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Art Movements in Art History - Emergence of Pop Art in America

Art Movements > Pop Art > Emergence of Pop Art in America

Emergence of Pop Art in America*


There is no linear historical connection between Pop Art in Britain and that in America. The
fact that Pop Art emerged independently in America suggests that it should be viewed in
terms of its own cultural and historical situation.

American Pop Art emerged from a situation of artistic ferment. During the late 1950s
Abstract Expressionism was the mainstream practice, one supported by most established
critics. Nevertheless, a number of artists began to feel that abstraction had certain
limitations, that it was an art too rarified to accommodate the complexities of contemporary
experience. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Kaprow, Lucas Samaras, Jim Dine,
a: Grooms and Claes Oldenburg began to produce assemblages and/or Happenings -
pratices revealing an endeavour to wrest art from a subjectively aesthetic realm and
practices revealing an endeavour to wrest art from a subjectively aesthetic realm and
establish its connections with the real world. These attempts to dispel distinctions between
"an aesthetic experience" and "an experience of the world" were also manifest in the works
of Jasper Johns - an artist who presented two-dimensional subjects (flags, targets,
numbers) on two-dimensional surfaces.

While Rauschenberg and Johns are sometimes regarded as Pop artists proper, it is more
useful to see their work as characteristic of a milieu which favoured the emergence of Pop


Jasper Johns selects signs rather than objects as such for his subject matter. Yet by painting
them, rather than simply inscribing them, he treats these signs as though they were in fact
objects. This causes complex levels of tension. According to the Oxford English dictionary,
a representation of a flag is itself a flag. Yet Johns's flag is also a painting. Similarly, when
Johns paints a target, he robs it of its function - as something to be aimed at. Yet while it
ceases, literally, to be a target, conventional shapes or signs assert themselves, insisting that
they do in fact constitute a target.

Through this complex play with levels of reality, Johns forces his viewers into a
different kind of relationship with objects or signs in the real world and with his paintings
themselves. The world is presented as a problem - a conglomerate of signs with flexible
and fluctuating (rather than standard) values. His paintings seem not to offer an
interpretation of these signs but to transfer responsibility for defining meaning to the

John's use of signs as subjects, and his notion that interpretation occurs in the mind of
the viewer rather than through a transformation of the subject by the artist, were the
antecedents of certain practices and beliefs inherent in Pop Art.


Rauschenberg, like Johns, deals with problems of signification. This is evident, for instance,
in Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), a work that is, literally, what the title states - an
erased drawing by De Kooning. The work raises questions about what in fact constitutes the
art object. Is it the original De Kooning drawing? Or is it the act of erasing that drawing? Or
is the paper restored to pristine whiteness? The title of the work is itself paradoxical, for if
the drawing is erased the paper can no longer be designated a drawing; yet the fact that it
was a drawing once means that it is not simply a sheet of white paper.

Part of the complexity of Rauschenberg's works is related to his desire to challenge the
notion that artistic experience exists apart from an experience of ordinary life. He
commented: "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. I try to act in the gap
between the two". This enterprise is manifest, for instance, in what he termed his
"combines" - works which juxtapose and interconnect various forms of hardware with
loose passages of paintwork. The "found" elements retain allusions to the context in which
they were originally found, but simultaneously gain other associations through their use in
an art context.

Rauschenberg parallels the Pop enterprise in his disruption of hierarchical distinctions
between the elements (or references to elements) he includes within his works. As Alloway
notes, Rauschenberg's comments about Leonardo's Annunciation in the Uffizi Gallery,
Florence, are particularly appropriate to understanding his own work. Rauschenberg

"The tree, the rock, the Virgin, are all of the same importance in the same time. There is
no hierarchy."

Rauschenberg's non-hierarchic arrangement of forms may reflect his own experience of
New York (which he describes a a "city where you have on one lot a forty-story building and
-ight next to it, you have a little shack"), but it also suggests a rebellion
against both the traditional notion that art should focus on "worthy" subjects and the
Modernist notion that the handmade mark should be accorded special value. This type of
rebellion was to become an important aspect of Pop Art.


The artists considered central to the American Pop movement -- Andy Warhol, Roy
Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann and Claes Oldenburg - produced their
first Pop works independently rather than through consultation with one another. In about
May 1961 Richard Bellamy of the newly formed Green Gallery and Ivan Karp and Leo
Castelli of the Leo Castelli Gallery became acquainted with the works of Lichtenstein,
Rosenquist and Warhol. Henry Geldzahler, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art (and someone who was to be one of Pop Art's most active promotors) was introduced
to Warhol in July of the same year. The two became close friends. Geldzahler first met
Wesselmann in 1961 when he was participating in one of the "Happenings" of Claes
Oldenburg and introduced him to Alex Katz of the Tanager Gallery. Through introductions of
this kind, curators who were to support Pop Art became familiar with the various artists,
works and began to see connections between them. Group exhibitions were held in 1962, the
most significant being the autumn "New Realists" exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery.
Initial references to the work as "Neo Dada", "Commonism", "OK Art", "Common Image
Art" et cetera, were finally displaced by the British term, "Pop Art".


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* Drawn from notes compiled by B. Schmahmann for the University of South Africa | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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