The Pop Art Tradition
Art,  English

The Pop Art Tradition: Where Art, Advertising, and Society Collide

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Pop Art Tradition (ISBN: 9781783107490), written by Eric Shanes, published by Parkstone International.

It might be thought that this constitutes a good, working definition of ‘Pop Art’ but a number of factors demonstrate the need for caution. Firstly, the list was written in a private letter that was not made public until well after the large-scale advent of Pop/Mass-Culture Art, and so it could never act as some kind of manifesto. Secondly, Hamilton was outlining the needs of the mass-audience for so-called ‘Pop Art’ and only therefore implying the needs of its creators, which would not necessarily be the same thing at all. Thirdly, and most importantly, the subject-matter that would be dealt with by artists contributing to the Pop/Mass-Culture Art tradition would quickly range far beyond the parameters Hamilton listed.

Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1924, Pop Art tradition
Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1924. Oil on paperboard, 45.7 x 60.9 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

To take but one example, Andy Warhol would certainly create an art that was popular, mass-produced, aimed at youth, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business, but he would also deal with hero-worship, religious hogwash, the banality inherent to modern materialism, world weariness, nihilism and death, all matters that certainly did not figure in Hamilton’s shopping list. So does that mean that Warhol should not be linked to Pop/Mass-Culture Art, or does it suggest that Hamilton’s notion of what would constitute ‘Pop Art’ is unnecessarily limiting and inexact? Surely it is the latter. Moreover, much of the art to come would prove to be anything but transient, easily forgotten, cheaply priced or mass-produced.

Hamilton followed up his 1956 collage by producing paintings such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp of 1957, in which he abstracted car body parts; Hers is a Lush Situation of 1958, in which sections of a 1957 Cadillac are linked to a photo of the glass facade of a building; and $he of 1959-60, in which he brought together areas of a female body, a refrigerator, a toilet seat and a toaster. However, Hamilton would never be a painter interested in churning out long series of works exploring any particular area of massculture, and consequently he has never enjoyed the impact of artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol who would later do so. Instead, he preferred to act more as an aesthetic explorer in the mould of Marcel Duchamp, whom he reveres, and whose damaged Large Glass he replicated in the early 1960s. For this reason the degree to which Hamilton was an aesthetic pioneer is certainly underestimated, especially in America.

Sir Peter Blake, Children reading Comics, 1954, Pop Art tradition
Sir Peter Blake, Children reading Comics, 1954. Oil on hardboard, 36.9 x 47 cm. Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, Cumbria, UK.

A further British painter was also tapping into the mainstream of popular mass-culture from the mid-1950s onwards, albeit in a highly nostalgic way. This was Peter Blake. He would later state, “I started to become a pop artist from my interest in English folk art… Especially my interest in the visual art of the fairground, and barge painting too… Now I want to recapture and bring to life again something of this old-time popular art.” Additional stimulus was derived from an early art teacher who had been particularly interested not only in barge painting but also in tattoos, patchwork quilts, and painted and handwritten signs. Usually none of these types of images and patterns had been regarded as art, simply because most such work is naive and untutored (which is, of course, the source of its visual strength and communicative directness).

Richard Estes, Welcome to 42nd Street (Victory Theater), 1968, Pop Art tradition
Richard Estes, Welcome to 42nd Street (Victory Theater), 1968. Oil on masonite, 81.2 x 60.9 cm. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan.

Early in life Blake equally developed an unusually intense interest in collecting postcards, curios, knick-knacks, old tickets, fly posters, metalled advertisements, ‘primitive’ paintings, examples of child art and comic strips, all of which fed into the imagery of his work. The latter attractions are especially clear in Children reading Comics of 1954. Under such an influence, and armed with an awareness of the works of American painters and illustrators Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, Bernard Perlin and Honoré Sharrer (whose pictures he saw in London at a Tate Gallery show held in 1956), Blake also went on to create representations of circus folk, wrestlers and the like.

This phase of his output came to a climax with On the Balcony of 1955-7 in which two simulated photos of members of the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace are surrounded by five children, other images of people on balconies (including one by Manet), and a mass of small pictures taken from art and life, including the latter as represented by the mass-media Life magazine. By 1959, when Blake created Couples, his interest in popular printed ephemera could form the stuff of art, by drawing our attention to cultural ubiquity and the narrow borderline between sentiment and sentimentality.

Sandy Skoglund, Germs are Everywhere, 1984, Pop Art tradition
Sandy Skoglund, Germs are Everywhere, 1984. Live model, furniture, chewing gum, Cibachrome photograph, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Private collection.

By the late-1950s Paolozzi, Hamilton and Blake were still unknown in the United States, and thus they could not contribute to the rise of Pop/Mass-Culture Art there. So what did propel the emergence of that creative dynamic on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean?

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