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International Pop recounts the emergence of Pop art from the 1950s through the early 1970s and takes a global approach to a phenomenon, which in its various iterations, responded critically and imaginatively to radical cultural and political currents. By including art across media and produced by artists associated with movements that originated in Europe, Asia, and North and South America, the show aims to broaden the scope of what previous exhibitions and prevailing scholarship have conceived of as “Pop.” These comparisons and confrontations reveal the myriad ways in which international artists deployed strategies and aesthetic modalities that alternately coincided with, assimilated, or rejected the aspects of Pop that were prominent in Britain and the United States. Organized by Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan, who have both since departed the Walker Art Center (Alexander was appointed director of the Katonah Museum of Art, New York, and Ryan is a Pittsburgh-based independent curator), International Pop is an ambitious historical exhibition, accompanied by an extensive film and video program and catalogue, that endeavors to revise the definition and legacy of Pop as one that is as yet unresolved. It is remarkable for the quality of the works included, the number of artists represented, and the thoughtful thematic and contextual approach to the material.
Pop art has been historicized as a movement that began in the 1950s in Britain and achieved its fullest expression as a decidedly new and distinctively U.S. art form in the early 1960s. During the cold war era, the United States was the political, economic, and military superpower, and exerted significant cultural influence. Indeed, the complexity and variety of reactions to American cultural dominance is a concern of the exhibition, which opens with examples from Japan and Germany, countries that were remade along the U.S. model of democracy and consumerism after World War II. In Oiran (1968), a large painting of a faceless geisha by the Tokyo-based artist Ushio Shinohara, the slick surfaces and bold colors of mass-media advertising are adapted to the formal conventions of late Edo-period ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and Japan’s graphic tradition is thrown into relief by mechanical techniques, such as stenciling and air brush, and new materials, like acrylic and plexiglass. This work appears alongside silkscreened wallpaper (Feuer im Weizen, Kleider, 2008) and a pair of metal clothes racks with red, white, and blue plastic dresses (Kleiderständer2 and Kleiderständer3, 1968–70) by Thomas Bayrle, whose use of seriality and dimensionality serve as an effective commentary on the excess and force of (U.S.) mass culture. This pairing also introduces the investigation into the international and the transnational, which is a major concern of the exhibition and catalogue.
The organizers offer the following rejoinder to the predominant art-historical narrative: “The history of Pop art is a history of circulation” (11). This notion of exchange—of ideas, images, and commodities—underscores the premise that Pop was neither a movement nor style, but rather a phenomenon that developed simultaneously and in conjunction with several other artistic trajectories, including: Nouveau Réalisme, Concretism, Neo-Concretism, Anti-Art, Happenings, Dada, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Op. Moreover, it is this thesis that has guided the organization of the show, which aims to attend to both particular national and historical contexts and to the formal and conceptual similarities that transcended them. The resolution is a focus on the institutions and movements of five specific geographies: the Independent Group and the New Scene in Britain, the New Consciousness in Brazil, Capitalist Realism in Germany, the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella and Pop Lunfardo in Argentina, and the Tokyo Pop of the Sōgetsu Art Center in Japan. Thematic sections, which elaborate on the role of media, the influence of politics, and the reaction against abstraction and modernism implicit in the return to realism are interspersed as follows: New Realisms, The Image Travels, Distribution and Domesticity, Pop and Politics, and Love and Despair.
For an exhibition that strives to be both historical and historiographical, the section entitled “New Realisms” is a fitting introduction to the discourse on Pop. The title is a reference to the 1962 International Exhibition of the New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, which included works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg, and is considered the first major exhibition of Pop art in the United States. While the show was originally intended as a second iteration of Pierre Restany’s 1961 exhibition Le Nouveau Réalisme à Paris et à New York at Galerie Rive Droite in Paris, the International Exhibition of the New Realists focused much more intently on U.S. production, leaving the French contributors Martial Raysse, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely feeling marginalized. According to the wall text, International Pop seeks to reexamine that “generative moment” and “to embrace the origins of Pop’s stylistic diversity and internationalism.” The revisionary exercise is carried out here with an installation of artworks in several media that demonstrate Pop’s reclamation of realism in response to a host of modernist precedents. A display case contains works by Warhol, Jasper Johns, Genpei Akasegawa, Yayoi Kusama, Christo, and Cildo Meireles recognizable as reproductions of commonplace objects and offering commentary (whether critical or celebratory) on consumer culture. These concerns are later taken up in “Distribution and Domesticity,” which reflects upon commodity culture and the promotion of consumerism as a lifestyle in the 1950s and 1960s.
The adjacent “The Image Travels” galleries are dedicated to the nascent Pop of Britain’s Independent Group, German Capitalist Realism, and a thematic exploration of the way images were deployed, circulated, read, and collected. Moving between these three spaces, the viewer can begin to understand the contingency of images, particularly of photographic reproductions. British artists working in the 1950s adopted a subjective and interdisciplinary approach to image culture, which, as catalogue contributor Erica Battle suggests, was infused with nostalgia: “If American Pop can be characterized as a restoration of the pictorial—and one that followed emotive Abstract Expressionism—in which signification was subverted by a cool, detached attitude, then British Pop can be described as an idiosyncratic reflection of a widening cultural spectrum in which representation retained symbolic value” (102). German Pop artists also worked with reproducible images, whether drawn from newsreels, archives, or entertainment magazines. Gerhard Richter’s Frau die Treppe herabgehend (1965) is exemplary of his Photo Paintings of the mid-1960s, while Sattel (1963), a sculpture consisting of a painted bicycle saddle by the lesser-known Manfred Kuttner, is also demonstrative of a Pop sensibility that was predicated on appropriation, replication, and a certain degree of Naturalism. “The Image Travels” is a suite also dedicated to the archiving practices of artists and contains scrapbooks by the British artist Eduardo Paolozzi and the Slovakian artist Július Koller, which elucidate the pervasiveness of U.S. popular culture and the transnational reception of images of Western culture.
In Brazil and Argentina, where military dictatorships supported by the United States were in place in the 1960s, Pop imagery and idioms were adapted to more explicitly philosophical and political expressions. Despite many perceptible similarities between Brazilian New Figuration and U.S. Pop art, both in terms of form and content, there is a political urgency to the Brazilian works of the 1960s in their embrace of mass-media images and techniques of mass production to critique the military regime and the social realities of repression and censorship. The relationship between Pop and politics appears much more compelling here in the works of Marcello Nitsche and Décio Noviello than in the diverse installation that occupies the “Pop and Politics” section where protest against the war in Vietnam and reactions to Soviet and Chinese propaganda lose, to some degree, their specificity and appear as a collection of responses to divergent ideological systems.
The exhibition concludes with “Love and Despair,” where by virtue of subject matter, including gender, sexuality, desire, violence, and trauma, the conventions of Pop appear to presage much of the art that will follow in the wake of identity politics. The artworks in this gallery evidence the ways in which artists, many of them women or LGBT, whose subject positions might be located outside of the mainstream thrust of Pop and of social norms, could insert different forms of identity into the constellation of advertising, entertainment, and news that was the material of Pop. The risk in staging confrontations between such disparate works is that they might be dissociated from their specific social, political, and aesthetic contexts and comprehended in terms of their relationship to themes that have already been deeply identified with a U.S. point of view.
Nevertheless, what emerges from International Pop is a productive reopening of the discourse surrounding Pop, including its foundations, characteristics, and enduring interest. The accompanying catalogue, which includes essays by art historians, film critics, and curators from Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Britain, the United States, Hungary, and Italy, an extensive illustrated chronology, and selected bibliography, provides important new scholarship on the period of Pop art. In encountering many classics of Pop alongside other rarely seen artworks, the viewer is obliged to expand her or his conception of one of the most recognizable phenomenon of twentieth-century culture.
Taylor J. Acosta
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota