"I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable." Robert Rauschenberg
Emerging in the 1950s in America and Britain, Pop artists drew inspiration from mass media, consumer goods, and everyday items. Their use of this “low” subject matter was a radical departure from modern art and critics at the time were horrified.
Celebrity worship had been fed by the rise of the television and people were captivated by those who represented the American dream of success, glamor, and money. Using bold primary colors, the artists adopted commercial methods like silkscreening and produced their works in editions, undermining the artist’s hand and thus subverting the idea of uniqueness.
Andy Warhol, 1928—1987
A highly successful commercial artist in the 1950s, Warhol became the most prominent figure in Pop Art by defining the artistic style of the movement and turning it into a lifestyle. His founding and management of one of America’s most influential groups, The Velvet Underground, provided a cocky soundtrack to the achingly cool New York the artist presided over.
Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans marked an astonishing moment in art history. The work above belongs to the second portfolio of silkscreens he produced in 1967. Warhol famously noted that in the US the richest consumer buys the same things as the poorest—everybody is united through Campbell's Soup. Wiping out any traces of painterly handiwork, silkscreen printing allowed for quick replication and works that resembled the marketed brand images that were such a new feature of American pop culture. The 1960s had seen advertisers using repetition to drum names into the public consciousness. Warhol quickly realized that in an art context repetition would drain the works of meaning, accentuating their banality.
James Rosenquist 1933
James Rosenquist also started off in the commercial sector painting the enormous billboards in Times Square. At the end of the working day any leftover paint would be smuggled into his studio. He made his mark through his use of mass-produced goods combined with fragments of enormous but often indecipherable images derived from advertisements.
In this signed lithograph Rosenquist makes a typically forthright and surreal combination this time against American attitudes to foreign countries. An assortment of opposites that is both thrilling and unnerving, the large-scale print points towards an inevitable collision of cultures, the depicted bulb symbolic of explosive new ideas, but perhaps alluding to something darker too—as bulbs such as these are often used as detonators in improvised bomb devices.
Robert Rauschenberg 1925–2008
Rauschenberg’s work had a profound influence on both Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who traced their inspiration for Pop Art back to his collages of appropriated media images and his experiments in silkscreen printing. The artist rallied against the traditional notion that art should focus on worthy subjects and also rebelled against the modernist notion that marks made by the hand should be given special value.
His beliefs are epitomized by the photo screenprint Watermark—a remarkable clash of visual elements that epitomized Rauschenberg’s adoption of popular culture as a subject matter. Like the Pop Art movement, he ignored hierarchical distinctions and once said “The tree, the rock, the Virgin are all of the same importance in the same time. There is no hierarchy.”
Richard Hamilton 1922–2011
This British artist belonged to the Independent Group in the 1950s that first pioneered the adoption of popular culture in art and in particular glorified American pop culture. His work Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956 is jam-packed with streamlined consumer goods imported from the US. It is a landmark work that captures the jarringly ambivalent spirit of the time.
One of the key concepts of Pop Art was to challenge the privileged position of art within culture—a radical stance that was first trail-blazed by Franco-American artist Marcel Duchamp. In 1917 he famously exhibited the readymade urinal, Fountain, and signed it R. Mutt. Richard Hamilton’s signed limited edition is a nod to his great hero Duchamp and his work Shadows Cast by Readymades, 1918. Both artists pursued investigations of the ready-made or found object, the quest described by Hamilton as "a search for what is epic in everyday objects and attitudes". He was also closely involved with the revival of Duchamp's reputation in the years before his death in 1968 and organized the first major retrospective in Europe, held at the Tate.
Peter Blake 1932
The British artist Peter Blake created one of the most enduring and reproduced images of the 1960s—the Beatles album cover Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for which he was paid just 200 pounds! As one of Britain’s best known Pop artists Blake made a name for himself by combining found objects and printed matter with geometric patterns and bold primary colors. In Love Me Tender Blake breathes stardust on another icon of the Pop Art era, Elvis Presley. In his signed silkscreen Elvis is certainly filling the frame—this is the icon in his Las Vegas years, corpulent and enlarged. Still possessing big star appeal and instantly recognizable from his profile, Blake makes this symbol of rock and roll excess sparkle in diamond dust.
Claes Oldenburg 1929
Swedish-born Claes Oldenburg spent most of his working life in America. His groundbreaking installation The Store—on view in 1961 in Manhattan—was stacked with sculptures loosely arranged in the manner of consumer goods. Well-known for reimagining everyday objects on a vast sculptural scale, Oldenburg’s probing and humorous approach to making art tore up the perceived notion that it should deal with historically profound ideas and expressions. In Rolling Collar and Tie, a collar seemingly rolls downhill whilst the brightly colored tie flaps cheerfully in the wind, brilliantly demonstrating the artist's knack for imbuing inanimate everyday objects with a sense of the extraordinary.