American Pop Art review

Helen Frankenthaler Savage breeze

I attended this exhibition on the 16th June almost by mistake. My eldest son and I had intended to see the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum but could not get tickets, so we saw this instead. It wasn’t a wasted trip. The exhibition is huge, covering 12 rooms, and some iconic images were on show including Andy Warhol’s Marilyn series, Hockney’s Swimming Pool and other familiar pieces. Not having done any preparatory research, I was unaware that the whole exhibition was really about printmaking, and how it progressed during the second half of the 20th century. The videos about the printmaking processes were very interesting, and the complexity of some of the techniques was astonishing.

What is Pop Art?

This delightful little video from the Tate Gallery explains Pop Art in simple terms. Essentially, it says that there were two types of Pop Art, that made in America, and that made in the UK about America. In its explanation of the genre, the Tate Gallery says:

It began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day. Instead they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music and comic books for their imagery.

From the point of view of a photographer, looking at work produced in a different media, the exhibition resonated in many ways. I was interested in Warhol’s use of different colours and techniques in his Electric Chair series because several of my fellow students are currently experimenting with alternative techniques and it is something I would also like to explore. Warhol said of the series that repetition reduces impact, which is something that could equally be applied to many areas of photography. Roy Lichtenstein’s dot prints were fabulous – complex and graphically expert in design, with a palette of bright primary colours. I liked Roy Rauschenberg’s mix of photography and printing often using nonstandard processes, and I need to follow up his Stoned Moon series.

There were so many artworks that it would be impossible to note them all, but the ones that I would like to research further include:

  • Jasper Johns screen prints with multiple layers and lithographs. He takes well known symbols and manipulates them to be something else – other. I like Target with Four Faces, Two Maps II and Color Numerals – lovely colours, and each one was totally different.
  • Jim Dine’s use of objects to represent himself  – dressing gown, paint brushes etc. Five paintbrushes –  an iterative series with changes and improvements at each version, including the materials he used for the prints.
  • Ed Rushka Hollywood. A copy of 26 gasoline station cover there. Big Dipper over desert 1982, Whiskers 1972, Sin 1970, Every building on the sunset strip, which is a concertina book.
  • David Hockney – Mist from the Weather series
  • A lot of handmade paper throughout the exhibition. I need to explore how to do this and how it can be used in photography. Ellsworth Kelly used handmade paper as a medium in itself.
  • Helen Frankenthaler Savage Breeze. Wonderfully minimalist.
  • Anni Albers – I like her work with triangles, reminiscent of patchwork
  • Craig McPherson Yankee Stadium at Night – almost black, but it actually has a lot of detail.
  • Richard Estes Urban Landscapes – bright posterised images from photographs
  • Eric Fischi Year of the Drowned Dog. A series of six interlocking etchings which are meant to be seen as a composite, but which have equal validity as stand-alone images.

As tends to be the case with these exhibitions, the overwhelming majority of works were by men. And as also tends to be the case, there was a section at the end devoted to

  1. Political art and dissent – this was very interesting and full of subversive ideas. I would have liked to see more of these overtly political images,
  2. Gender and feminism – I think there were two works in the main section by women, both mentioned above, but this area contained works by Jenny Holtzer, Dottie Attie, May Stephens, Lee Lozano and Kiki Smith. I particularly liked Lozano’s books.
  3. Race  – Willie Cole’s Stowage was fascinating and shocking in equal measures and is not easily forgotten, as were Kara Walker’s prints on the slave trade.

I enjoyed the exhibition more than I had expected, and came away with various points to mull over. One is the positioning of printmaking somewhere between the complete replicability of (digital) photography and the uniqueness of paintings. The processes for making the works were long and formed of multiple parts, meaning that each time a work was printed, the effect was slightly different, in the same way that analogue printing produced subtly different results each time a negative is printed. Another is the use of different materials for printing and how the material itself forms part of the work. In particular, Ed Ruschka’s 3D thick paper roadsigns spring to mind. Finally, I was intrigued by Fischi’s Drowned Dog series and Dine’s Five Paintbrushes, and how the final works have the effects of time built directly into them, meaning that the sum of their parts is greater than the individual works, and one can see how they revisualised them again and again.



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