The 1963-64 art season in New York, which began on schedule after Labor Day and, on schedule, will soon droop into summer hibernation, definitely belonged to something new called "Pop art."
"Something new" is a description that not everyone would accept. Some of Pop's critics think it is really just something old (commercial art) dusted off and jazzed up, while others think it is just something borrowed (the Dada movement of the nineteen-twenties) without much change. And undeniably, Pop can get pretty blue - in the showbiz sense of designating an off-color gag.
But whatever Pop art is - its patrons and practitioners are still haggling over definitions - it has arrived and gives every sign of staying around at least for a little while. Whether or not Pop is a new art, and whether or not it can last, it has supplied a new bandwagon. And in the art circus as it operates today, that is the final accolade of success.
Four or five years ago, Pop was not much more than a rumor up and down Madison Avenue. About three years ago, during a series of kittenish feints with the established avant-garde, it suddenly bared fangs that scared the living daylights out of the most quick-eyed members of a group of artists who until then had felt firmly entrenched as the Latest Thing. A couple of years ago, it demonstrated that even those fangs had been only its baby teeth and during the past season it has had things pretty much its own way.
Pop's list of converts is impressive, at least in numbers. Collectors who used to say "It's fine as entertainment, but who could ever live with it?" are now buying it, although from the looks of their apartments they may soon have to move out. Chronically advanced critics, who at first just couldn't see Pop, are making the shift (as quickly as dignity will allow) to a more sympathetic second look, rather than stay behind with their formerly avant-garde protégés who have become has-beens overnight. And the two artists who seem most to have anticipated the movement - Robert Rauschenberg, only 39, and Jasper Johns, only 34 - have already been canonized in massive retrospectives as Pop's old masters.
This summer, the American section of the Venice Biennale, which is the established barometer for that combination of sales market and critical market that dictates current esthetic values, is heavily loaded with Pop art.
The New York State pavilion at the World's Fair, potentially the most influential piece of architecture in the place, includes Pop art among the decorative murals and sculpture on the exterior of its theater wing, implying that Pop is as legitimate to our situation as the statues of saints on the exteriors of Gothic cathedrals were to that of our ancestors.
Pop is bulldozing its way through the groves of academe. Teachers teach Pop. Graduate students write theses on the origins and development of Pop. Long, dull seminars headed by venerable professors discuss the esthetics and, for goodness' sake, the history of Pop. On less astral planes, Pop has also got it made. Mass circulation magazines and TV love Pop for its novelty value. The same value brings Pop the largest and most fascinated (if not always the most appreciative) audiences in the galleries along 57th Street and Madison Avenue. And finally, perhaps indicating that the end is already in sight, Pop has replaced abstract expressionism as the thing for easy-come artists to imitate and for easy-go intellectuals to prattle about.
In the smoke from this grass fire, Pop has been called the New Realism, the New Romanticism, the New Social Consciousness, the New Landscape and the New Fantasy - as a beginning. It has also been called, less admiringly, the New Fake and the New Tragedy. What it does is to take the commonest arts, or non-arts, that surround us - comic strips, billboards, magazine advertising, bargain window displays and any other mass-produced vulgarity that this list may suggest - and use them as a point of departure.
The point of departure may be virtually indistinguishable from Pop's point of arrival. "EAT" signs by Robert Indiana, not much different from those that hang outside roadside restaurants except for the price tag, may now be contemplated at leisure in the perfect illumination and sanctified hush of high-class galleries and museums. If it is a lucky day, you may also find a classical rendition of a can of soup by Andy Warhol nearby, or a toothpaste face (seven feet from chin to hairline) by an ex-billboard artist gone legit (or the other way around), James Rosenquist, and some comic-strip characters, true to comic-strip style, but Michelangelesque in dimensions, by Roy Lichenstein.
"Pop" is short for "popular," in the sense of "of the people" or "of the common herd," and by definition Pop is thus opposed to fine art created for the cultivated few. But perversely, and with a perfectly dead pan, the Pop artist addresses his "EAT" signs, soup cans and so on to the most precious echelon of the art-conscious public. As a working definition, we could say that Pop is an art that introduces variations of debased commercial and industrial art into the social, financial and intellectual circles where such art and design have always been regarded with a natural shudder of horror.
As a preliminary explanation of Pop art's vogue, we may say that for this jaded audience, with its insatiable appetite for surprise, Pop is surprising. Its unexpectedness transforms the natural shudder of horror into the artificially induced frisson of pleasure that, by one Pop art hanging on the wall (or lying on the floor, as much of it does). But that Pop has found serious collectors indicates how the nature of art collecting, which for centuries meant the gathering together of rare and beautiful objects, has changed in recent years. Pop is the opposite of rare, and although there may be collectors who are attracted to it for its own lovely self, this is difficult to believe since few collectors are totally blind.
But Pop is a natural for the type of adventurous collector who is eager to be in on the newest thing and is willing to take first crack on the chance that today's questionable item will supply tomorrow's basic collection of early works in a new school. The possibility of increased value is also there for the investment collector, with the cushion of income tax deductions at worst, if the movement begins to die and the stuff is given in time to an amenable museum. But, most important, there are the collectors of modern art who try to build historically complete collections.
For such collections, examples of Pop art are now imperative if the collection is to be comprehensive. For Pop having happened is now history, no matter how curious and lamentable the way of its happening. It is still current history, but if it should die tomorrow it is already part of the story, however brief and flashy its life may prove to be. All esthetic values aside, the fact that Pop can have happened to the extent that it has happened is in itself an ineradicable comment on what the art situation is today.
If Pop is only a novelty, it is as good as dead already. At its present pace, its staying power or its vulnerability to that sinister question, "What next?" should be proved within the next art season or two. The question can be staved off only as long as Pop can keep us wondering about the basic question of its validity as art or answer that question affirmatively. Is there really anything, beneath the novelty, to give it an audience interested in more than vaudeville? Even if it is vaudeville, how long can it find new stunts that keep it from repeating itself too badly? And if it fails as itself, what are its chances of producing sports that, stemming from it, may prove Pop's importance by proving its generative fecundity?
Taking these questions one at a time, we might look first at Pop as the New This and the New That - in some of the terms already listed.
As the New Realism, Pop owes its attraction to its satisfaction of a widespread feeling that it is high time for art to return to some reference to life instead of staying off in a corner and indulging the splatter esthetic that had all but starved out everything else five years ago. But Pop, in abandoning abstraction for a form of realism and declaring itself anti-esthetic in opposition to hyper-estheticism, has hardly taken the course hoped for by a public that still thinks of realism in the terms of the art history books.
Instead of cultivating the good, the true, the beautiful or the socially significant in understandable terms, Pop art has tied its wagon to a curious star, indeed - the bad, the false, the ugly and the socially deplorable, in terms that are all too understandable (although sometimes it is difficult to believe that Pop really means what it seems to be saying).
The New Realism is a rangy term that also applies to any art that, rather than using drawing and painting as its medium, employs actual objects and materials and sticks them together. Pop art does this, too, and visitors to a recent exhibition were offered spiritual elevation in the form of a life-size nude; painted by Tom Wesselmann, in a painted bathroom that included such real accessories as a towel rack with towels, a laundry hamper, a door and a wall telephone rigged tip to ring every few minutes.
The reaction of people to Pop as the New Realism parallels the punch line of the old shaggy dog story. A public yearning for an art in which things are recognizable has greeted various tentative returns toward realism, one after another, with the objection, "Not realistic enough." But faced with Pop's offerings, people cry out, "Oh, no, not that realistic! "
A few defenders argue that when you come down to it, Pop isn't really realistic - it just looks that way. Deep down it's just the opposite - romantic. This would have to mean that Pop is a form of soul-searching. The search for beauty in ugliness, pleasure in pain, enlightment through innocence and purification through debauchery have all been methods of romantic exploration from time to time, and it is quite possible to argue that Pop's glorification of the banal, by artists who of course are fully aware of the horrors of banality, is comparable to the romantic hero's taking up with a degraded prostitute in order to find his own salvation.
The trouble with all this is that Pop doesn't give much sign of interest in salvation. Perhaps because of its extreme youth, it seems more interested in just having a good time, although it does amuse itself in some perverse fashions.
The fact remains that some explanation must be found for Pop's decision to occupy itself with all the ugliness, the cheapness and the shoddiness of the most routine aspects of the man-made world that surrounds us. One way out has been to call Pop the New Landscape, since it deals with our omnipresent environment. An early virtue claimed for Pop was that it creates a new awareness of ordinary objects and hence makes for an intensification of experiences to which we have become calloused through exposure.
There is something to this. As the New Landscape, Pop is proving once more that nature imitates art. Where Pop used to look like comic strips or highway restaurant signs, highway restaurant signs and comic strips are now beginning to look like Pop - which is an improvement of sorts.
"But Pop is not interested in externals. It is at the very heart of life," some of its defenders say. "It doesn't present our world as a landscape - it presents it with a New Social Consciousness."
A theory is that Pop art is the artist's solution and through him, ours, to living in the world as it is. All the horrendousness of contemporary life - the mass-produced objects devoid of taste, the degraded images produced serially by the hundreds of thousands must be not only accepted but embraced. By accepting and even by exaggerating these horrors, we have at least the form of escape involved in the adage, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em."
But a philosophy of escape through resignation to the inevitable is an odd form of social consciousness, and Pop too frequently suggests horseplay for this interpretation to hold. As a more conventional form of social consciousness, Pop has been called protest by satire, social comment by parody.
Satire and parody, however, can easily drop into fantasy, and here, for one reason or another, Pop plops right over on its reverse side and enters the world of unreality. Pop likes to blow things up to enormous size, which cancels out imitation and realism. A hamburger, an ice cream cone, a tube of toothpaste or a slice of pie, sculptured and realistically colored but executed in a scale of feet for inches, transforms the banal into the grotesque. From here, at hop-skip-and-jump tempo, Pop gets into a no-holds-barred area with a dozen peripheral variations still based on the vulgarity of the motif but transmuting this motif in dozens of ways.
George Segal, classified as a Pop artist but more truly a member of this periphery, is one of the most unnerving artists at work today. His appellation of sculptor brings howls from more conventional members of the breed, but there is nothing else to call him. Segal's dead-white plaster figures have an uncanny lifelikeness, not entirely explainable by the fact that they are actually a form of casting from life, made by covering live models with plaster-soaked rags that are allowed to harden and are then removed for assembly as hollow dummies. Their eerie reality is made doubly real and infinitely more eerie by their placement in or on actual objects, which is their Pop connection.
Adding a Segal to your collection is like adopting a new member of the family, according to collectors who should know, and a Segal, once acquired, is likely to be given a name for easy reference ("Darling, the maid didn't dust Dave yesterday. Will you ask her to?"). If you own a Segal, you have to find room in your house for, say, a nude plaster woman who sits on her own real honest-to-God bed, all messed up; or a woman who stands in a real bathtub, perpetually shaving her plaster legs; or a bus driver behind the wheel of a real bus; or a group of bus riders on real bus seats; or a man who gives the impression of being ready, at any moment, to crack the plaster film that covers him and reach for the next letter on a full-scale mockup of a theater marquee.
Segal's race of ghosts are partly amusing but largely disturbing, and about equally grotesque and literal. Inhabiting their own little corners of the world, they are examples of an interest that Pop shares with some other avant-garde movements - the idea that art should not be dedicated to the production of isolated works but to the creation of an environment. Claes Oldenburg, the Pop chef who created the transmutedburger, has also done an entire bedroom of wee-wawed furniture, complete with lamps, ashtrays and radio, that achieves the impossible by making mass-produced pseudo-modern interior decoration even uglier than it is.
Because of its deadpan and frequently mechanical look, Pop art at its purest can be just about as impersonal as art can get, although each Pop master has his gimmick trademark. But in Pop-related developments, there are hints of more personal, expressive directions in which the movement may eventually discover its true realization. Leading the list is a young woman who uses only her first name professionally, Marisol.
Marisol may offer us, lifesize, an entire jazz band, or a family out for the day in the automobile, or three women, a little girl and a dog out for a walk, executed in a combination of sculpture, squared blocks of wood, life casts, drawing, painting and real articles of clothing, in some of the wittiest and most inventive - what's the word? Concoctions? being turned out at the moment.
But Marisol differs from straight Pop artists in that she is not looking objectively at the world around us, or even pretending to. She looks into a world of her own, the kind of world that Pop theoretically rejects. But as Pop develops, there are more and more frequent signs that its artists have not so much rejected the inner world as rejected the old paths by which it was explored. The hope for Pop as a significant art movement rather than as a running gag is that it may end by beating out a few such paths, even if it does so in spite of itself.
The New York Times Magazine May 31, 1964: 7 ff.