Pop Art is best known as an American movement, active around the 60s. In fact, this is a bold generalisation, as the word “Pop” in an artistic context appears for the first time in 1955, United Kingdom. It referred to the oeuvre of some creative minds associated with the so-called Independent Group (IG), a collective founded in 1945. Its members were artists, architects, photographers and critics connected to the Institute of Contemporary Arts of London. In Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), the critic Clement Greenberg advocated for the clear distinction between Modern art and the variations that mass culture drew from it to satisfy the wide public. His view is an elitarian response to the progressive massification of culture and the art world, which comprehended also the British and American Modernists as they grew more and more famous.
The Independent Group did not follow Greenberg’s cry. Its members did not accept the dichotomy between the artist and the mass, between low and high culture. They saw themselves as intellectual consumers in a capitalist world, and they thus shaped their work consequently. Eduardo Paolozzi’s collages are a clear example of the changing times. In Bunk, he puts together images taken from advertisement leaflets and magazines. The quality of the pictures is poor, their borders poorly cut, the paper grainy. The artist is not trying to deceive us, indeed, he wants the viewer to recognise that the single elements have been taken from a mass-production background. The content follows the same principle: the overtly sexualised pin-up and the muscular men reproduce stereotypical ideals of beauty and present them in a simple if not explicit format.
Later, artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein brought the same format to America. Their artworks address trivial aspects of American culture, such as comics, Hollywood stars, and famous brand products such as the Campbell’s soup. The most famous example is certainly Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962), where a single image of Marilyn Monroe is repeated in several states of print. Influenced by his Catholic faith, the artist exploited the icon as a visual medium. It is the focused representation of a single figure, with no detail to distract the eyes. In Christian art, the icon is a devotional piece, it is supposed to bring the divine presence close to the worshipper. On the other hand, Warhol piles a group of single icons as products on supermarket shelves, as Campbell’s soup’s.
The replication has a dispersive effect, and the single face of Marilyn gets out of focus. It loses, to some extent, its visual power. This principle is adopted by Warhol also in his 1963 series Disaster. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect”, he stated during an interview. Therefore, the superimposition of car crashes or electric chairs (this is the subject and title of another famous series) does not provoke the viewer, who skims through the tragedy with innocent indifference. As in Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, we are reminded of the banality of suffering. The critic Thomas B. Hess comments saying “Pop Art […] keeps urging the belief that everything is pretty rosy; even our ignominy, the electric chair, gets a quaint cosmetic look”.
Marilyn Diptych – Andy Warhol – 1962 – silkscreen print
As Warhol approached the 60s, he progressively abandoned direct drawing in favour of screenprint. Moreover, he employed several assistants, leaving the practical side of his production to them. Often in interviews, he identified his own art with a progressive process of mechanisation. This is a further element of identification with the methods of mass production. On the other hand, it shows a different perspective about the mutual role of the painter and the viewer. The latter now holds a central role in the work of art. As the artist, he is a consumer, and Pop Art celebrates the very process of visual consumption that characterises mass culture. It is the raw presentation of images and idols to appeal the libido of the eyes, in a disillusioned and sensuous way.
Big Electric Chair – Andy Warhol – 1963 – silkscreen print