"Pop" has joined the great pejoratives: the insults that no one forgives, like "Cheat! " in a cardroom or "Revisionist!" in the Kremlin. In terms of today's cant, a pop artist is a dated vulgarian, a pop collector is a self-advertising nouveau riche, a pop critic is a connoisseur of dead ends and a pop museum director is a man on the way out.
And it's infectious. Finding an artist who will accept the name of "pop" is about as easy as persuading a butcher to put his best filet steak on offer as horsemeat. Pop art has been classed by the opposition as "novelty art" and "gag art," and no one likes to think that his work is a novelty no longer new or a gag that turns every face to stone. Pop art has been written off as a passing fad, a see-through dress with nothing inside it, a campaigner who never got beyond the New Hampshire primaries. Even its supporters would like to rename it, as if "pop" reeked of some distant but ineradicable scandal.
Perhaps scandal did once enter into it? A little bit, undeniably. It is difficult to look at a Brillo box, or at one of Erle Loran's elucidations of Cézanne, or even at a washbasin or a standard hamburger, without remembering what a commotion was made when these things were brought, unaltered and on their own terms, into the domain of "art." But even the most reverberant scandal must one day subside, leaving the cause of it to take its chance in history. That is what has happened to pop art, and it was on this understanding that Suzi Gablik and I were invited by the Arts Council of Great Britain to organize the mammoth pop exhibition which opens on July 3 at the Hayward Gallery in London (and goes on, by the way, until August 30).
The name of pop is as much out of favor in London as anywhere else, and the project of this particular show had lain around the Arts Council's office for some time, with few to praise and none to love it, when suddenly it found a redoubtable champion in the person of John Pope-Hennessy, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and chairman of the Arts Council's art panel. Though feared primarily as the sternest of censors where Italian painting and sculpture are concerned, Pope-Hennessy has also an imperious curiosity about the art of our own era. In no time at all the invitation was sent out and accepted, and Miss Gablik and I were on the way to New York.
To New York, and not to Paris or Milan or Cologne or Tokyo, because it was our joint decision from the start that only English and American pop should be represented. There is French pop, German pop, Italian pop, Japanese pop; but pop in those countries tends to be rowdy, posturing, imitative, unfocused and self-conscious. Pop is, in our view, an English-speaking affair; all else is inauthentic. Pop art was produced by a defined number of individuals in a particular social and historical situation; it can be imitated in an external way, but if it is put beside genuine pop the imitation will look modish, derivative and unresonant.
Because genuine American pop has almost never been seen in London, and because it has an energy, a single-mindedness and a physical abundance not to be found in the more ambiguous procedures of English pop, the show is predominantly American. American artists outnumber English artists three to one, and the physical predominance of American work is made the more obvious by the very large formats which come naturally to Americans. English pop is domestic in scale-, attempts to drag it into a larger arena have not succeeded, whereas physical aggrandizement is fundamental to American pop. The look of the show is, therefore, distinctively American.
This is not, however, to say that it is noisy, aggressive, j okey or sensation-seeking in its intentions. Our aim has been to redefine pop, and to redefine it in terms very different from those usually attached to the name. Pop as we see it is an art, almost, of austerity; an educated art; a necessary art; an art of monumental statement; an affectionate art; even a healing art.
In saying this, I have in mind an ideal visitor. That visitor will know enough of the background of pop to be able to identify the element of risk and adventure within it. But he will also be able to look at James Rosenquist's F- 111, or at Claes Oldenburg's Bedroom, or at Andy Warhol's 100 Soup Cans, in the same way as the nonspecialist visitor to Abydos looks at the Temple of King Sethos 1. He will not, that is to say, be distracted by historical contingencies which are irrelevant to the formal qualities of the work before him. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that a good piece by George Segal has a withdrawn, timeless, unself-conscious quality which calls to mind the Fifth Dynasty Girl Working at a Mash Tub in the Cairo Museum, or that when we look at Oldenburg's soft toilet the droop of the material carries us beyond and away from the provocations of the subject matter and into that realm of understanding in which Rembrandt, in his portraits of bodily decay, has so long reigned supreme. This latter analogy caused great offense when I first made it, some years ago in London. But it is as natural for an artist in the late 1960s to be affected by the physical degeneration of mass-produced objects, or by the sight of a lonely woman in a diner, as it was for Constable to be affected by the clouds above his father's millstream. The involvement is akin in kind, and akin in quality, and the initial shock is no greater than it was when Constable's contemporaries were asked to recognize that English landscape does not have the basic tonality of a Cremona violin. If pop provoked, in the early 1960s, it was with provocation of the kind offered by Chardin when he said, in so many words, that for those who knew how to look at it a kitchenmaid's white apron was more beautiful than all Madame de Pompadour's silks and satins.
"An educated art," I said just now. People who dismiss pop art in the belief that it is essentially debasing should took again. Our exhibition is designed to prove that of all the painters who have looked at Matisse's symphonic interiors and wondered how to "go on from there" it is Tom Wesselmann who has done most to carry the tradition forward. There are, of course, Wesselmanns which allude directly to Matisse and quote one or another of the major paintings; but the affinity is climatic as much as iconographical. What looks to the casual eye as if it had been lifted straight from a billboard is the result of an organization as minutely calculated as that of Matisse's Pink Nude. Equally, Warhol's multiple portraits relate as much to the iconostases in the Kremlin churches, or to European multiple-head portraits like Gainsborough's Children of George III, as they do to photomat pictures. If we look around in the late 1960s for a painting that has the ambitions Courbet had for his The Studio, it is not among painstaking naturalistic figure painters that we find it, but in Rosenquist; and it is not only the F- 111 which aims to present Society complete and entire.
The object of all these artists is to rescue for painting some of the functions which it has been losing consistently over the last hundred years. What looked in the early 1960s like the greatest insult that had ever been offered to the notion of fine art will turn out by 1970 to have given new dignity to that notion. Already in the summer of 1965 Robert Rosenblum was pointing out that "the gulf between pop art and abstract art is far from unbridgeable, and it has become easy to admire, without shifting visual or qualitative gears, the finest abstract artists, like Stella and Noland, and the finest pop artists." And Rosenblum went on to say that "the most inventive pop artists 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 of metallic, plastic, enamel quality; to expansive areas of flat, unmodulated color." This is a point which we have tried to bring out at the Hayward Gallery.
But if pop art, in stylistic terms, resulted from a wish to rebut the assumptions of abstract expressionism, it had also a democratic, in fact an egalitarian source. The supreme statement of this is to be found in Claes Oldenburg's book "Store Days" - in, to be precise, the long soliloquy which begins on page 39. This is really too good to quote from, too well-judged in its "Leaves of Grass"-like momentum to break into little pieces. But, for the argument, one sentence could be taken out: "I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top." And, in another part of the book, two short sentences: "Fig/non fig is moronic distinction. The challenge to abstract art must go deeper." It is a matter, all this, of letting life in at points where Fine Art had tacked up a sign: "Keep Out." It is a matter of not wincing, not patronizing life, not thinking of art as separate from it; a matter of dis-alienation. Once again, Oldenburg's glorious text for "Store Days" puts the point better than I could hope to do; but perhaps I could add that this kind of pop does seem to me a distinctively American activity, and one not paralleled by English pop. It stands, in other words, for a largeness of embrace, a breadth of acceptance, an openhandedness and openheartedness which have been bred out of European art. This aspect of American pop has been obscured by two subsequent events: first, the collapse of the opposition; second, the shift of stance which has taken more than one of the pioneers into activities which clearly relate to Fine Art. The openness of American pop now seems a normal, healthy reaction to pop's environment; and it has become clear that, far from being a coarse-grained sensation-seeker, Roy Lichtenstein for one is fastidiousness personified. There is also, of course, the fact that American pop in its early days was in part a counterrevolutionary movement, designed to break out from the patterns laid down for art by abstract expressionism. Now that that particular writ no longer runs, the work looks different - not better and not worse, but different - and this is another reason for reconsideration.
Abstract expressionism did, however, do something for American art and American artists that nothing has ever quite done for my own country. It proved that you could have great painting that came about in a spirit, and in a factual context, of complete isolation from the official art world. This happened in Paris before 1914, and it happened in Germany at the same time, but it has never happened in England. English pop never outraged established opinion as American pop did. Nor did it tap, as American pop was to do, sources of unlimited energy in the national life. )X/hen Oldenburg makes a giant piece of pie, be does it as an act of physical identification which makes us feel big enough, and well enough, to gobble down that piece of pie and come back for another. English pop is never so direct; its qualities are, rather, those of connoisseurship in a hitherto unexploited field.
This was made clear in documents which predate any comparable statements by popmakers or pop-mongers in other countries. "But Today We Collect Ads," by Peter and Alison Smithson, of Art in London; as its title indicates, it was a polemical statement by two leading figures in the younger English architecture, and it was the consolidation of discussions which had already been going on for several years. In these discussions Reyner Banham, Lawrence Alloway, Richard Hamilton, John McHale and Eduardo Paolozzi were participants at one time or another; the discussions were intended to apply to pop culture the same standards of analysis and reasoned evaluation as were applied to fine art. Richard Hamilton defined his own attitude in a letter to the Smithsons, dated January 1957:
Pop art is:
Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Expendable (easily forgotten)
Young (aimed at yo uth)
Big Business ...
English artists at this time did a great deal of talking and writing and in general hashing over the ideal of an alternative culture, a culture which was antithetical to the old-masteroriented fine-art culture of English officialdom. Official English culture still bowed down to Italy, and bowed down to France, and made excuses for England, and rather doubted that America could be said to exist. English pop culture treated movies as Sir Joshua Reynolds had treated Correggio and treated packaging as Gainsborough had treated Rubens - as sources of vitality, forebears whose loins were still fertile, energizers from whom much could be learned. The climate of English pop was talky, sometimes wistful, basically investigatory and deep-dyed with the collector's instinct. It was acted out in argument, but it was not acted out in the work, in a dramatized way, like American pop; American pop gained enormously from being powered in large part by people like Oldenburg and Jim Dine (and, earlier, Robert Rauschenberg) who had an innate theatrical sense and could put on a nonverbal painters' theater which is still talked about, a decade later, for the sureness of its command over an audience. There has never been an English "happening" of any consequence; English pop results, on the contrary, from solitary endeavor. No one could be slower, more conscientious, more profoundly dandified in his way of making a picture than Richard Hamilton. No one could be more bent upon transforming his basic material than Eduardo Paolozzi. No one could bring to pop material a more delicious obliquity than Richard Smith. There just isn't, in English pop, the thrusting, downright, all-or-nothing element characterizing American pop.
But this is not to say that English pop was not just as radical in its relationship to traditional English culture. Anyone who looks up the second edition of Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads" (18oo), with its polemical preface, will find an attitude very similar to that of the founders of English pop. Coleridge summed up that attitude when he said Wordsworth believed that "the proper diction for poetry consists in a language which actually constitutes the natural conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings." English pop had to contend with an official art world which was still hankering after a modified form of impressionism and would accept abstract painting more readily if it could be presented as a variant of English weather-reporting. It was in this context that the study of automobile styling, of B-movie iconography, of the latest thing in advertising, took on a revolutionary sense. A tendency to regard the United States as a fairyland should also be noted as characteristic of early English pop; in the middle 1950s it was still an unusual thing for a young English artist actually to have spent much time in the States. In the 1960s this is, of course, no longer true: Richard Smith and David Hockney and to a lesser extent Allen Jones are impregnated with firsthand experience of the U.S. But English pop is still marked by our national tendency to diversify the load, to render obliquely what others render head-on, and to make allusions in a spirit half of irony, half of detached scholarship.
But what is as true of England as it is of the States is that the best pop artists have shown themselves able to evolve. Twelve years after Hamilton's Hommage a Chrysler Corp., eight years after Richard Smith's first references to cigarette pack and tissue box, eight years after David Hockney's Alka Seltzer (The Most Beautiful Boy in the World), these painters are getting consistently better and better. Where participation in other movements has often left painters stranded, stagnant, purposeless, a past with pop is still a source of imaginative energy. That energy does not come out in the coarse and blatant forms which legend attributes to pop, but it is there nonetheless: Richard Hamilton's I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas began from a still of Bing Crosby, went through many transmutations and ended up as one of the subtlest and most complex statements that have come out of British art since the war. Patrick Caulfield's Sculpture in a Landscape speaks for a younger generation of English artists who bring to their work a highly developed sense of pictorial language, together with a good deal of mischief where the uses of that language are concerned. (Another instance of this in the Hayward Gallery show is Clive Baker, whose latest work includes a set of chrome-plated hand grenades, which come in a box from Asprey's, the Tiffany's of London.) In England and the U.S. alike, pop is a movement that never got stuck, a part of history that is still on the jump.
Art in America, July-August 1969: 78-79