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Pop Art, a colourful history - Alastair Sooke

Weekend reading from Alastair Sooke's commentary on Pop Art.

In 2015, Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book-style painting of a nurse fetched $95.4 million at Christie’s, an auction record for the Pop artist. Also in the same year, Andy Warhol’s painting of a dollar bill fetched£20.9 million at Sotherby's. The immense value the art world, and indeed its wealthy buyers, placed on pop artists is incredible. Perhaps what is more incredible is that there was a time when Pop Art caused pandemonium, scandalizing the tastemakers.

At the heart of Pop Art, was the idea to bring ordinary objects into the 'realm of fine art'. An image containing an inventory of mundane consumables provided a commentary on society at any particular time. The American artist Stuart Davis painted commercial products during the Twenties, including a packet of Lucky Strike and a bottle of Odol mouthwash. David anticipated a central strategy of Pop Art: foregrounding well-known brands. Salvador Dali placed a meticulously rendered Coca-Cola bottle centre-stage in his oil painting Poetry of America (1943).

Pop Art was in start contrast to its predecessor - Abstract Expressionism. Artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning focused on unleashing elemental energies on canvas in order to convey grand, essential truths about the human condition. Abstract Expressionism appeared serious, intellectual and 'heavy' whereas Pop was light - deadpan, non-committal and witty. Many felt that Warhol was mocking them.

Pop Art reflected the American politics of its time. Between 1941 and 1951, the disposable income of all Americans increased from almost $93 billion to more than $226 billion. By 1961, it exceeded $ 364 billion. There was a rapidly expanding mass media which recycled capitalism's seductive slogans and promises. Shiny cars! Domestic bliss! Buy this! During the Cold War, Capitalism became an essential part of America's self-identity, in opposition to Soviet Communism. It was boom time in the West, and Warhol was one of many artists who sensed it. He was excited by the vitality of the new popular culture.

Warhol's repetition reminds us that we are looking at imagery which we encounter everyday. Warhol's serial imagery makes us think of a roll of film flickering quickly through a projector. Pop Artists were anatomizing the visual codes commonly found in popular culture. Pop was about democracy, about bringing art to the masses. Accordingly, the processes, methods and techniques that Pop artists used were deliberately designed to imitate strategies of commercial design.

Warhol's Marilyn prints were a wider investigation of the nature of celebrity. He wanted to replicate the ceaseless neon churn of our cyclical mass media. With Pop art, Warhol hated the idea of getting heavy, or intellectual about art.

Pop Art is successful because of its ability to reach a wide audience. By drawing upon the shared language of the street, Pop Art was able to communicate with the man on the street. It taught us a profound lesson about Western Society: there was no longer any barrier between high and low culture, the avant garde and the masses.

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