Soup’s on, Fat Boy!
I was first introduced to pop art when I was 7 years old. It was 1999 and Homer Simpson had garnered unexpected popularity for an unintentional artwork he had created while venting his frustrations at a DIY barbecue pit.
In this episode, entitled Mom and Pop Art, Marge takes Homer to Springfield’s modern art museum for further inspiration. They see works by Picasso, Dalí and, importantly, Andy Warhol, who later reappears in a nightmare sequence, lobbing his infamous cans at Homer, crying, “Soup’s on, fat boy!” As they pass a giant pencil sculpture, Marge explains that it’s a Claes Oldenburg, whom she refers to as “a European who defied convention and embraced American popular culture”. The joke, of course, is that American popular culture is inescapable. I was growing up in Belgium and we only had three channels on our television but I still managed to tune into The Simpsons every night.
Now, when I think of pop art, I call to mind the sex appeal of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of Marilyn and cartoonish bombshells of similar ilk. I associate its production with the white, male icons of Britain and America in whose works there is an ambiguity as to whether they satirise our habits of consumerism or are complicit with them.
However, the EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop! at the Tate Modern explores pop art as a wider phenomenon than that of the Anglo-American artists it is known for. I spoke with Elsa Coustou, the assistant curator, who told me:
“The idea of the show is to present a historical moment, but when you do such an exhibition at Tate or another big institution, you have to revise art history.”
She explained that she and her co-curators, Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri, went about “presenting an art historical movement in a new light” which, amongst other things, involved including international and female artists historically excluded from pop canon.
The exhibition itself is fascinating in its appearance. As soon as you enter the first room it is clear that this is not the white cube design usually employed at the Tate. The walls are painted in brilliant block colours, conveying an atmosphere of lightness despite the serious content of the works they contain. Elsa explains:
“All of the thematics in the show are very serious, but the materiality behind them is that nothing is precious […] We wanted a colourful show because the art works are so different and we needed something to unify them so the painted walls and plinths are the very intense and bright thread that runs throughout the exhibition.”
The space looks interactive despite the fact that, because the works are unglazed, the visitor has to stand at least one metre from the art. The curators worked with an architect on the plinths so that they could respect this restriction without the cumbersome and aesthetically unappealing addition of barriers. As a result, the space feels almost like an amusement arcade, a sense that is reinforced by the pinball machine whirrs and clangs emanating from scattered television sets.
One thing that features more prominently in the exhibition is the work of female pop artists. 40% of the works are by female artists and three out of ten of the rooms are dedicated to women’s issues. “Valentine” (1966), a work by Belgian artist Evelyne Axell, is an homage to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. The astronaut is depicted in a skin-tight spacesuit unzipped down the middle to expose her breasts and pubic hair, reclaiming the female body by exposing it on her own terms. Underscoring this idea is the potential place that is opened up for women in the conquest of new territories: perhaps space will present a new frontier for women? The work of Czechoslovakian artist Jana Želibská is also interesting in this respect. Her 1969 piece “Kandarya-Mahadeva” (named after the temple in India) takes up a whole room. Referring back to elements of erotic rituals in India, outlines of female bodies are depicted in varying sexualised positions. However, when the eye is drawn, as it inevitably is, to the place where their genitals should be, it meets a mirror. This subverts any attempt at voyeurism and has the uncanny secondary effect of reflecting the salacious male gaze straight back at its beholder.
The greater prominence of female artists is one way this exhibition goes about revising pop art history, but it isn’t called The World Goes Pop! for no reason. The historical moment captured is more than what’s depicted in pop art from America and the U.K. Rather, it is dense and varied as it travels across Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. This pop art is more confrontational than celebratory, and artists use the language and imagery of popular culture to critique their own countries. Take, for example, Jerzy Zielinski’s 1974 “The Smile, Or Thirty Years, Ha, Ha, Ha.” This painting takes the official iconography of Zielinski’s own country — the “XXX” that denoted a celebration of 30 years of the People’s Republic of Poland and was widely reproduced on commemorative coins and postage stamps — and supplants it onto a pair of tight lips where the Xs become stitches, representing the censored and silenced voices of opposition to the regime.
At the time, the communist bloc was under strict Soviet control. Military juntas were ruling Southern Europe and Latin American nations. Africa was being torn by civil war. In China, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were unfolding and the Vietnam War was on-going. Underscoring all of this were the pressures of the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Much of the art in this exhibition, therefore, articulates the absurdity of living in a world of brightly coloured advertising and popular culture when it is pasted onto such a gloomy historical backdrop. Elsa comments:
“These artists had a way of taking things from newspapers and magazines with the desire to subvert and critique their society and engage with politics in ways that you might not find in many works nowadays.”
This sense is quite effectively conveyed in Joan Rabascall’s 1968 “Atomic Kiss,” which overlays a glossy lipstick advertisement onto a mushroom cloud.
Similarly, French artist Bernard Rancillac’s painting “At Last, A Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist” (1966) can be hung either way in order to emphasise an advertisement for female undergarments or the horrors of the Vietnam War. Or take the work of Joe Overstreet, who had worked as an animator for Disney, a company that is now as then synonymous with popular entertainment. His work, The New Jemima (1964), features Aunt Jemima of pancake mix fame wielding a machine gun. This is perhaps a nod to the aggressive way in which consumerism is rammed down our throats but the work also delivers a rather sad reminder that Aunt Jemima’s appearance is based on that of a former slave who — as Aunt Jemima — continues to be bought and sold as a commodity to this day.
Zagrebian artist Sanja Iveković’s “Sweet Violence” (1974), however, depicts Western advertising in another light: adverts on television are overlain with the bars of censorship in her work. This highlights a contradiction that seems to run throughout the exhibition. Works like Iveković’s depict Western popular culture as representative of freedom from the repressive communist regime, whereas the art of the Western radicals leans more and more towards the left in their desire to dethrone what they saw as a shallow capitalist beast that skirted over the more serious concerns of the period. Elsa’s favourite piece is representative of the latter. It’s a piece by Henri Cueco called “Large Protest — Revolution is Close at Hand” (1969). Restored by Cueco’s son and on display for the first time since the 70s, it features enormous cut out figures glowing red to reflect the artist’s investment in Marxist theories. Elsa describes why she likes it:
“Cueco worked as a set designer for a theatre company and he used those lights to create the shadows on the walls so it has this theatrical moment that I really like. It’s also a technique that’s very different from the other pieces in the show.”
The exhibition seems to be attracting a lot of young people, so I ask Elsa why she thinks pop art still holds such an appeal. She says:
“I think it’s because of the ease with which you can read the works and because of the visual impact they have. You don’t need to stare at them for hours, you sort of get it as soon as you see it. It’s a very direct way of expressing concerns, so it becomes attractive to younger audiences.”
I think she’s right, to an extent. Pop seems to be a more accessible form of art in that it has a way of transferring complex ideas in a moment rather than having to spend hours hunched over, say, Das Kapital. But I also spoke with artist, art historian and curator, Yates Norton, about the exhibition and he wonders whether the contemporary appeal of pop really is a question of interpretative ease. He argues:
In some ways, I think pop offers one of the more challenging forms of art. With many works of pop, you aren’t really gratified immediately — that’s what makes it slightly different from the strategies of advertising and consumerism it apes or deploys. […] I think so much of pop is about using a consumerist language and then shifting it slightly so that it is familiar on one level, and utterly unfamiliar on another — that, it seems to me, is what makes pop disconcerting, rather than immediately gratifying, and is perhaps what makes it endure.
It’s true. Today, communism has mostly disappeared and looking at The World Goes Pop! the critique of capitalism and consumer culture is what speaks to me most. Whether we want to or not, we consume popular culture every day and the visual language that these artists use is a language that we speak. The difference between pop art and popular culture is at times only visible when you turn a critical eye to them. And this is perhaps why, at first glance, pop art seems easy to interpret. The final room of the exhibition is, fittingly, entitled “Consuming Pop” and it raises precisely this question. The room is papered with Thomas Bayrle’s 1967 “Laughing Cow” wallpaper, which repeats the logo for the cheese product over and over ad nauseam. As a tool of capitalism, popular culture can be dizzyingly repetitive. So perhaps Bayrle is playing with this repetition, suggesting that our minds are so numbed by it that any attempt at critical thought is suspended. But without this critical veneer, how does Bayrle’s work differ from a simple advert for Laughing Cow cheese?
The art within this final room claims to subvert and oppose capitalism. It denounces consumerism, global brands and the risk that art itself may become a consumable product. However, while I was there, I overheard a fellow visitor telling his companion “I want that wallpaper” without a trace of irony, and perhaps his statement best illustrates art’s inability in this case to effect the changes its desires to be wrought.
So why is pop art so popular today? Is it really, as Norton suggested, that the messages it sends still speak to us in profound and interesting ways? Or has it been subsumed within popular culture at the cost of the subversive energies that motivated its creation? On Halloween, a Hallmark holiday if ever there were one, my sister dressed up as a piece of pop art and she did so because “it was pretty” and she’d “seen it on Pinterest”. On every iMac, PhotoBooth lets you overlay a pop art filter onto your own photos. It seems to me that what began as artwork that attempted to oppose capitalism has been co-opted and neutered by the very forces it sought to resist. This is perhaps most obviously demonstrated by the stark disconnect between this final room that critiques consumerism and the gift shop you go through on your way out. The fear that art will become consumable is there a reality.
Norton suggests that perhaps it is because of Pop’s use of consumerism that the purchase or consumption of it seems more ‘legitimate’. He says
“Warhols were made for reproduction, Rothkos were not. So any qualms about making art into a commodity are maybe slightly abated when pop has already done half the work for you.”
He’s probably right. But just because it seems more legitimate, does that make it so? I suppose it’s not unlike the risk you undertake in making satiric content: there are always going to be people who will take it at face value. Here, I think, we are taken full circle, back to that fascinating ambiguity as to whether pop encourages or condemns our habits of consumerism.