Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 2016
Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan, eds. International Pop Exh. cat. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015. 352 pp.; 230 color ills.; 115 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9781935963080)
Exhibition schedule: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, April 11–August 29, 2015; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, October 11, 2015–January 17, 2016; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, February 18, 2016–May 15, 2016
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International Pop. Installation view. Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Organized by the Walker Art Center, International Pop is an ambitious show that aims to rethink the canonical narratives of one of the most recognizable artistic styles of the twentieth century. Structured around five national and five thematic galleries, it attempts to overturn the idea of Pop as a primarily American and British movement by redefining it as a fluid sensibility with an international reach and relevance. While the exhibition catalogue includes an impressively detailed chronology documenting Pop events in unexpected locales like Algeria, India, and the Soviet Union, the exhibition itself is limited to artists from Europe, Latin America, the United States, and Japan. The Dallas Museum of Art’s (DMA) edition, curated for the venue by Gabriel Ritter, includes around 130 works from 13 countries presented in a distinctive layout that underscores the exhibition’s stakes in the conversation on global art history, particularly in regards to center-periphery relationships.

“What do we talk about when we talk about Pop?” This is the question Walker curators Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan pose in the introduction to the catalogue (8). Their answer lies in their selection of five major themes, which structure both the publication and exhibition: New Realism, Distribution and Domesticity, The Image Travels, Love and Despair, and Pop and Politics. In addition to these themes, the curators focus on five countries, each with its own distinctive, self-identified groups and institutions connected to the Pop sensibility: Britain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Japan. While the national galleries are useful in showing how Pop was a localized practice, embedded in the cultures, media, and institutional politics of particular places, the broader and multinational thematic galleries give viewers insight into the set of terms and concepts that allow us to talk about Pop as a “sensibility,” “phenomenon,” or “ethos”—all words used by the curators in place of the more common “movement” or “style” (8). Their choices for these galleries are built on Pop’s commonly cited subject matter—consumerism, sex, political awareness, mass-media imagery—while also providing subtle nuances. Distribution and Domesticity, for instance, addresses the influence of American-style consumerism by focusing on the use of commercial food imagery in visually spectacular works by Claes Oldenburg, Erró, Tom Wesselmann, and Robert Watts. The Image Travels, centered on collage, approaches artists’ use of found and mediated imagery via the contemporary concept of the personal archive.

If the key goals of the exhibition, as the Walker curators stated, are “to show artists in the specific contexts from which they emerged, as well as to create relations between works across time and place” (Walker Art Center, press release), then the DMA’s layout tends to favor the latter ambition. While the Walker privileged a directed narrative, in which rooms gradually blended into each other along a relatively specific pathway, Ritter organized the DMA’s galleries in a somewhat circular layout. Rather than follow a given path, viewers are left to forge their own among the themes and national contexts. These paths tend to be circuitous, with the national galleries, for instance, requiring viewers to double back in order to continue on. (Germany and Japan are stacked together, as are Brazil and Argentina.) On the one hand, this layout encourages viewers to construct their own paths, allowing them to form unexpected connections and potentially deepening their relationship to the exhibition’s argument. On the other hand, the show is large enough that the winding layout is at times confusing.

As Ritter describes it, the DMA’s exhibition layout was conceptualized as a wheel with a hexagonal gallery at the center that serves as a “brain” or “hub” whose various sight lines allow viewers to visually connect works from different galleries across geographies and contexts (Gaile Robinson, “Review: ‘Pop’ Goes the Art at the DMA,” Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, October 16, 2015, http://www.star-telegram.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article39404727.html ). At the hub of the wheel is the gallery dedicated to Britain. More than anything, the choice to place the British section at the center of the exhibition reveals the show’s position regarding center-periphery relationships. While it seeks to expand Pop’s history to include other contexts and stories, it does so as an addendum to, rather than a revision of, the standard narrative. This position is underscored by Ritter’s decision to mitigate Britain’s hegemonic position at the center of the DMA’s display by including works by non-British artists in the gallery, specifically Andy Warhol (United States), Shinohara Ushio (Japan), and Mario Schifano (Italy). Also included in the room are two large cases of exhibition catalogues and historical ephemera from around the world. In other words, while Britain remains at the center of the narrative, these maneuvers attempt to simultaneously internationalize it. A lack of clear connections between the British and non-British artists, however, makes the selection seem arbitrary and compromises the effect.

The mixing of artists within national galleries also raises questions about the visibility of reciprocal influence across the international relationships at the exhibition’s core. This is especially apparent in the gallery dedicated to Japan. Colorful, bold, and provocative, the Japanese artists are the most exciting of the exhibition. Tadanori Yokoo’s work is a special standout, with brightly colored paintings of monstrous women and a fast-paced video montage of kisses from comic books. Transfixing, his work pushes Pop’s sex appeal toward a humorous grotesqueness not often seen in Anglo-American varieties. Despite the strength of the Japanese works, however, much of the gallery is dedicated to describing the influence that American artists like Jasper Johns, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg exerted during their visits to Japan in the early 1960s. One clear example appears in the pairing of Rauschenberg’s combine Coca-Cola Plan (1958)—a wooden box adorned with wings and featuring paint-spattered Coca-Cola bottles—with Shinohara Ushio’s copy of it (1964). According to the wall text, Shinohara, finding that the Americans had already tackled Pop’s major themes, decided to copy their work instead. He produced a garish, handmade version of Rauschenberg’s original in an edition of ten, “becoming more parody than imitation, particularly in the context of Japan’s long history of emulating Western modern art” (exhibition wall text). The narrative supports International Pop’s goal of revealing cross-national relationships, but the scales are consistently in favor of the Americans and British as the originating, dominant force. A lack of attention to the reciprocity in these relationships echoes throughout the show.

Conspicuously absent are national galleries devoted to the United States and France. Twenty-five out of the 130 works in the exhibition are by artists from the United States—the most out of any single country—and these populate the five thematic rooms as well as the other national galleries. The French, by contrast, are almost entirely absent, a curious decision given France’s central role in the development of the Pop ethos. Only two works by Nouveau Réalistes appear at the DMA, one by Martial Raysse and the other by Jean Tinguely. Raysse’s Arbre (1959–60), an early assemblage of trash and bottles on a stick, is a minor work by an artist who, more than anyone else, engaged with and expanded the brash, bold American style of Pop painting, as was revealed in his stunning retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2014.

The lack of French works is especially surprising given the nod to New Realism as one of the exhibition’s five thematic categories. Unlike the Walker, which opened with a small gallery presenting an overview of the entire exhibition, the DMA introduces their edition with the gallery on New Realism. The wall text directly references Sidney Janis’s famous 1962 exhibition of American and European artists, which was one of the first U.S. exhibitions of Pop art and done in collaboration with Nouveau Réalisme’s mouthpiece, the critic Pierre Restany. The selection of works for this gallery, however, is an odd assortment, neither building off the original show nor actively addressing it beyond the use of the pluralized term “New Realisms” as a catch-all alternative to “Pop.” Alongside Roy Lichtenstein’s classic comic painting Look Mickey (1961) are less typical Pop works by the Americans Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, and Jim Dine. Raysse and Tinguely are also included, in addition to Czech artist Jiří Kolář, Brazilian Antonio Dias, British Pauline Boty, and Italian Mimmo Rotella, who is somewhat tied to French Nouveau Réalisme.

Combined with the placement of the British gallery at the center of the exhibition, the decision to open a show on international Pop with this take on New Realism reveals some of the idiosyncrasies of the DMA’s presentation and serves as a microcosm of the exhibition’s larger argument. Namely, it grounds the origin and evolution of Pop in an Anglo-American historiography while simultaneously recognizing that there are other stories to be told. It plays a balancing act of recognizing hegemonic influence while also arguing for the need to acknowledge and identify the contextually specific and autonomous Pop practices of particular locales outside of the United States and Britain, addressing how these two modes of influence and autonomy work together in the historical account of an artistic sensibility.

In this, the exhibition, especially the DMA’s presentation, is both unique and builds off of earlier attempts to redefine Pop through an international lens. In 1991, the Royal Academy of Arts in London organized Pop Art: An International Perspective, which recognized many of the same ideas underlying the Walker’s show; it questioned the usefulness of the term “Pop” and sought to redefine the concept as a sensibility rather than a movement. At the Royal Academy, however, these contexts were limited exclusively to locations in Europe and the United States. International Pop expands this geographic focus to include Latin America and Japan, but stops short of the Tate Modern’s concurrent exhibition The World Goes Pop (September 17, 2015–January 24, 2016), which includes artists from Greece, Iran, Libya, Cuba, and other locations. As other critics have noted, the Tate completely excludes Pop’s superstars, focusing instead on lesser-known artists from a wider range of countries and especially on female artists, who until recently have been grossly absent from Pop’s histories. For comparison, the only American-born artists in the Tate’s show are Judy Chicago, Joe Overstreet, Martha Rosler, and Shinkichi Tajiri.

Both the Tate’s and Walker’s exhibitions reconsider the canonical narratives of Pop art by presenting it as a simultaneously localized and international phenomenon from a variety of contexts and thematic viewpoints. While the Tate seeks to move beyond the canon by ignoring it, International Pop attempts to reform it from within. Both strategies have their place. At stake in choosing between them is what constitutes an inclusive history. The Walker’s exhibition attempts to document the history of Pop as a sensibility, choosing to be inclusive of the canonical narratives that, regardless of their accuracy or relevance, are part of that history. Future exhibitions and scholarship will undoubtedly have to take into account the exhibition’s larger goal of expanding Pop beyond its common framework as an Anglo-American style. As the DMA’s layout makes evident, however, it is crucial for future attempts to self-consciously reflect on the notion of inclusivity at play, whether by directly addressing center-periphery relationships, reciprocal influence, or other contextually specific points of dialogue.

Allison Myers
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.