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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Pop-Art, a basic description.

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

In short

The pop-art ( popular art ) is an artistic movement hatched after World War II in England. It quickly spread to the United States, whose society was strongly influenced by the rise of consumerism. His subjects and materials are borrowed from everyday life, from popular and urban culture (advertising, cinema, comics). Although it is reputed to be "easy", pop art is provocative, even political, and tends to desacralize the work of art by making it accessible to all. Very often, artists have seized means of production reserved for the industry (screen printing, acrylic painting). Andy Warhol was his figurehead, but pop art also counts in its ranks Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and even Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons. Pop artists have not ignored art history or the western avant-garde (Dada, surrealism, Marcel Duchamp…); Warhol has also followed in Duchamp's footsteps by redefining the status of the artist: "It's a job like the others," he said, not without irony. Pop art also coincides with a certain sterilization of the figure of the artist: "In the future, everyone will be entitled to 15 minutes of world fame", a very fleeting celebrity, prophesied Warhol in the late 1960s.

"Art is already advertising. Mona Lisa could have been used to support a brand of chocolate, Coca-Cola, or anything else. »Andy Warhol

Its history, its key ideas

Pop art will have been born in England in the 1950s, if we stick to its neological birth, under the pen of the critic Lawrence Alloway. It is a legacy of the Independent Group, which notably includes Richard Hamilton, influenced by Duchamp and surrealism. Pop art was however, quickly identified with an American artistic movement. In the United States, the image culture is predominant, while the consumer society is developing. Television, advertising, cinema, magazines, all these media offer a rich visual culture, which artists such as Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol will hasten to reinterpret. Especially since they want to end the reign of abstract expressionism.

Andy Warhol, from the advertising world, quickly became the symbolic figure of the pop movement. He notably questions the principle of the uniqueness of the work, challenges the notion of originality, and draws inspiration from the icons of the contemporary era (Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe). His works are colorful, which is another regular feature of pop art. In 1963 Warhol opened the Factory in New York, where he surrounded himself with assistants and devoted himself more to the cinema.

The irony is one of the mainsprings of pop art, which likes to divert images and symbols from popular culture, but also the consumer society. The artists seize it and reinvest it, not as a form of consecration, but rather of questioning. Witness, for example, the famous Brillo Boxes by Warhol (1964). It is not ready-made but an appropriation by the artist of an element of everyday life: from a box, it becomes a sculpture (and a sacred work of art within the museum). Warhol plays with the notion of mimesis, trompe-l 'oeil, one of the major issues in art since Antiquity. Thus, he questions the gap between reality and the perception that we have of it.

Pop art sometimes has an impersonal character, notably in Warhol or Lichtenstein, which employ mechanical reproduction techniques, sometimes from the industrial world. Lichtenstein's works, inspired by the world of comics, imitate the pattern of dots found in the printing press. It is not uncommon to find also in pop artists a taste for installation and three-dimensional representation, such as the soft sculptures by Claes Oldenburg, which take on an accent that is both humorous and disturbing.

Pop art likes to cultivate ambiguity. It is not always easy to know whether artists criticize or praise the consumer society that inspires them. In the same way, the pop movement wants to be popular and democratized, but its subjects are often linked to the world of money, cinema, and the jet set. One thing is certain: it celebrates the power of the image.

In the 1970s, pop art became more international. It spreads in particular in Italy, where it inspires the renewal of the art of design.

Some pop portraits

Andy Warhol, Self-portrait , 1986

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Warhol delivered several self-portraits. Made from a photograph, it belongs to the Self-portrait with a Fright Wig series. The painter represents himself under a capillary travesty. On a black background, the crazy aspect of his wig contrasts with his stern face, which reads a complex emotion, between stupor and amazement. Frontality, however, introduces a classic dimension into this portrait. As usual, the artist worked according to the principle of seriality by declining his face in several colors, even by camouflaging it. Warhol, a chameleon?

Roy Lichtenstein, Self-portrait , 1978

Curious self-portrait than that of Roy Lichtenstein. In place of his face, the mirror he presents to us reflects nothing! This work testifies to the underlying complexity in the work of this artist, known for being the first to be inspired by the world of comics and comics. By refusing to give us his appearance, the artist implies that there is a deeper reality, unless it is an abyssal void. It is up to the viewer to choose. The technique is characteristic of Lichtenstein's work. His style, which tends to universality and impersonality, is paradoxically immediately identifiable.

Jasper Johns, Savarin , 1977

As a metaphorical self-portrait, Jasper Johns (author of the famous Flag in 1955) delivers the frontal image of the can that he uses to store his brushes. With this intimate work, Johns brings us into the familiar world of his workshop. At the bottom of the image, he has placed the characteristic hatching of his work since 1972. Like other pop art artists, Jasper Johns has always paid much attention to the means of reproduction and dissemination of his works. The artist favored serial work, like Andy Warhol. However, Johns' work is characterized by a formal research that flirts with abstraction, and the intensive use of primary colors.

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