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  • what is pop art

Is it Possible to Answer the Question What is Pop Art in the 21st Century?

November 20, 2015
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editorial Manager.

Indeed, what is Pop Art? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions it? Is it Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup? His Marilyns and Liza Minellis? Roy Lichtenstein’s comics? Richard Hamilton’s living room? All of the above? Each of these answers would be correct, as these actually are Pop art’s most famous examples. Is it safe to presume you’ve all heard of these artworks? Probably. Among you, there will be those who don’t care about art or its history at all, yet you know exactly what these pieces look like and who made them, because you’ve seen them everywhere, in tv shows and in real life, you’ve listened about them in songs, you’ve hung them on your bedroom wall because you thought they were cool or because they depicted a celebrity you obsessed over. And that’s Pop art for ya: too busy referencing the material realities of everyday life and visual pleasures of the mass, it became a popular, widespread phenomenon itself – catching itself in a kind of a perpetual circle where the whole movement became the very overproduced commercial image it was so fondly celebrating.

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Roy Lichtenstein – In the Car, 1963, detail

Life is Art, Art is Life

Back in the 1950s, a group of artists got fed up going to museums and not seeing a representation of life as we all know it through artworks on display. It was the time of Abstract Expressionism, which was thriving in the US and where thoughts and emotions were expressed through a kind of imagery that was practically incomprehensible, yet offering an entire array of interpretations. On top of it, it was mostly dark, both in color and connotation. Why is there no familiarity in these works? And thus, Pop artists decided to put a spotlight on the familiar, and make it even more so, in vivid, saturated, ironic, almost aggressive ways. Things from our daily routine, popular culture elements, television and advertising (that were going through their golden age), entertainment, the cult of celebrities, comic books, interior and product design, newspapers and magazines – all of them got a whole new meaning with Pop art, which used them as its backbone in order to give them a fresh context. Anything could be art and anything *was* art – it infiltrated the lives of the society so deeply we can still feel its strong presence seventy years on.

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Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen have made several large-size public sculptures of the most banal everyday things you can imagine, such as this one – Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1988

The Rise of Pop Art – American vs British

The above mentioned strong presence of Pop art today could be explained through the fact it predicted and announced the interests of modern-day society in an intimidatingly accurate way, intentionally or not. It’s like they started this phenomenon of image abundance, obsessions with material things money can or cannot buy, celebrities in forms of singers, actors, actresses, dancers, socialites, public figures in general – we still want it all, we still want it now, and there is never enough of it. If you think about Peter Blake, who repeatedly depicted Brigitte Bardot like Andy Warhol did with Marilyn Monroe just across the pond, or Eduardo Paolozzi’s collages made of images from comic books, magazines and advertising, or Roy Lichtenstein’s everyday situations followed by thought-bubble commentary, it becomes clear that these works were created to be instantly consumed, ready to be reproduced again to infinity. Both movements were simply referring to the tangible objects around them, one more critical of it and the other with perhaps more affinity towards it, through clear graphics, vibrant colors and techniques ready to produce endless copies of Pop artworks at any time.

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Andy Warhol made several versions of a portrait of Marilyn Monroe during the 1960s, creating the most iconic image of the actress – and Pop Art in general

The Influence of Andy Warhol

Going back to the question of What is Pop Art?, we cannot not mention Andy Warhol. He was the biggest fan of the material world, Hollywood and all its glamour, consumer products and branding. Andy Warhol invented his own colourful universe, in which soup cans became celebrities, celebrities somehow became even more iconic, where narcissism, greediness and excessiveness were welcome and where art was as important as the business and self-promotion behind it. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” he said in 1975, and he enjoyed being his own creator, re-creator and product. He was the first to become a true artist superstar, a rich figure in the arts, a fact that probably wouldn’t have made him feel too good in today’s art market situation, in which he would have been surrounded by the wealthy likes of Koons, Hirst or Murakami. However, he would have also probably been startled by how successful his predictions were, as today we’ve got computer technology at our fingertips, able to share our artworks with everyone in an instant, making us feel like the stars of the social networks at any given moment. Just think: the moments he captured with his celebrated Polaroids is basically what today we know as Instagram.

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Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture from 1970 represents a symbol of peace during the Vietnam War and it is an essential part of New York City’s landscape today, for example

Pop Art Today

Pop artists have managed to create something that continues to be relevant through different time periods and social structures. In an age where digital technology completely took over our lives, Pop art comes in as a given, with characteristics that match our current environment perfectly. Maybe today more than ever, the movement is absolutely omnipresent, partly because of nostalgia and partly because of its particularly fascinating aesthetics. Pop art is everywhere and in all spheres of life, and those include the art market and auctions as well, as more or less the same names continue to dominate the sales around the globe. Because of its evergreen status, Pop artworks have proven to be a solid investment and it seems as though they will stay very sought after for a long time to come.

Should we ask how Pop art made a comeback or should we ask how come it never actually stopped being mainstream? There seems to be an unbroken continuity in the Pop art movement, as today’s contemporary artists and artworks remain inspired by it and a spontaneous extension of its notions. As testimonies to this fact, there are numerous Pop art exhibitions taking place this year alone: The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern, Pure Pop Art Exhibition at 30works, International Pop at Walker Art Center and many more, in which the movement is either celebrated or revisited through more contemporary eyes. Pop art continues to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for fashion, design, the entertainment industry, adversing methods, popular culture in general, over and over again. Let’s just say if was definitely world-famous for more than fifteen minutes.

Images in slider: Peter Blake – Sources of Pop Art V, 2007; Richard Hamilton – Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, 1956, detail. All images used for illustrative purposes only.