1960s Art and the Age of Pop

November 14, 2016

As one of the most culturally significant periods of the 20th-century, 1960s art witnessed the rise of the movements which have re-shaped and created new aesthetic language and styles. Various criticisms expanded challenging the educational systems, the student protests and the hippie movement and on a broad scale tried to revolutionize the world. Pop became the symbol of a new lifestyle struggling against the conservative high culture. In visual art, movements such as Pop Art, Psychedelic Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and the appeareance of Happenings, became the most significant and shape-shifting concepts of the 1960s art world. Embracing life, the mass produced objects, consumerism, and the growing influence of American popular culture, its rock n’ roll music and rising industry, 60s art brought a new kind of pop image and use of industrial materials.

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The 1960s art and design movements were most active in America with a lot of American artists creating different styles of painting and sculpture
Left: Robert Rauschenberg - Canyon. Image via www.huffingtonpost.com / Right: Peter Blake - On the Balcony. Image via themindsmith.tumblr.com

The Rebellion of the 1960s Art

For a number of art historians, the rebellion which occurred during the 1960s art is closely linked to the revolutionary thoughts and actions of avant-garde movements and their artists at the beginning of the 20th-century. In various opinions what the two periods share is their sense of rupture and the creative imagination fueled with technological euphoria. Above anything else, in fact, the visual art of the 1960s and its leading movement Pop Art wished to rebel against the expressive drama and soul of the Abstract Expressionism[1]. Considering the expressive movement to stand for the high art, artists re-enforced the idea of the low-brow art by using images from the mass culture. Also rebelling against Abstract Expressionism paintings, various post-painterly abstraction artists removed the drama, by erasing any trace of the artist’s identity. Taking away the brushstrokes, the painters emphasized the flat surfaces, color, and hard-edge abstraction.

The rise of the consumeristic society and technology witnessed the growing use of industrial materials within the sphere of art. The Conceptual and Minimalism movements began to use the mass-produced sources, such as bricks, concrete, steel, and neon, to create sculpture and installation art
which valued the idea and the process above the finished object. This further challenged the systems which existed in the art world. Re-defined was the concept of the art object, its existence, and its space.

The 1960s art design and media were on a view at different museum and gallery spaces
Andy Warhol - Big Electric Chair. Image via letsexploreart.wordpress.com

Major Artists of the 1960s Art

If we define the period as the period of Pop names such as Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg automatically come to mind. It is to these artists that we owe the idea that life and art fused like never before[2]. Commercial screen printing technique, images from comic books and advertisements, iconic movie and music stars, all were sources of inspiration for the most celebrated pop art artworks. On the other hand, artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Yoko Ono reshaped the notion of the object, materials, and introduced the term ephemeral closely linked to the growing scene of Happening and Performance art.

See more works by Roy Lichtenstein!

Andy Warhol was a significant figure of 60s art scene known for his Popart and silkscreens
Andy Warhol - 32 Campbell's Soup Cans. Image via forbes com

The Most Significant Movements

Leaving nothing sacred and promoting life which rebelled against the conservative ideas the following movements are considered as gems of the 1960s art.

Pop Art

The story of the 60s period could not exist without mentioning Pop Art. With its innovations, the movement is considered as the most significant period defining modern art. Using the images from mass culture and found objects, pop art artists reshaped the face of the painting by introducing a new kind of commercial aesthetics. These ideas helped to influence not only the visual art but graphic design, fashion and a certain lifestyle. The idea put forward by Andy Warhol that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”, influenced the star status of various artists of 1960s art scene and their entourage[3].

Roy Lichtenstein is another great American artist of 1960s art
Roy Lichtenstein – Whaam!, 1963. Image via widewalls.ch

Op Art

The challenge to the fundamental element of creative production ie. the perception of the visual stands at the root of the Op art movement. Embracing abstract and geometric art, and playing with the most basic of the art’s principles, such as line, color and contrast, Op art artists of the 60s art scene influenced the birth of Kinetic art and the growing scene of Optical Illusion art[4]. Bridget Riley is one of the most important artists of this movement.

1960s art was also marked by Bridget Riley's artworks which were showcased in museum and gallery spaces
Portrait of the artist Bridget Riley

Minimalist Movement

Minimalism was the first art movement of international significance which originated in America. Celebrating the simplicity and reduction of its paintings it produced a new way of looking at and experiencing the artworks. The denial of the artist’s expression joined with the interest in making objects that avoided the appearance of fine art, gave birth to geometric works. Minimalist artists sought to break down the traditional notions of sculpture and painting. The repeated geometric forms, emphasis on the physical space occupied by the artwork, and the use of prefabricated industrial materials dominated the production of its famous artists, such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Robert Morris.

The history of 60s art scene is rich with many different artists
Left: Carl Andre - Lever, 1966 / Right: Donald Judd - Untitled, 1969. Image via widewalls.ch

Conceptual Art

Conceptual art movement emphasized the idea of the artwork above anything else. Various forms and tendencies in art, such as performance, happening, and the notion of the ephemeral visible in Land art of the 1970s art scene, is said to fit under its definition. Linking the idea of the readymade put forward by the famous Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, conceptual artists rejected the notion of the beautiful, rare and skillful as measures of art. Reducing the works to an absolute minimum, many referred the movement as the time of dematerialization of art.

Joseph Kosuth was one of the first conceptual artists whose work took a spotlight in 1960s art scene
Joseph Kosuth - One and Three Shovels. Image via wahooart.com

The significance of the 1960s art was further re-enforced during the 70s art and the birth of the important movements such as Feminist art and the Black art movement. Due to its turbulent political and social events, 1960s art is seen as a cut-off period when modern art ends and contemporary art production begins.

Editors’ Tip: Movements in Art Since 1945: Issues and Concepts (World of Art)

Exploring the second half of the 20th-century book is a swift-moving account of the visual art in the past. Beginning with the analysis of the style into content, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual art, various other movements are investigated in the book. Some of the most celebrated and influential artists, such as Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, along with the works of Feminist and Gay artists are referenced as well. Divided into eleven chapters, each section covers a different movement and trends of its artists. If you are interested in this period, or you have started a course in Post-Modernism, this book is an excellent starting point.


  1. Sandler, I., American art of the 1960s, Paperback, 1989
  2. Rubin, D., S., Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960's, The MIT Press, 2004
  3. Whiting, C., Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s, University of California Press, 2006
  4. S. Rubin, D., Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art Since the 1960s, San Antonio Museum of Art, 2010


All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Andy Warhol – Portrait of the artists with the Barilla boxes. Image via widewalls.ch; Example of Optical Illusion Artwork. Image via widewalls.ch; Carl Andre - Artwork. Image via widewalls.ch

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