American Pop Art and Consumer Culture
Although Pop art originated in England it found its greatest articulation and success in the United States, in large part because the more fully matured consumer culture provided a fertile environment in which the movement flourished through the 1960’s
Jasper Johns (b. 1930) in his early work was interested in drawing the viewer’s attention to common objects in the world – what he called things “seen but not looked at.” To this end he did several series of paintings of targets, flags, numbers, and alphabets. Flag depicts an object that many people view, but few scrutinize. The surface of the work is highly textured through John’s use of encaustic, an ancient method of painting with liquid wax and pigment. First Johns embedded a collage of newspaper scraps of photographs in wax. He then painted over them in encaustic creating a translucent layered effect.
Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) began using mass-media images in his work in the 1950’s. He set out to create works that were open and indeterminate. These works were called combines because he combined painted passages with sculptural elements. These are a variation of assemblages, which are artworks constructed from already existing objects. In the 1950’s his works contained an array of art reproductions, magazine and newspaper clippings, and passages painted in Abstract Expressionistic style. In the 1960’s Rauschenberg adopted the commercial medium of silk screen printing, first in black and white and then in color, and began filling the entire canvases with appropriated news images and anonymous photographs of city scenes. Canyon is typical of his combinations. Pieces of paper and photographs are attached to the canvas and the paint applied in an uneven and rough manner typical of de Kooning’s work. A stuffed bald eagle is attached to the lower part spreading its wings as if lifting to flight. A pillow is dangling from a string attached to a wooden stick attached to the painting. The components of the composition are arranged in a jumbled somewhat confusing manner recalling Dada. The images appear in a sequence that makes it virtually impossible to arrive at a consistent reading of the work. One artist noted about Rauschenberg’s work, “There is no more subject in a combine than there is in a page from a news paper. Each thing that is there is a subject. It is a situation involving multiplicity.”
As Pop art matured images became more concrete and tightly controlled. Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) focused his attention on the comic book as a mainstay in popular culture. Hopeless, is an image excerpted from a comic book. Comic books for many were a form of entertainment that were read and then discarded. Here Lichtenstein has immortalized the image on a monumental scale, making low art into high art. His works incorporated the melodramatic quality of comics, the word balloons and the printing technique in comic books called benday dots- a system named for its inventor that involves the modulation of colors through the placement and size of colored dots.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was the quintessential American Pop artist. An early successful career as a commercial artist and illustrator grounded Warhol in the sensibility and visual rhetoric of advertising and mass media. In his painting, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, Warhol selected an icon of mass produced commercial culture. Coke at the time was in the middle of a massive marketing campaign against rival Pepsi, even though Coke was dominant in the market. The curvy green bottle was certainly a familiar sight to Americans. Warhol’s use of the silk screening printing technique reinforced his aims. Redundancy of the Coke bottle image also reflects Coke’s dominance and omnipresence in society. Reproducing the same images over and over caused Warhol to name his studio “the Factory.”
Warhol also produced images of Hollywood celebrities. Capitalizing on her recent death, Warhol produced Marilyn Diptych, in which he emphasizes her commodity status. The photograph used of Marilyn was a publicity photo that gives no insight into the real persona; it is a mask – a persona created by the Hollywood myth machine. The garish colors and the flatness of the paint application contribute to the mask like, non reality of the image. The repetitious images of Monroe reinforce her image as a consumer commodity and also recall the endless flood of her images in the mass media after her death. Warhol also became a celebrity. He predicted that this age of the mass media would enable everyone to become famous for 15 minutes.
Claus Oldenburg (b. 1929) produced works that reflected our consumer culture. He initially produced large plaster reliefs of food and clothing items made of plaster, chicken wire, muslin, and cheap paint. These works later focused on similar subjects but became even larger in scale and were often of sewn vinyl or canvas and stuffed. In recent decades his works have become outdoor monumental sculptures of common things such as shuttlecocks, torn notebooks, etc.
Superrealist artists were interested in finding a form of artistic communication that was more accessible to the public. They made paintings and sculptures in the 1960’s and 1970’s that were exacting to optical fact. Many of these artists used photographs as sources for their imagery and so were also referred to as Photorealists.
Aubrey Flack (b. 1931) was a pioneer in this movement. Her painting Marilyn was not just a technical exercise, but was also an inquiry into the nature of photography and the extent to which photography constructs an understanding of reality. Flack noted, “Photography is my whole life, I studied art history, it was always photographs, I never saw the paintings, they were in Europe… Look at the TV and at magazines and reproductions, they’re all influenced by photo-vision.” She projected photographic images onto canvas and traced them and then airbrushed them so they looked like a photograph. In Marilyn, Flack eludes to Dutch still life vanitas paintings, with her many references to death; a youthful photo, cut fruit, an hourglass, a burning candle, a watch, and a calendar all refer to the passage of time and the transience of life on earth.
Chuck Close (b. 1940) was associated with the Superrealists, but he felt realism was not an end in itself, but the result of an intellectually rigorous and systematic approach to painting. He based his paintings of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s on photographs. His main goal was to translate photographic information into painted information. Because he aimed to simply record visual information about his subject’s appearance, he deliberately avoided creative compositions, flattering light effects, and revealing facial expressions. Close was not interested in providing great insight into the personalities of the portrayed. He chose anonymous and generic people, mostly friends as his subjects. By reducing the variables in his paintings, Close could focus on his methodical presentation of faces, thereby encouraging the viewer to deal with the formal aspects of his works. In close scrutiny, a viewer sees that the precise images, when viewed from afar, dissolve into abstract patterns.
Superrealism was also applied to the sculpture of Duane Hanson (1925-1996). Hanson was also interested in his work being accessible to the understanding of the public. Once he perfected his casting technique, he created many life-size figure sculptures. Hanson first made plaster molds from live models. He then filled the molds with plastic resin. After the resin was hardened, the artist removed the molds and cleaned, painted with air brush, and decorated the sculptures with wigs clothes and other accessories. His works, such as, Supermarket Shopper, depict stereotypical average Americans that would resonate with viewers because of familiarity. Hanson said, “The subject matter I like best deals with lower and middle class American types of today. To me, the resignation, emptiness, and loneliness of their existence capture the true reality of the life of these people… I want to achieve a certain tough realism which speaks of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of our time. Due to Hanson’s technique, his works are often thought to be real people, accounting for his association with the Superrealist movement.
Site Specific Art and Environmental Art
Environmental art sometimes called earth art or earthworks, emerged in the 1960’s and included a wide range of artworks, most site specific and existing outdoors. Many artists associated with these projects works used natural and organic materials, including the land itself. This movement arose at a time in which the ecology movement was growing in the 1960s and 1970’s. The ecology movement aimed to publicize and combat escalating pollution, depletion of natural resources, and the dangers of toxic wastes. The problems of public aesthetics (litter, urban sprawl, and compromised scenic areas) were also at issue. In 1969 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. In drawing attention to the landscape, Environmental artists were part of the national dialogue.
Environmental art clearly had an avant-garde dimension to it. They moved art out of the museums and galleries into the public square. Many artists encouraged spectator interaction with the works. While this interaction was encouraged, the remote locations of some of these works limited public access.
Robert Smithson (1938-1973) used industrial construction equipment to manipulate vast quantities of earth and rock on isolated sites. Spiral Jetty is among his most known works. It is a mammoth coil of black basalt, limestone rocks, and earth that extends into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson, driving by the lake one day, came across some abandoned mining equipment, left by a company that had tried and failed to extract oil from the site. He saw this as an example of man’s inability to conquer nature. He decided to create an artwork in the lake that ultimately became a monumental spiral curving out from the shoreline, and running 1500 linear feet into the water. Smithson designed the work in response to the location wanting to avoid the arrogance of an artist merely imposing an unrelated concept on the site. Smithson said, “As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread to the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. The site has a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From the gyrating space emerged the possibility of the “Spiral Jetty.”
Smithson recorded Spiral Jetty in photographs and on film describing the forms and life of the whole site. These documentations are of great importance as Spiral Jetty is often underwater due to water level fluctuations.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude (both b. 1935) created awareness of space and the features of a site by temporarily modifying the landscape with cloth. Their pieces also incorporate the relationships among human social-political action, art, and the environment. Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude began by encasing and wrapping objects, exploring the mysterious world of unopened packages. Starting in 1961 they began collaborating on large scale projects.
These projects normally deal with the environment with the land pieces requiring many years to plan, research, and secure the endorsement of local authorities and citizens. They often were up only for a few weeks. Surrounded Islands (1980-1983), created in Biscayne Bay in Miami, Florida, and was up for two weeks in May of 1983. For this project they surrounded 11 small human made islands in the Bay (from a dredging project) with specially fabricated pink Polypropylene floating fabric.
This environmental art project required three years of preparation to obtain permits, to assemble the necessary labor force of unskilled and professional workers. To accumulate the $3.2 million cost preparatory drawings, collages, models, and previous artworks were sold. Huge crowds watched as crews removed accumulated trash from the islands to assure maximum contrast with the pink material. Fabric “cocoons” were unfurled to form floating skirts around each tiny island.
The Gates consists of 7,500 panels of saffron-colored fabric suspended from a frame of three vinyl poles. These gates wound their way along 23 miles of walkways in New York’s Central Park for 16 days in February 2005. The gates looked like a golden river running through the park when viewed from above.
While many eco-artists made works that drew attention to the land and ecological problems, other artists focused on the role of art in public places. American artist Richard Serra (b. 1939) created Tilted Arc, a sculpture that sparked much national debate. The work was commissioned by the General Services Administration. The enormous 120 foot curved wall of Cor-Ten steel stood 12 feet high and bisected the plaza of the Jacob Javitz Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. Serra placed the sculpture to significantly alter the open space of the plaza and the traffic flow across the square. This site specific sculpture was intended to “dislocate or alter the decorative function of the plaza and actively bring people into the sculpture’s context.” By creating such a monumental presence in this large public space, Serra succeeded in forcing viewers to reconsider the plaza’s physical space as a sculptural form.
New Models for Architecture: Modernism to Post-Modernism
Just as painters and sculptors had, architects became increasingly concerned with formalism that stressed simplicity. They articulated this in buildings that retained intriguing organic sculptural qualities, as well as in buildings that adhered to more rigid geometry.
Frank Lloyd Wright ended his long, productive career with his design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum built in New York between 1943 and 1959. Using reinforced concrete almost as a sculptor might use resilient clay, Wright designed a structure inspired by the spiral of a snail shell. Wright had introduced curves and circles into his designs in the 1930’s so the spiral was the next logical step according to historians. Inside the building the shape of the shell expands toward the top, and a winding interior ramp spirals to connect the gallery bays which are illuminated by a skylight strip embedded in the museum’s outer walls. Visitors can walk up the ramp or take an elevator up to the top and walk down the ramp. The art works are viewed along the path. Thick walls and the solid organic shape give the building, inside and outside, the sense of turning in on itself. The long interior viewing area opening into a 90 foot central well of space seems a sheltered environment secure from the activity of the city outside.
Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame-du-Haut completed in 1955 at Ronchamp, France is a fusion of architecture and sculpture. The small chapel was designed to replace one destroyed in WWII. The building is quite deceptive. One massive exterior wall contains a pulpit facing a large spacious exterior space for large crowds on Holy days, while the interior holds at most 200 people. The intimate scale, stark heavy walls, and mysterious illumination (from deeply recessed stain-glassed windows) give the space a feeling of a medieval monastery.
While initially appearing free-form to the eye, it is based upon an underlying mathematical system like medieval cathedrals. The walls were created from a steel frame and metal mesh that was sprayed with concrete and painted white. The roof was left unpainted to darken naturally with time. The roof appears to float freely above the sanctuary intensifying the mysterious atmosphere of the interior. In reality it sits on almost invisible blocks above the walls. Le Corbusier’s preliminary sketches for this building indicate he linked the design with the shape of praying hands with the wings of a dove (representing both peace and the Holy Spirit) and with the prow of a ship (the Latin word for ship was nave, which was also used for the main gathering space in Christian Churches.) In these powerful sculptural solids and voids, Le Corbusier envisioned people finding new understandings of their beliefs and natural environments.
Joern Utzon (b. 1919) designed the Opera House, in Sydney, Australia in 1959. It was a design of bold organic forms on a colossal scale. The design shows influence from Frank Lloyd Wright’s curves of the Guggenheim, the platform architecture of the Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian peoples. The ogival shapes of the vaults suggest the sails of ships that brought European settlers to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Begun in 1959 it was completed in 1972. It took so long to realize because Utzon’s design required unavailable construction technology to meet the requirements of his daring innovations. Utzon left the project in 1966 and it was completed by Australian architects in 1972.
Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) a Finnish born architect designed the Trans-World Airline Terminal at the Kennedy Airport in New York on the theme of motion. It consists of two immense concrete shells split down the middle and slightly rotated, giving the terminal a fluid curved outline that fits its corner site. The curvilinear shells suggest expansive wings and flight. Everything on the interior was designed with the same curvilinear vocabulary in mind.
In the mid 1950’s through the 1970’s, other architects created massive, sleek geometrically rigid buildings designed following Mies van der Rohe’s contention that “less is more,” and that architecture presented pristine authoritative faces to the public.
The Seagram Building in New York was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson in 1956-1958. While skyscrapers had become a familiar sight in cities around the world, and their designs easily imitated and common, The Seagram Building was designed to be different. The building is designed as a thin shaft set back from the street by an open pedestrian plaza. The tower appears to rise from the ground on stilts, glass wall encase the recessed lobby. The buildings recessed structural elements make it appear to have a glass skin, interrupted by thin strips of bronze anchoring the windows.
Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill followed the Miesian canon in its many skyscrapers. The Sears Tower was completed in 1974 and was the tallest building in the world at the time it was built in Chicago. It appears as a simple rectilinear glass sheathed structure that consists of nine clustered blocks. The 110 floor building contains enough room to support 12,000 workers.
The restrictiveness of modernist architecture and the impersonality and sterility of many of these rectilinear corporate buildings led to a rejection of modernism’s authority in architecture. In contrast to the simplicity of modernist architecture, the terms most often used to describe postmodern architecture are pluralism, complexity, and eclecticism. Where the modernist program was reductive, the post modern vocabulary of the 1970’s and 1980’s was expansive and inclusive.
It was argued by Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi that the uniformity and anonymity of modernist architecture are unsuited to human social interaction and that diversity is the great advantage urban life.
When designing these varied buildings, many postmodern architects consciously selected past architectural elements or references and juxtaposed them with contemporary elements or fashioned them of high tech materials, thereby creating a dialogue between past and present.
Charles Moore (1925-1993) designed the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans in the late 1970’s. Dedicated to the cities Italian community, it reflected architectural elements specific to Italian history, as far back as Rome.
It is backed up against a contemporary high rise and set back from traffic. The Piazza d’Italia can be reached on foot passing through one of three gateways. The Piazza’s most immediate historical reference is to the Greek agora or the Roman Forum. However its circular form alludes to the ideal geometric form of the Renaissance. The irregular placement of the concentrically arranged colonnade fragments inserts a note of instability into the design reminiscent of Mannerism. Illusionistic devices such as the continuation of the piazza’s pavement design (a map of Italy and Sicily, apparently through a building and out into the street), are Baroque in nature. All the Classical orders are represented – most with whimsical modifications. Nevertheless, the piazza’s historical character is challenged by modern features, such as, the stainless steel columns and capitals, neon collars around the column necks and neon lights that frame various parts of the exedra. In sum, Moore designed the Piazza d’Italia as a complex conglomeration of symbolic, historical, and geographic allusions. Its specific purpose was to honor the Italian community. Its general purpose was to revitalize the area and act as a focal point to the community. Today the community and the Piazza are in a state of disrepair.
Philip Johnson had been a leading proponent of modernism and had long served as director of the Department of Architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the bastion of modernism. Yet he made one of the startling shifts of style in 20th century architecture, eventually moving away from the severe geometric formalism of the Seagram Building to a classicizing transformation of it in his AT&T Building. Co-designed with John Burgee, this structure was influential in turning architectural taste and practice away from modernism and toward post-modernism – from organic “concrete sculpture” and the rigid “glass box” to elaborate shapes, motifs, and silhouettes freely adapted from historical styles.
The 660 foot high slab of the building is wrapped in granite. Johnson reduced the window space to some 30 percent of the building, on contrast to the modernist glass sheathed skyscraper. The design of the exterior elevation is classically tripartite, having an arcaded base and arched portal; a tall, shaft like body segmented by slender mullions (vertical elements dividing a window); and a crowning pediment broken by an orbiculum (a disc like opening). The arrangement refers to the base, column, and entablature of ancient Greek structures and Renaissance elevations. More specifically, the pediment, indented by the circular space, resembles the crown of a typical 18th-century Chippendale high chest of drawers. The AT&T Building rises above the New York skyline as an active rebuke to the rigid uniformity of modernist architecture.
Michael Graves (b. 1934) designed the Portland (Oregon) Building. It reasserts the wall’s horizontality against the verticality of the tall, fenestrated shaft. Graves favored the squares solidity and stability, making it the main body of his composition (echoed in the windows), which rests upon a wider base and carries a set-back penthouse crown. Narrow vertical windows tying together seven stories open two paired facades. These support capital like large hoods on one pair of opposite facades and a frieze of stylized Baroque roundels tied by bands on one pair A huge painted keystone motif joins five upper levels on one façade pair, and painted surfaces further define the buildings base body and penthouse levels.
The assertion of the wall, the miniature square windows, and the painted polychrome areas define the surfaces as predominantly a mural and carry a rather complex symbolic program. The modernist purists threw a fit. Critics denounced the building as “an enlarged jukebox,” an “oversized Christmas package,” a kind of “pop surrealism.” Others praised the building as a “courageous architectural adventure.” The Portland Building is considered by art historians as an early marker of post-modernism.