Pop Art is a movement that emerged in 1950s Britain and exploded into enormous and everlasting success in 1960s America. Pop art employed a new, bold aesthetic inspired by popular culture such as advertising, comic books, and was a celebration of the mundane and the kitsch. The movement, as a reflection of the times, was about multiples and mass reproduction, using new artistic techniques like silk screen printing.
As with many artistic movements, Pop Art was born out of a rebellion against the dominant movements and approaches to art that came before. Young artists could not find anything that reflected their realities in the museums or in their classrooms and so turned to their immediate surroundings for inspiration. Using popular and often commercial imagery as their inspiration was a overt challenge to the elitist culture of art.
Pop Art from Britain to America
The movement and indeed the term Pop Art was coined by British artist Richard Hamilton in 1957 when he wrote a letter to some friends outlining the characteristics of this bold new aesthetic. He stated that the movement was designed for a young, mass audience and that the imagery would be expendable, mass-produced, bold, sexy and witty and would be inspired by mass popular culture. After the emotionally weighty and intense work of the Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, modernist art critics were shocked by this celebration of ‘low brow’ culture and this new idea of the artist.
While both inspired by the same basic ideas, British and American Pop Art are often viewed as fairly different. The British were inspired by the explosion of consumerism and mass media from a distance, viewing it from afar but not experiencing it in quite the same way. American artists, however, were able to draw their inspiration from their immediate surroundings and experience. British Pop Art had a far more academic approach and the focus was on exposing the manipulating power that consumerist imagery had through subtle parody. American Pop art, however was all about finding a new aesthetic that was totally different to that of Abstract Expressionism with its inclination for symbolism and emotions. Pop artists combated this with their use of bold and concrete imagery and colors and their choice of impersonal and mundane subjects. It was a return to art that was representational and depicted the world in a way people could instantly recognize and relate to.
Key Figures in the American Pop Art Movement
The key figures of the American Pop movement are recognized to this day for their iconic, bold and stylized imagery. The work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg is often seen as proto-pop as the aesthetic differs from the style that really blew up in the 60s. Roy Lichtenstein is a name most commonly associated to the movement as his soft parodying of the subject and the strong, mechanical style imagery is typical of the style. He painted with oil on canvas and often used images from comic books, using bold black outlines and vibrantly colored dots to form the final image so that from far away, the images are almost photographic yet on closer inspection reveal a painterly quality.
Andy Warhol is arguably the name most associated to the movement, and has become a cult figure in the history of art. His images of celebrity figures like Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson explored the cult of celebrity and the darker side of fame that lurked behind the glossy exterior. He also created memorable images of mundane everyday objects, like the infamous Campbell’s soup can. His reproducible style, vibrant colors and fun style mean that his works remain relevant even today.
Pop Art Today
The brazen imagery of 50s and 60s Pop art continues to be relevant today and the source of boundless inspiration. Artists such as Warhol transformed the lowbrow into high art, something which we witness today with many of today’s most famous artists blurring this boundary between low and high culture. Pop Art is both light-hearted and tongue in cheek, or intensely provocative but today, as it was then, it remains art that speaks about relevant popular culture whilst using the imagery of society. Contemporary Pop Art might take the form of an enormous balloon animal sculpture by New York artist Jeff Koons or an instantly recognizable dot painting by the British artist, Damien Hirst.