Pop to popism at Art Gallery of NSW
Art has always been a commodity, operating in as crude a market as any other, traded for profit or loss in among a vast architecture of deal-makers and speculators. It remains other things, of course: an object, a message, a torch to everyday society, an attempt to transcend this everyday, a vision, a marketing tool, a critique of marketing tools, a vehicle for self-reflection, and so on. And while there are few limits to the form art can take, following a century of restless self-critique and upheaval, it perhaps remains most unified by the perceived measures of its successes. In a contemporary artist’s career these are money, via sales, and fame, via the media.
But while art has always been a commodity, what Pop art did was make art of commodity itself.
Two of the artists in history whose careers have most skilfully and eloquently confirmed the factuality of this are Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. The savvy wizardry of Warhol in particular can be understood clearly in Pop to Popism, being shown at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 1. While this show is fatter than it needed to be, it achieves success in the way it allows Warhol’s knife to cut through the excesses of Pop’s global fad. Hindsight provides the clues to this force.
Where American painting in the 1950s fed off the materiality, angst and Matisse–Picasso radicalisation of painting in postwar Paris, Pop art, amid growing optimism and the muscle-flexing of consumer culture against the Cold War backdrop, emerged brighter, sharper and less weighed down than its brooding antecedents.
The reframing or purview-widening in relation to what constitutes or doesn’t constitute art is a theme throughout art history: the example of Pop, through its willing incorporation of popular culture, sought to do justice to the changing nature of the visual content of society as increasingly dominated by mass media, mass production and mass commodification. By the late 1950s, art might have looked as if it undertook the miraculous “pop” of a champagne cork but, like a champagne cork, it was only harnessing the ferment of society’s bottle.
But back to the exhibition. I had a flummoxing moment when wandering into what I thought was a work before realising it was a Pop playroom in which children can play Twister on reproductions of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits. Across the hall I’d similarly stumbled, while looking for a toilet, into a Pop-themed bar where a waitress eagerly waited for somebody wanting to be taken through a no-doubt carefully curated menu. Hot on the heels of a semi-fizzle of a final room is a gift shop bringing Willy Wonka to mind, where Beatles LPs and other nostalgic souvenirs can be purchased. I’ll go no further but simply ask: given the efforts undertaken in procuring artworks for such an exhibition, must we – no matter how clever and tempting it might seem in a conference room upstairs – then dilute and drag attention away from them with these theme parks? I’m assuming the answer to this question is “yes” and the reason is, somewhere down the line, an economic one.
In terms of replacing some of the flab with ligament, I wondered whether this show might have wanted to be taken beyond the 1980s, when the likes of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince were seen to be continuing what Pop had begun, into recent global trends through which artists are negotiating the transformative impacts on society and art of social media. The way this tricky-for-its-nearness terrain is approached by a new generation of artists demonstrates many of the key properties and qualities of Pop art, namely that of pastiche and parody through a self-consciousness of new technologies and their social impacts. While Pop art seems to be many things, its foothold having swollen if anything, it has its own distinctive flavour: independent assessments aside, to my mind and palate a work tasting like a piece of lead in the milkshake was Brett Whiteley’s The American Dream (1968-69). It is not Pop, but something else: a great expanse of ideas that has more to do with the unfurling mind than with consumption. For a show so big, it is difficult to understand why there was a need to reach further for examples of a movement already so immense.
A big part of this exhibition’s thesis is the contextualising of local Pop art among international peers. Important to this is Australia’s relative isolation and the ensuing relationship with such international movements of the time being guided by magazine reproduction. To this end the show has varying success, sometimes making one aware of our own distinctive and local Pop flavour while at other times feeling desperately quotational – pushing our cause at the expense of the exhibition’s. Of the former, I enjoyed works by Peter Powditch and Robert Rooney while registering for the first time the influence of Robert Rauschenberg, his “of the hand” collaging canvases, on many Australian artists from this time. An impression that has lingered with me from seeing this exhibition is that there were two or three distinctive Pop art camps that varyingly clung to, or cut away from, painterly abstraction of the 1950s.
Through its global reach and salient inclusions, Pop to Popism asks the question: how do we live in and among the forever shifting dynamics of a culture while drawing sufficient air to get a perspective on them? Artists are constantly trying to do this but few manage to remove the lens cap, let alone the fog of breath – both society’s and their own – obscuring the glass.
The virtual whirlpool of now, in which objects, images, brand labels and price tags can no longer be peeled from one another, make Pop art, in my mind, an important moment to take stock of. Warhol and others – Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha provide further highlights – remained, predominantly through painting, wilfully awake to what Walter Benjamin, in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, described as the death of the “aura” of objects at the hands of technology. And yet some of these works amount to blows so restrained, precise and masterly as to allow viewers to witness the execution of art objects while awakening those very auras. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup 1 (1968), Heinz Tomato Ketchup Box (1964) and Electric Chair (1967) acquire gravitas with time, becoming more enigmatic and piercing.
Fifty years on, objects have become increasingly sidelined, though in ways Warhol’s generation could never have predicted. Consider commercial art galleries and how fewer and fewer people are turning up to those abandoned prayer rooms, instead simply referring to the summaries afforded by their websites. When people claim to have liked an exhibition, it no longer startles one to realise a few minutes into the conversation that they only viewed the work online. Imagine that idea in Paris or New York in the 1950s, when experiencing paintings was sometimes akin to moments of physical endurance –
walking alongside, as much as looking at – the physical engrossments of Art Brut and Abstract Expressionism.
Between the extremes of these two poles, appreciate now that deft and devastating swivel performed by Pop, away from the physical, increasingly mythical studio journeys, facing squarely as it did all the ordinary stuff emblazoned across billboards and lining supermarket shelves. By allowing such cheap crap into the pristine waters of art, Pop made a wager that was to pour life into many of the expansive and experimental movements that followed – conceptual and performance art among them – before wilting rather quickly under the factory conditions imposed by its commercial success.
Beyond its branches and factories the shifts prophesied and highlighted by Pop artists of the 1960s, resulting in works both shallow and sublime, foreshadow the framework we’re now so used to as to no longer notice. Look at some of the works in this exhibition and watch the fog, however momentarily, lift off the lens.
• MUSIC Paganini/Tognetti
Melbourne Recital Centre, Wednesday
• PERFORMANCE Circus Oz presents Close
to the Bone
The Melba Spiegeltent, Melbourne, December 11-21
• PERFORMANCE A Christmas Carol
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until December 24
• BALLET Queensland Ballet’s The Nutcracker
QPAC, Brisbane, until December 23
• MUSICAL La Cage Aux Folles
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until tomorrow
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Pop goes the easel". Subscribe here.