An exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art highlights Pop Art from around the world.
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“International Pop,” an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center and currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through May 15), showcases what Erica F. Battle, the John Alchin and Hal Marryatt associate curator of contemporary art at the PMA and the organizer of the museum’s edition of the show, calls “a newly expanded frame of Pop Art.” As the show’s title suggests, broadening Pop’s frame also means redrawing the movement’s geographic borders.
The exhibition, which features work by over 80 artists from over 20 countries, began as a meeting of international curators and scholars at the Walker Art Center some five years ago. What became clear during this consortium was that Pop Art had an illustrious life outside its birthplace the U.S. With this in mind, the exhibition’s curators, Darsie Alexander (now executive director at the Katonah Museum of Art) and Bartholomew Ryan (now an independent curator), organized the show around five major contextual sections or “hubs,” as Battle calls them: “Britain: The Independent Group & the New Scene,” “Germany: Capitalist Realism,” “Brazil: The New Consciousness,” “Argentina: The Instituto Torcuato Di Tella & Pop Lunfardo,” and “Japan: The SÕgetsu Art Center & Tokyo Pop.” To support its thesis, the exhibition puts work on view by Peter Blake and Clive Barker (Great Britain), Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter (Germany), Antônio Dias (Brazil), Dalila Puzzovio, and Edgardo Costa (Argentina), Keiichi Tanaami and Genpei Akasegawa (Japan), among many other, as well as U.S. stalwarts Andy Warhol and Jim Dine.
With Pop, the avant garde swallowed, chewed, and spat out the imagery and tactics of mass media and communication (this can be seen quite literally in the show in Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream (1964), which both mimics and reproaches overt sexual imagery in advertising by depicting a woman licking an ice cream cone). Taking the rhetoric of advertising, periodicals, and television, artists such as Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein utilized figuration and mass production to pump out timely works that simultaneously celebrating and chastised American consumerism. On the other hand, work that was created in some other countries reflected harsher political and economic realities—Japan and Germany were still dealing with the aftermath of World War II, and Brazil was in the throes of a 1964 military coup that was followed by heavy censorship laws.
How and where artists were exposed to mass imagery had an important effect on how they conceived of and produced their work. Depending on where they lived, artists had greater or less access to imagery, particularly in print. Scottish artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who is often credited as the earliest adopter of Pop, used images of a pinup girl, Coca Cola, a fighter jet, and the word “POP!” itself in his 1947 collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. For Paolozzi, who compiled collage scrapbooks, images weren’t easy to come by—something that can be hard to believe in the age of Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram. “He had to get American magazines from servicemen,” says Battle.
As Battle notes, many of the artists in the show did not regard their work as Pop, or were seeking to reject or cannibalize the movement. When Battle, who helped curate the British section of the exhibition, spoke with the New Zealand artist Billy Apple about Pop in Britain, Apple said, “I’m not British and I’m not a Pop artist.” Battle’s response was, “Let’s just talk about the fact that you were there.” Apple, who studied at the Royal College of Art in London with David Hockney, Frank Bowling, and Pauline Boty (Hockney and Boty have work in “International Pop”), was featured in the pivotal 1964 exhibition “The American Supermarket” at Paul Bianchini’s Upper East Side gallery, in which the exhibition space was decorated to mimic a standard American supermarket. Apple’s work appeared alongside pieces by Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns, Mary Inman, James Rosenquist and Robert Watts (many of which are featured in the Philadelphia show). Apple could claim not to be a Pop artist, but he was on the short list of one of the seminal Pop exhibitions in history. While some overseas artists may have felt that their work was an ironic take on an already ironic American art phenomenon, their work nests comfortably in the Pop fold.
America and American pop culture were front and center in a lot of international work. As cemented with Jasper Johns’ Flag (1958), America as a literal aesthetic was up for grabs. British artist Derek Boshier (also a Royal College alum), used the familiar Kellogg’s logo in his 1961 oil on canvas Special K. Says Battle of Boshier’s choice of imagery, “[Boshier] said, ‘You wake up and there’s America on the breakfast table.’” In Brazilian artist Antônio Henrique Amaral’s 1967 work Homenagem ao Século XX/XXI (20th/21st Century Tribute), the gaping mouths and active tongues of a military dictator are depicted in bright, grabby colors before an American flag, showing the influence of America’s cultural and political presence in Brazil at the time (the U.S. was supporting Brazil’s dictatorship).
Ushio Shinohara’s Coca-Cola Plan (After Rauschenberg), a 1964 appropriation of Robert Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan combine, based on an image Shinohara saw of the 1958 piece in a magazine, shows the importation of American art and culture to the East. Shinohara, who met Rauschenberg when the American artist visited Japan, asked him if he could make a version of his work. When Rauschenberg said yes, Shinohara showed him that he had already done it, saying, “The first one to imitate will win.”
By Sarah E. Fensom