(Walker Art Center, 2015)
The British art critic Lawrence Alloway, one of the earliest theorists of Pop Art, wrote that the “term [Pop Art] refers to the use of popular art sources by fine artists: movie stills, science fiction, advertisements, games boards, heroes of the mass media.” These references often appear alongside more traditional artistic motifs, blurring the line between high and low. Now one of the most popular and influential movements of the 20th century, Pop Art has been the subject of countless exhibitions and books. What makes it so intoxicating for writers, collectors, and viewers alike is its dynamic nature: source material ranging from comics and commercial logos to newspaper clippings and political images, taking the form of two-dimensional paintings as well as three-dimensional assemblages and layered collages. International Pop, which was organized by the Walker Arts Center and recently opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is one of the first exhibitions to look at Pop as a global movement, rather than isolated international variations. Although I have yet to see the exhibition, the catalogue stands alone as a worthwhile object separate from the show, creating a strong innovative visual narrative, much like an exhibition does.
The book begins with a forty-eight-page visual chronology (1944 – 1974) by Godfre Leung that juxtaposes various historical events and art exhibitions with photographs and quotations collaged in black-and-white across cream pages. A photograph of the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, newly arrived in Paris, appears alongside photos marking the effects of the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s. A line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America” (“When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”) sits beside news of the Olympics in Japan and performances at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, all taking place in the late 1950s and 1960s. Illustrations of the work of Parisian born Venezulan sculptor Marisol appear above quotations by Japanese artist Shinohara Ushio, both next to a full page photograph celebrating the 1963 Art International feature on Pop Art.
Much like the style of Pop Art, the chronology collages appropriated pieces of information and images to construct a multi-faceted narrative history. Consider Coca-Cola, a highly celebrated icon of mass-production used by many pop artists, most famously Andy Warhol. An image of Time Magazine’s May 1950 cover lauding the global spread of the soda company is captioned with “1948 INT The Coca-Cola Company begins globalizing.” The cover image displays an anthropomorphized Coke logo hugging the globe while feeding it a glass soda bottle. Below the image is printed “WORLD & FRIEND Love that piaster, that lira, that tickey, and that American way of life.” The magazine clearly aligns the spread of Coke with the spread of American values. The chronology notes that, in 1950, “One-third of the Coca-Cola Company’s profits come from foreign business; only 1 percent of Coca-Cola Export employees are American.” Without writing a descriptive narrative of the tension between the global spread of American products and consumer values and the resultant fear and wariness of exporting labor and excess wealth, the chronology shows it. Additionally, below the Time cover are a selection of large quotes from the Independent Group including Nigel Henderson’s recollection, “I remember the prints steaming and peeling, and the heavy sighs of Eduardo [Paolozzi], and the fairly sarcastic attacks of Reyner Banham.” Artists were only able to mass produce and spread their work because of the very printing technologies used to distribute the popular culture and news—like Time magazine—which they both lauded and criticized.
The book also includes scholarly essays devoted to the major regions represented-- Argentina, Britain, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, and Japan—and emphasizes the emerging political events, critics, and artists that shaped their specific Pop variation. These all follow a more standard layout, with the text in columns on the left and large color plates on the right. While each essay is an autonomous investigation of each region’s version of Pop, certain patterns emerge across borders. One such example is the conflict between the counter-culture or revolutionaries producing the artwork and the allure of capitalism and consumer culture often presented within it. In Argentina, for example, Maria José Herrera writes in her essay, most cultural production was supported financially by Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT), a “corporate philanthropy” funded by an automotive business as well as American foundations Ford and Rockefeller. Urban life was booming, immigration was increasing, and young artists were flourishing. Herrera explains that in 1965 ITDT sponsored artists Edgardo Giménez, Dalila Puzzovio, and Charlie Squirru, and installed a billboard near the ITDT headquarters with their image below the question, “¿Por qué son tan geniales?” (Why Are They So Cool?), illustrating the tension inherent in government support of artwork that celebrates commercial excess.
Though this exhibition is devoted to a world view, U.S. popular culture was an essential element to global popular culture and Pop Art, whether reactionary or laudatory. Factoring in countries under or engaged with U.S. military regimes at the time, Darsie Alexander explains, “Creating this exhibition required a methodology that took into account U.S. art of the period, honoring the Cold War dynamics in which American popular culture was the cultural export/import model while also exploring the myriad positions and vectors of influence that struggled for their own integrity and identity as they contended with U.S. economic might and the artistic practices it underwrote.” This complex relationship to the excess of American imagery is reflected throughout the artworks discussed and represented, though, as many of the critics suggest, this is not to say that the story of Pop Art is U.S.-centric.
It is the subtle ways in which each country asserts their own cultural influences and influence that makes this study of Pop Art so engaging. Japan, for example, underwent a huge wave of Americanization after the US occupation, explains Hiroko Ikegami in her essay on Tokyo Pop. American movies and visual media were widespread, yet Japan’s own cultural background was already full of Pop. Ikegami notes Japan’s long tradition of print and graphic arts, “marked by indigenous iconic motifs such as Mount Fuji, the rising sun, and oiran (high-class courtesans), which many postwar artists exploited in creating their own modern Pop art.” As a consequence, the work of artists during the height of Pop, such as Shinohara Ushio, reflected the rich history of Japanese print culture as well as, and in opposition to, the rise of American mass media. A series of Ushio’s assemblages, referred to as “Drink More,” feature hands reaching out of paintings clutching Coke bottles. But amongst these is also a work called No Thanks (1964), which shows similar hands clutching the bottle with the text “No, Thanks!” written across the painting surface. Artists “thus sought a nuanced way in which to confront the overwhelming presence of America in Japan—culturally and politically—in their work,” explains Ikegami: “in the process of doing so, they engaged with indigenous Japanese mass culture.” Part of a later generation of Pop, Yokoo Tadanori’s images typify this combination of Japanese and American imagery. His silkscreen, illustrated alongside the essay, Ballad for the Chopped-off Little Finger (1966), utilizes the photomechanical reproduction style of Western Pop Art, but does so to celebrate a Japanese gangster hero, placed against a traditional wave landscape. In his film Kiss Kiss (1964) he copies the American comic style of Roy Lichtenstein but includes a moon, a popular Japanese cultural motif.
The tension between American popular culture and capitalist reach, and the specific regional iconographies is illuminated by the series of over 100 concluding plates organized alphabetically, allowing for visual connections across regions. The green inserts continue, now placed between letters. After the scholarship illuminating the nuances of and political circumstances around each artist and country, the series of images that follows acts almost as a palate cleanser, reminding the reader that there is a unifying visual language that crosses all the boundaries. The American Flag serves as the backdrop of Brazilian artist Antônio Henrique Amaral’s Homenagem séc. XX/XXI (20th/21st-Century Tribute) (1967). Italian artist Sergio Lombardo paints a dark silhouette of the president pointing in John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1962 – 93). The collages of Japanese filmmaker Tanaami Keiich are littered with images of American models and comic book heroes as well as the iconic “WHAAM!” made famous by Roy Lichtenstein. These images both celebrate and critique America’s widespread political and cultural reach. In other cases, artists single out motifs specific to their country’s own mass media. In his drawings and watercolors, Brazilian artist Antonio Dias appropriates iconography from Brazilian woodcut books and local comics. A film still by Tezuka Osamu depicts the Japanese manga hero he created, Astro Boy. Flipping through the pages displays a refreshing stream of assemblages, celebrities, supermarkets, and bold letters and signs, all affirming the undeniable power of the mass-distributed image.
Not only will International Pop remain a scholarly reference for future exhibitions and research, but the range of page colors and textures, to the variety of layouts and organizational methods used throughout the catalogue succeed in capturing the feel of Pop in every spread, succinctly bringing together a large number of artists, artworks, and several countries to tell a multi-faceted and open-ended narrative of Pop Art across the world.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.