Pop Art — 11 Artworks you Need to Know by Ruth Polleit Riechert

Having been to New York recently and being able to see the most relevant works of pop art “in the flesh”, it is time to write an ART A-Z about it.

What is the History of pop art?

Pop art is an art movement that had its origins in Britain the 1950s and continued in the 1960s in America and Britain. It drew inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture. Its main period ended in the early 1970s.

What is pop art about?

The most important characteristic of pop art is the idea that there is no hierarchy of culture and that art may borrow from any source.

Reflecting the signs of the times, pop art focused on mass production, celebrity and the expanding industries of advertising, TV, radio, and print media.

The majority of pop artists began their careers in commercial art. Their background provided them with the visual vocabulary of mass culture.

As an art movement, pop art incorporated many different styles of painting, sculpture, collage and street art. Pop art is often bold, colourful, and humorous, and looks flat rather than having depth created by layers of colour.

What are the most important artists and artworks?

Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005), a Scottish sculptor and artist, was a key member of the British post-war avant-garde. In his collage “I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything” (1947) he combined various pop culture items and incorporated the word “Pop”. That is why this artwork is widely seen as the foundational work for Pop Art.

Eduardo Paolozzi, “I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything”, 1947, Tate Modern, London.

Richard Hamilton (1922–2011) is regarded by many as the father of British pop art. Probably his most famous piece is his 1956 collage, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”, in which he combined images from various mass media sources.

Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”, 1956, Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany.

With Jaspar Johns’ “Flag” (1954/55), the former non-objective art movement Abstract Expressionism came to an end as Johns painted an everyday object: the American flag.

Jasper Johns, “Flag”, 1954/55, MoMA, New York. Photo: RPR

Born in 1923 in New York, Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) became another leading figure in the American pop art movement. He is known for his comic strip cartoon-style paintings. Based on an image from the 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War, Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!” (1963) is widely regarded as his most important artwork.

Roy Lichtenstein, “Whaam!”, 1963, Tate Modern, London.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) is well-known for his Combines collages of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations. Rauschenberg was both a painter and a sculptor, and the Combines are often a mix of both. Like Jasper Johns, he is often seen as forerunner of pop art. Later on, he also incorporated public figures in his collages.

Robert Rauschenberg, “Retroactive”, 1964, MoMA, New York. Photo: RPR

Like many pop artists, James Rosenquist (1933–2017) was fascinated by the popularisation of political and cultural figures in mass media. In his painting “President Elect”, the artist depicts John F. Kennedy’s face amidst a selection of consumer items.

James Rosenquist, “President Elect”, 1960/61, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
James Rosenquist, “Marilyn Monroe”, 1962, MoMA, New York. Photo: RPR

Andy Warhol (1928–1987) is probably the best-known figure in the Pop Art movement. In the early 1960s, he began to experiment with reproductions based on mass-produced images from popular culture such as Campbell’s soup tins and Coca Cola bottles.

Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans”, 1962, MoMA, New York. Photo: RPR

In 1962, Warhol created probably his most famous artwork. He created several mass-produced images of the actress Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962), all based on the same publicity photograph. The repetition of the image was representative of her presence in the media.

Andy Warhol, “Marilyn Diptych”, 1962, Tate Modern, London.

Claes Oldenburg (born 1929) is well known for bringing pop art to the masses, by enlarging everyday objects and later on placing them on top of buildings and in the middle of parks.

Claes Oldenburg, “Floor Cake”, 1962, MoMA, New York.

In Germany, the counterpart to the American pop art movement was Capitalist Realism. The group was founded by Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) in 1963 and aimed to expose the consumerism and superficiality of contemporary society.

Sigmar Polke, “Bunnies”, 1966, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC.

In France, aspects of Pop art were present in Nouveau Réalisme, a movement that reflected the American pop artists’ concerns with commercial culture, however, many of the Nouveau Réalistes were more concerned with objects than with painting. The movement was mainly founded by Yves Klein (1928–1962).

What happened later?

Pop art would continue to influence artists in subsequent decades. However, pop fell out of favour in the 1970s as the art world shifted its focus from art objects to installations, performances, and other less tangible art forms, but with the resurgence of painting in the early 1980s, the art object came back into favour once again.

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