It is now more than 50 years since the art world was turned on its ear by a group of brash young artists bent on translating popular culture into art. At the time, the gallery audience, who had just gotten used to the gesture and the drip that marked abstract expressionism, did not know what to make of the flashlights, soup cans, bathrobes, and neckties that filled the trendiest galleries and turned up on the covers of popular magazines.
Labeled “pop art” in the 1950s by a British art historian, the movement gathered momentum and for a time, shock and art were almost synonymous. The genre, which embraced the everyday as the appropriate subject for “fine” art, had its moment and then all but disappeared from the mainstream. But the art world was never quite the same. In fact, much of what is “happening” today has its roots in that often shocking era: a time when unexpected imagery was served up in unexpected ways. The young artists had broken the mold, establishing radical technical innovation and the celebration of the mundane as an acceptable part of what defined art and, in the process, opened doors for future generations.
“Pop Art at Princeton: Permanent and Promised,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through Sunday, August 12, captures the iconoclastic energy of those heady days. The collection of prints, paintings, sculpture, and mixed-media work, drawn from the museum’s extensive holdings and promised gifts, documents the radical thinking and creative dynamic that marked that time. More than 80 works by 15 leading artists and their associates — among the most innovative of that day — reveal the many ways in which those artists sought to agitate the aesthetic waters and bring their message home.
Although the earliest work of this genre appeared in England, New York City and the artists featured in this exhibition were at the heart of the movement. Pop art was regarded by some as a backlash to the absence of subject that marked abstract expressionism. Others thought of these artists as the stepchildren of the surrealists. It was, however, a language all its own.
The assembled works effectively document the extensive artistic range and radical new ideas that marked the period — a chapter of art history in three dimensions. While much of this work still carries with it an element of surprise, some of it has, over the years, evolved into iconic motifs for the population at large. There cannot be many who are not familiar with Robert Indiana’s use of the word LOVE in two and three dimensions. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans, and Roy Lichtenstein’s super-sized comic strips had almost as much media attention, for a time, as the Beatles and baseball.
For these artists subject was the defining element. In their work the everyday was elevated to high artistic order using such unlikely objects as beer cans, blueberry pies, cigarettes, household tools, and items of clothing to make their point. Ed Ruscha immortalized a gas pump hose in a work on paper. Spaghetti and grass were the subjects for a lithograph by James Rosenquist. Warhol drew many of his ideas from the media: among them, portraits of Mao, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, and Elizabeth Taylor.
In Jim Dine’s etching “Self-Portrait,” the artist “presents” himself as three versions of an empty bathrobe. Comic strip art shaped much of Lichtenstein’s painting and sculpture. Like the originals, his paintings were rendered using half-tone dots, black outlines and speakers’ words enclosed in the traditional bubble. The surface of sculpture in both metal and wood is also rendered using techniques once reserved for the funny papers.
The use of unconventional and often unexpected materials helped to redefine art for the pop crowd. Aluminum, plywood, steel, rubber stamps, string, and tree branches became artists’ materials. The side view mirror from a truck is at the heart of a mixed media work by Allan D’Arcangelo. Dine’s “Art of Painting uses housepainter’s brushes in two and three dimensions. Life-sized portraits by Alex Katz — polychrome silhouettes cut from aluminum — took portraiture where it had never been. And Tom Wesselman used molded plastic for a still life of ordinary objects and laser-cut steel for landscape and still life.
The exhibition is installed on the second floor, with works from the collection in the front gallery and promised works in the second gallery. The downstairs entry gallery, however, nicely sets the stage. Red Groom’s three-dimensional, whimsical version of Cedar Tavern, a New York City watering hole for the artistic avant garde at mid-20th century, is densely populated with artists who were about to become history with the advent of Pop — the grand old men of abstract expressionism. On adjacent walls a Warhol trio, including a can of Campbell’s soup, a portrait of Jackie Kennedy, and an almost-real print of a dollar bill combines with Jasper Johns’ silver flashlight and a painting of numbers to put the viewer in the right frame of mind to confront the landmark exhibition that awaits.
— Helen Schwartz
“Pop Art at Princeton: Permanent and Promised,” through Sunday, August 12, Princeton University Art Museum. 609-258-3788.
Film, Thursday, April 19, 4:30 p.m. Princeton Art Museum. “Painters Painting: The New York Art Scene, 1940-’70,” introduced by Calvin Brown. Reception follows.
Gallery Talk, Friday, April 27, 12:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m., Princeton Art Museum. “Roy Lichtenstein: Pop Art and After,” presented by Kevin Hatch, department of art and archaeology.
Gallery Talk, Friday, May 4, 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 6, 3 p.m., Princeton Art Museum, “Alex Katz and Pop Art,” presented by Diana K. Tuite, department of art and archaeology.
Film, Tuesday, May 1, 4:30 p.m. Frist Campus Center 301, 609-258-3788. “Poor Little Rich Girl,” an Andy Warhol film introduced by William McManus. Reception follows.
Art for Families: Pop Goes the Artist, Saturday, May 5, 10 a.m. to noon, Princeton Art Museum. $5 per child.
Family Day: A Celebration of the Americas, Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Princeton University Art Museum. Activities and performances. Free. Pizza and drinks will be served for lunch.