of "pop art," we don't think of the original meaning implied when the term was first invented nearly ten years ago.
Contrary to general belief, pop art did not come from the U.S.A., it was born in England. Lawrence Alloway first coined the phrase "pop art" in 1954, and his exact definition of what it meant was very different from the meaning ascribed to it now. When Alloway spoke of "pop art" he meant: advertisements in glossy magazines, posters outside cinemas, leaflets, pamphlets, all give-away literature forcefully communicating a single message. He meant, in fact, the whole paraphernalia of public art - art made by the few for the many, not for its own sake but for the sake of what seems to be naively speaking, an ulterior motive. Thus, pop art accompanied one during breakfast, on the way to work, during one's leisure hours and it infiltrated its way into one's dreams, forcibly and inevitably. Had Alloway, instead of using the term "pop art" coined another phrase, say, "visual pop kicks," or "mass pop samples," the controversy which involves the use of the word "art" with veneration for traditional meaning, instead of assigning to it a completely new significance, the current revival of figurative painting in England would have been called something else. Perhaps it would have been called "big city folk art."
In 1952 in London, a group of young artists, writers and architects used to meet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts for discussions and lectures. In order to stress their affiliation with the avant garde, and with history in the making rather than with that already set down in books, they called themselves the Independent Group. Among them were Peter Reyner Banham, Richard Hamilton, Lawrence Alloway, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Nigel Henderson, Sandy Wilson, Edward Wright, Toni del Renzio, John McHale, Theo Crosby, Alison and Peter Smithson, John Voelcke, Jim Stirling, and others. The subjects discussed by the group included philosophy, science, and later, cyber netics, information theory, communications, mass media, fashion, "pop" music and industrial design. The first convenor of the group, 1952/53, was Reyner Banham. In 1954 Alloway and McHale became joint convenors, and by 1955 the talks included such subjects as violence in the cinema, by Alloway, and American automobile styling, by Reyner Banham; ensuing discussions took place in 1952, when Eduardo Paolozzi showed what he then called "found images," projected on a screen. The "found images" consisted mostly of advertising material which, when isolated and enlarged, seemed to acquire a new meaning and a new significance. Later the architect Peter Smithson also organised a similar evening using publicity material. The first exhibition to make use of this sort of subject matter took place in 1953 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts under the title "Parallel of Life and Art," and was organised by Paolozzi and Smithson.
The preoccupation of the group with mass media was a socially significant sign. A new sort of respectability descended on such lightweight and intellectually undemanding material as science fiction and cowboy movies. The very notion of culture changed before one's eyes, and time hitherto afforded for the discussion of a "Western." The unlimited communication assailing one in the form of radio, television, reading matter, had forced its way into one's consciousness and could not be ignored. In 1955, John McHale went to the U.S.A. and when he came back some months later he brought with him a trunk full of glossy magazines: Esquire, Mad, Playboy, etc. These provided much material for discussion. At the time the group looked to America as the source of a new and unexpected inspiration, as a romantic land with an up-to-date culture, a hotbed of new sensibility in art.
One person on whom the glossy American literature made a tremendous impact was Richard Hamilton, who later became the initiator of "pop art" in England. Hamilton's definition of pop art was rather different from Alloway's. Whereas Alloway did not envisage pop art as fine art at all, nor as anything that called upon one's really creative instincts. Hamilton used the term to describe the sort of source material the artist was drawing on in making his own imagery, which was creative in every sense of the word.
The first piece of work in pop art idiom (according to Hamilton's definition) was shown in 1956 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in an exhibition called "This is Tomorrow." The exhibition set out to show the possibilities of collaboration between an architect, a painter and a sculptor in making a visually meaningful environment. The exhibition included twelve sections designed and prepared by twelve different teams which included three or four people each. It was an attempt to draw the viewer into a work of art as an environment, rather than to show him an objet de virtu on the mantelpiece. The exhibition aimed at destroying the notion that art is precious and sacrosanct, and set out to present it as a space in which the viewer becomes involved and implicated. Accompanied by complicated and longwinded statements, pronouncements, and all the other items that traditionally go with the making of manifestos, the exhibition made its point that art was an integral part of life. As an art event, "This is Tomorrow" was a real shot in the arm, but the stand which was long remembered as the most extraordinary and strange was designed by Richard Hamilton, John McHale, and John Voelcke (architect). Hamilton wrote in the catalogue: "We resist the kind of activity which is primarily concerned with the creation of style. We reject the notion that 'tomorrow' can be expressed through the presentation of rigid formal concepts. Tomorrow can only extend the range of the present body of visual experience. What is needed is not a definition of meaningful imagery but the development of our perceptive potentialities to accept and utilise the continual enrichment of visual material."
Hamilton contributed a pop art collage of which a very large photostatted version dominated the entrance to the exhibition. The items in the collage included cut-outs of glamour girls, a strip cartoon, tape recorder, vacuum cleaner, tinned food, television, advertisements, furniture, and a muscle-man in the centre holding an object in the shape of a lolly-pop with "pop" written on it in large letters.
Courbet said a hundred years ago that "an artist must concern himself with his own time." When Hamilton on January 16th, 1957 wrote down a definition of what pop art is and what it can contain, he was following Courbet's dictum.
pop art is -popular (designed for a mass audience)
transient (short term solution)
expendable (easily forgotten)
young (aimed at youth)
In his own work Hamilton combined the formal cliches of glamour anthology (be it feminine, masculine, appertaining to a city or a motorbike) with abstract considerations of pictorial structure. Typical of his early and recent work is that nothing happens in his painting-collages without a clearly defined reason or a discernible source. For instance, if one may wonder about the significance of a row of dotted lines appearing in the picture it is certain that their presence is not incidental or of a purely pictorial function, but that they had appeared in some other form in an advertisement or a poster from which some other section of the painting had originated. In a strange sort of way one could assign to Hamilton the function of an editor who collects material and quotations and later transforms them into something else, without ever forgetting their original source or function. Basically all his elements, however disparate they may seem, are related at source. His paintings have always been characterised by exactitude and precision, and the only ambiguity from advertising and publicity material to Hamilton's paintings is never explicit.
One might ask: what has Chrysler Corporation to do with an artist living and working in London who has, moreover, never been to the States? When Hamilton painted his Hommage a Chrysler Corp., which was, in fact, his second pop art painting, he had simply made a statement about the presence of new demi-gods that the post-war generation of artists had elected. If Hamilton was living in Yugoslavia he might have painted an homage to Ford. However, living in England where Ford is a common commodity, he chose as the subject for his homage a car manufacturing corporation that epitomised the ethos of a country he had never visited. He was painting an imaginary representation of something that was essentially an unknown quantity and that carried the romantic associations of a materialistic heaven.
In 1960, at the annual Young Contemporaries exhibition held in London - which contains the work of art students submitted from the whole of Great Britain - a group of young painters who were at that time students at the Royal College of Art showed a number of works which included allusions to pop art imagery. Their preoccupation with figuration was a violent departure from the abstract tendencies of the generation immediately before them. The three most important influences evident in the work of these young artists were R. B. Kitaj (an older student at the Royal College who was preoccupied with historical and social events as sources for his imagery), Richard Hamilton, and Peter Blake (an ex-College student who had created a personal, romantic art form in which he incorporated Victorian valentines, dolls, mementos of the music hall and likenesses of popular vocalists). The group of young painters asserted their position firmly within one year, and at the end of 1961 their work created a considerable amount of interest in the John Moores Liverpool biennial. The "pop art" title was bandied about in connection with these young painters, although it soon became quite clear that they resented it. Among those working in this new figurative idiom who had so quickly distinguished themselves were: Derek Boshier, David Hockney, Brian Wright, Anna Teasdale, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips, Howard Hodgkin, Norman Toynton, Pauline Boty, John Bostead, and others.
There are several reasons why the title pop art is a misnomer when applied to them collectively. First of all, their social consciousness is fairly dormant - that is, with the exception of Boshier - and if they incorporate such pop art elements into their work as advertisements, pin-ups, targets, toothpaste, bikinis, motorbikes and newspapers, their treatment of these elements is almost purely romantic. Yet, to present these artists collectively as the new English romantic movement would be equally erroneous, for the name does not take into account the spirit of whimsy with which so much of the work is imbued. In a recent exhibition in which six of the above mentioned painters took part at the Grabowski Gallery, their statements (which appeared in the catalogue) clearly indicated that the paintings were based on personal experiences translated in a very obvious and direct way. The intellectual process which transposes events into symbols, metaphors, or geometry is totally absent. Instead, the emotional response to environment takes over, magnifying those elements which have had the greatest impact on the artist, and ignoring others which, incidentally, may have a greater universal significance. A modern fable has emerged which has been endorsed by these young artists. A myth in which the real princess is not discovered as in Andersen's tale by her sensitivity to a dried pea that was placed under the tenth mattress, but by her ability to answer the question why one should use toothpaste brand A rather than brand B, without actually believing in her reply. Glamour, advertising, a certain amount of cynicism, are all public commodities which have been turned into private dreams and fantasies.
In one sense, one could refer to the work produced by these artists as urban folk art. And indeed the essential quality of folk art is often persistent, but whereas folk art is made by the many for the many, the elements of pop art (such as publicity material) are made for mass consumption by the few. The artist too is a consumer. The consumer of brand goods as well as of easily obtained and cheap entertainment, which allow him to enter into the spirit of the time without involving such issues as politics, economics, social problems, and religion. With the exception of Boshier, who has painted very few pictures that did not bear references to the space race, the others have solely made use of entertainment-industry topics, or of such pedestrian articles as playing cards, newspapers, disc sleeves, games, etc., which are then imbued with that particular spirit of irreverence characteristic of all these paintings.
Derek Boshier with his rainbows, pin ball machines, guns, and little pink figures inevitably turning into inanimate objects and shapes, has been concerned more with the social significance of events, and for this reason his work is concerned with rather more serious issues than that of the others. Amna Teasdale in her fragmented paintings with references to an industrial city life has quoted visual images from reality, which like pieces of jig-saw puzzle fit into a routine of somebody's life. In her subject matter she comes closest to the preoccupation with social realism of painters like John Bratby and Jack Smith some six years ago. Peter Philips has taken the whole gamut of the colours and symbols of the fair; from its pot-luck and brashness be has created fantasies that are now rather distant from the themes which first inspired them. Howard Hodgkin has presented modern man with Victorian pomposity. He has made a melodrama out of nothing, conveying the ridicule of a man who despite the number of layers of clothing he wears is always naked inside and always vulnerable. Specialising in the literary translation of imaginary events which are usually triggered off by some personal escapade is David Hockney, who has already had a considerable amount of success in London. His paintings have the irresistibility of allusions to passion in the form of small tokens and shared secrets.
Nothing very dangerous, but just sufficiently naughty for the viewer to get the feeling of conspiracy. Hockney's special kind of whimsy presents the fears and hopes that most people have but lack either the language or the coherence to voice. With a certain amount of self-indulgence, Hockney has touched our sensibilities with strange accuracy. Allen Jones's allusions to real events are very tenuous. In the painting entitled The Battle of Hastings he makes reference, through symbols, to a state of tension. The title refers simply to the preoccupation of his students at the time he was painting the picture with that particular historical event. In his Bikini Baby the process of fragmentation has left only a suggestion of what might or could have happened to the theme. This is a good example of literary theme being lost through the process of pictorial presentation. Norman Toynton has translated such symbolic events as The Temptation of St. Anthony into purely personal and subjective experiences. Often the events in the story are presented simultaneously within one canvas and occasionally supplemented by written comments. Brian Wright's paintings have contained rather more cryptic references to outside happenings. One of his best works was based on the theme of a recurrent nightmare in which two elements, a flower and a rock, became the symbols of menace.
What is interesting about these young artists, who lack neither courage nor eloquence, is that they say neither No or Yes to the world. They don't accept things as they are, they make fun of them, they make use of them out of context, but they don't rebel against anything. They have made use of every scrap of information, news, emotion, publicity, bad luck, etc., that comes their way. Like hungry animals they have swallowed the world wholesale, and quickly forgetting its meaning they continue to lead their own lives and to play their own games.
This art must be taken at its face value, because a search for deeper meaning would be fruitless at the moment. So far, the contribution of these artists is a sly irony, well-aimed whimsy, and some individual talent. The new figuration movement which has captured the public eye to such an extent is still in the embryo stage. Only the next ten years will tell whether something exceptional can emerge from art under this much used and misused heading, pop art.