A beginner’s guide to Pop Art

What Is Pop Art? 

Pop art is an art form that emerged in Britain in the mid-1950s and America in the late-1950s. Pop art was a style that returned to the material realities of what was around the artsist i.e. everyday life and popular culture – such as comics, television, advertising and mass produced consumer products (see Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans‘). The pop art movement is widely recognized as a reaction to the ideas of abstract expressionism, a want to react against the elitist and, at times, pretentious culture in art, by using popular culture (with a heavy dose of irony).

Colours and colour themes play a large role in pop art and can help identify a piece; they are typically block colours that are bright and vivid – often yellow, red, blue, black and white.

Another important characteristic is the removal of material/an object from its original context and isolating it, or associating it with other subjects – to make one think differently about it.

The Origins of Pop Art 

Many believe it filled the hole for the Dada movement that was on the wane by this point in time; representing the satirical, anarchic elements of it.
This assumption is not a great leap, as one of the first pop-artists was a British man named Richard Hamilton, who, was a student of Duchamp – the infamous Dadaist (who also practiced cubism and conceptualism, and would probably want us to remember that too).

Hamilton went to the ICA in the 1950s with artists and academic’s such Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, and John McHale. It was Paolozzi’s garish projections of advertising imagery on his first meeting with Hamilton that would introduce him to the concept of using every day life, every day products, and media, as material for his art.

It was this groups first exhibition hailed the arrival of pop art, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956 with the seminal ‘This Is Tomorrow’ exhibition. Here Hamilton exhibited his collage ‘Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing?’ where with the word “pop” is emblazoned on the lollypop the bodybuilder is holdin. (Paolozzi had already beaten him to the first art work with the word ‘pop’ on it with his 1947 work ‘I Was A Rich Man’s Play Thing’. Where the word ‘pop’ appears out of the cloud of smoke of a gun pointed at a woman’s head). But it was this exhibition that was to send shockwaves around the art world and truly begin the movement. Hamilton would go on to write a letter to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in January 1957 where he listed the criteria for what Pop Art is. He wrote saying that it was “popular, transient, young, mass-produced, sexy, big business, low cost, expendable, witty, glamorous.”

Hamilton was certainly at the Helm of its origins, but the important influence particularly of Paolozzi, but also of Turnball and McHale, shouldn’t be forgotten.

The Differences Between British and American Pop Art 

The two most notable figures of pop art, are not British, but emerged from the American movement, and this could be down to the differences in approach between American and British pop art: American pop art was known to be ‘anonymous, emblematic and aggressive’. Whereas, English pop art was more ‘referential and subjective’. English Pop artists used to deal with popular culture and technology primarily as themes or metaphors, American pop artists were more into these things as ideas.

For example, the most notable American pop artist, Andy Warhol’s motto was “I think everybody should be a machine” and would try to make artworks that looked like they were made by a machine – often they were made by machine, Warhol famously started using a silk screen press that was used to mass produce goods. The American’s art was a little more immersed in its subject, and ultimately more derivative of its subject matter, but with the small flick of the switch of irony, pieces were transformed from comic strips and soup cans, to art, that spoke to the masses.

Warhol’s obsession with fame, Hollywood and the idea of celebrity is well documented, probably by him before anyone else. His prints of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and other stars, rendered in to pop art colours, are now some of the most iconic images we have; and his quote “In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes,” now seems rather prophetic.

Roy Lichtenstein is the other of the most recognisable pop artists, who used comics and cartoon strips as his medium of expression. The features of this style were: black outlines, bold colors and tones rendered by Benday dots (which was a method of printing tones in comic books from the 50’s and the 60’s). He would often have comic strip men and women say dark or existential things such as a blonde girl saying in a speech bubble ‘The melody haunts my reverie”, in the work of the same name.

In both America and Britain Pop Art coincided with pop music and the ‘swinging sixties’; which is how British pop artist Peter Blake would make his name, designing album covers for the likes of Elvis Presley and most famously, for The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band cover. Like Warhol, Blake also used famous actress in his works – such as Bridgette Bardot and Marilyn Monroe.

Another prevalent figure in the British pop art movement (though he has been known to personally reject this) was David Hockney, who emerged from the RCA with incredible drawing skills, but would also make photo-collages and make innovative work in print making and his exhibition alongside Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, RB Kitaj and Peter Phillips at the Young Contemporaries Exhibition in 1961 solidified his place in the movement. Even in his painting he would still use of the bright, vivid colours and graphic lines of the pop art movement – his most famous work is ‘A Bigger Splash’ painted in California in 1967.

Is Pop Art Still Relevant? 

Yes, very – is the short answer. The co-owner of Pop International Galleries in New York, Jeff Jaffe, said that “Pop Art is stronger than ever.” Examples of artists like Mr Brainwash, the late Steve Kaufman and Romero Britto show how its practices and ideas have been transferred and morphed through the ages. Charles Fazzino is now one of America’s best known pop artist, who grew up and took art classes during the height of the pop art movement, Fazzino however also incorporates 3D elements into his work. Fazzino is in turn, asked to design posters to advertise events such as The Super Bowl, GRAMMY awards and Major League Baseball All-Star Game among many others, proving that now more than ever pop art has a symbiotic relationship with the every day and mass media it originally drew inspiration from. It is also important to note that pop art was of a huge influence to modern graphic design.

So, pop Art has almost come full circle, it now being such an easily imitated and popular art form it can be found everywhere from high end art works to handbags, band posters, makeup – even engrained deep in the collective consciousness of our culture.

Picture: Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl