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The Romance of Art _NEW_2013.docx
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Text I. Pop Art: Pretty Images of Everyday Life

If the abstract painters of the post-war years had banished the figurative world of objects from art for the purpose of greater realism, the Pop artists brought it back in again, in the most direct and powerful way imaginable.

Pop Art is visual arts movement of the 1950s and 1960s, principally in the United States and Britain. The images of pop art (shortened from “popular art”) were taken from mass culture. Some artists duplicated beer bottles, soup cans, comic strips, road signs, and similar objects in paintings, collages, and sculptures. Others incorporated the objects themselves into their paintings or sculptures, sometimes in startlingly modified form. Materials of modern technology, such as plastic, urethane foam, and acrylic paint, often figured prominently. One of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century, pop art not only influenced the work of subsequent artists but also had an impact on commercial, graphic, and fashion design.

The historical antecedents of pop art include the works of Dadaists such as the French artist Marcel Duchamp, as well as a tradition, in U.S. painting of the 19th and early 20th centuries, of trompe l'oeil pictures and other depictions of familiar objects. Moreover, a number of pop artists had at times earned their living by working as commercial artists.

The pop art movement itself, however, began as a reaction against the abstract expressionist style of the 1940s and 1950s, which the pop artists considered overly intellectual, subjective, and divorced from reality. Adopting the goal of the American composer John Cage – to close the gap between life and art – pop artists embraced the environment of everyday life. In using images that reflected the materialism and vulgarity of modern mass culture, they sought to provide a perception of reality even more immediate than that offered by the realistic painting of the past. They also worked to be impersonal – that is, to allow the viewer to respond directly to the object, rather than to the skill and personality of the artist. Occasionally, however, an element of satire or social criticism can be discerned.

In the United States, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns provided the initial impetus – Rauschenberg with his collages constructed from household objects such as quilts and pillows, Johns with his series of paintings depicting American flags and bull's-eye targets. The first full-fledged pop work was Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing? (1956, private collection) by the British artist Richard Hamilton. In this satiric collage of two ludicrous figures in a living room, the pop hallmarks of exuberance, incongruity, crudeness, and good humor are emphasized.

Pop art developed rapidly during the 1960s. In 1960 the British artist David Hockney produced Typhoo Tea (London, Kasmin Gallery), one of the earliest paintings to portray a brand-name commercial product. In the same year Johns finished his painted cast bronzes of Ballantine beer cans. In 1961Claes Oldenburg, an American, constructed the first of his garish, humorous plastic sculptures of hamburgers and other fast-food items. At the same time Roy Lichtenstein, another American, extended the range of pop art with his oil paintings that mimic blown-up frames of comic strips. Several pop artists also produced happenings, or theatrical events staged as art objects.

In addition to appropriating the subject matter of mass culture, pop art appropriated the techniques of mass production. Rauschenberg and Johns had already abandoned individual, titled paintings in favor of large series of works, all depicting the same objects. In the early 1960s the American Andy Warhol carried the idea a step further by adopting the mass-production technique of silk-screening, turning out hundreds of identical prints of Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell's soup cans, and other familiar subjects, including identical three dimensional Brillo boxes. Multiples, paintings and objects produced in large editions, thus depriving the art work of its uniqueness, essentially corresponded to the hybrid status of Pop Art, between high art and mass culture. These works were no longer artistic worlds devised by the artist, but “images from images”. These pictorial worlds, which were familiar and comprehensible to everybody, must have been like liberation for the wider public, after the elite art of abstraction. Now nobody had to be afraid of art any more; insider knowledge and education were not required. Small wonder, then, that this art was extremely popular, especially among young people. Art was suddenly fresh and contemporary; it no longer breathed the musty air of the museums.

Other important pop works by American artists are the white plaster casts of real people in real settings, by George Segal; pastries depicted in thick paint that resembles cake frosting, by Wayne Thiebaud; paintings imitating billboards, by James Rosenquist; the satiric Great American Nudes series of Tom Wesselmann; objects combined with painting, by Jim Dine; and designs of words, numbers and symbols, by Robert Indiana. In Britain, Peter Blake produced mock-serious publicity-shot images of popular heroes, and the American-born R. B. Kitaj painted images often called “collages of ideas”, incorporating obscure literary allusions but with a strong figurative basis.

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