7.1: Pop Art

Pop Art Dr. Virginia Spivey https://smarthistory.org/pop-art/

Andy Warhol, Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962, silkscreen on canvas, 6' 11 1/4" x 57" (211.4 x 144.7 cm) (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Andy Warhol, Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962, silkscreen on canvas, 6′ 11 1/4″ x 57″ (211.4 x 144.7 cm) (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Popular culture, “popular” art

At first glance, Pop Art might seem to glorify popular culture by elevating soup cans, comic strips and hamburgers to the status of fine art on the walls of museums. But, then again, a second look may suggest a critique of the mass marketing practices and consumer culture that emerged in the United States after World War II. Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962) clearly reflects this inherent irony of Pop. The central image on a gold background evokes a religious tradition of painted icons, transforming the Hollywood starlet into a Byzantine Madonna that reflects our obsession with celebrity. Notably, Warhol’s spiritual reference was especially poignant given Monroe’s suicide a few months earlier. Like religious fanatics, the actress’s fans worshipped their idol; yet, Warhol’s sloppy silk-screening calls attention to the artifice of Marilyn’s glamorous façade and places her alongside other mass-marketed commodities like a can of soup or a box of Brillo pads.

Richard Hamilton, Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing?, 1956, collage, 26 cm × 24.8 cm (Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen)
Richard Hamilton, Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing?, 1956, collage, 26 cm × 24.8 cm (Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen)

Genesis of Pop

In this light, it’s not surprising that the term “Pop Art” first emerged in Great Britain, which suffered great economic hardship after the war. In the late 1940s, artists of the “Independent Group,” first began to appropriate idealized images of the American lifestyle they found in popular magazines as part of their critique of British society.  Critic Lawrence Alloway and artist Richard Hamilton are usually credited with coining the term, possibly in the context of Hamilton’s famous collage from 1956, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing? Made to announce the Independent Group’s 1956 exhibition “This Is Tomorrow,” in London, the image prominently features a muscular semi-nude man, holding a phallically positioned Tootsie Pop.





Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Pop Art’s origins, however, can be traced back even further.  In 1917, Marcel Duchamp asserted that any object—including his notorious example of a urinal—could be art, as long as the artist intended it as such. Artists of the 1950s built on this notion to challenge boundaries distinguishing art from real life, in disciplines of music and dance, as well as visual art. Robert Rauschenberg’s desire to “work in the gap between art and life,” for example, led him to incorporate such objects as bed pillows, tires and even a stuffed goat in his “combine paintings” that merged features of painting and sculpture. Likewise, Claes Oldenberg created The Store, an installation in a vacant storefront where he sold crudely fashioned sculptures of brand-name consumer goods. These “Proto-pop” artists were, in part, reacting against the rigid critical structure and lofty philosophies surrounding Abstract Expressionism, the dominant art movement of the time; but their work also reflected the numerous social changes taking place around them.

Post-War Consumer Culture Grabs Hold (and Never Lets Go)

1950s Advertisement for the American Gas Association
1950s Advertisement for the American Gas Association

The years following World War II saw enormous growth in the American economy, which, combined with innovations in technology and the media, spawned a consumer culture with more leisure time and expendable income than ever before. The manufacturing industry that had expanded during the war now began to mass-produce everything from hairspray and washing machines to shiny new convertibles, which advertisers claimed all would bring ultimate joy to their owners. Significantly, the development of television, as well as changes in print advertising, placed new emphasis on graphic images and recognizable brand logos—something that we now take for granted in our visually saturated world.

It was in this artistic and cultural context that Pop artists developed their distinctive style of the early 1960s. Characterized by clearly rendered images of popular subject matter, it seemed to assault the standards of modern painting, which had embraced abstraction as a reflection of universal truths and individual expression.

Irony and Iron-Ons

(L) Roy Lichtenstein, Girl with a Ball, 1961, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 36 1/4" (153 x 91.9 cm) (Museum of Modern Art, New York); (R) Detail of face showing Lichtenstein's painted Benday dots)
(L) Roy Lichtenstein, Girl with a Ball, 1961, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 36 1/4″ (153 x 91.9 cm) (Museum of Modern Art, New York); (R) Detail of face showing Lichtenstein’s painted Benday dots)


In contrast to the dripping paint and slashing brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism—and even of Proto-Pop art—Pop artists applied their paint to imitate the look of industrial printing techniques.  This ironic approach is exemplified by Lichtenstein’s methodically painted Benday dots, a mechanical process used to print pulp comics.

As the decade progressed, artists shifted away from painting towards the use of industrial techniques. Warhol began making silkscreens, before removing himself further from the process by having others do the actual printing in his studio, aptly named “The Factory.”  Similarly, Oldenburg abandoned his early installations and performances, to produce the large-scale sculptures of cake sliceslipsticks, and clothespins that he is best known for today.



https://aaep1600.osu.edu/book/07_Escobar.php and Edited by: Jennifer Lorraine FraserMarisol Escobar (Marisol), a Venezuelan, was born and grew up in Paris, and spent her teen years in Los Angeles. Her father was in real estate, and the family lived very comfortably, although her mother died when she was eleven years old.  At the age of sixteen, she studied at the Jepson Art Institute, a school known for promoting experimentation in art making. She then attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1949), the Art Students League in New York City (1950), New York City’s New School for Social Research (1951-1854), and surprisingly with Hans Hoffman, the abstract expressionist. Late in the 1950s, Marisol dropped the surname Escobar. She felt using her first name was more distinctive and rarely refers to her last name.Marisol, a part of the beat generation, avoided becoming an action painter, she instead chose sculpture as an alternative. Early work consisted of small clay figures and woodcarvings of animals and human figures, which were influenced by fairy stories, the funny papers, and the pictures of saints that she had to copy at school. She was repelled by the seriousness of some of her fellow beatniks and in rebellion, Marisol looked for something more nuanced, possibly happier in her sculptures, some of which are quite funny.Marisol had developed a new style of sculpture by 1958, when she had an exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City. She began assembling wooden constructions of people and animals on a large scale. She used combinations of different media, which often seemed incongruous, such as wood with plaster and pencil drawing on wood. The varied use of materials by Picasso and the combines of Rauschenberg inspired her.

At the time, it was difficult for a woman to gain recognition in the art world, which was dominated by men. Many young female artists felt oppressed by this fact, and because of this atmosphere of oppression, Marisol often chose subject matter which related to her female experience, often drawing upon stereotypical subjects associated with women such as the family, children, and women expressing independence from men.

One of her early works from this period was titled “The Kennedy Family” (1962), which was made of wood and other materials. The figures of Jack, Jackie, Caroline, and John-John were represented by simple, wooden, box-like forms, with spheres for the heads. The features, hair and clothing were painted on the wooden shapes. They were part sculpture, part painting, part pencil drawing. This unique combination of drawing, painting and sculpture and the play between two and three dimensions is characteristic of most of Marisol’s work.

Two of Marisol’s most famous pieces are “The Family” (1962), which depicts a farm family from the dust bowl era, and “The Generals” (1961-1962), consisting of George Washington and Simon Bolivar sitting on a large toy horse made from a barrel. The hands of Washington and Bolivar are plaster casts of Marisol’s own hands.

Marisol’s own face often appears on her sculptures and has remained a central part of her sculptures. In her sculpture, “The Wedding” (1962-1963), Marisol’s face appeared as both the bride’s and groom’s faces. This was a reflection on her quietness and introverted personality, as well as a feminist statement.

After spending a year in South America and Central America, Marisol’s work changed. She still continued to use her face, but her sculptures were of fish, often shark-like predators. In 1973, she began showing these her beautifully carved fish figures. In 1984 she returned to her three-dimensional human figures in a recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, and has continued working in that style in the 1990’s. These more recent works include a sculpture portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, who as a successful female artist, was an important role model for Marisol, as well as a portrait of Willem de Kooning, another important influence. The three sites below have images of sculptures by Marisol.

Read the excerpt on Marisol pp. 54-55, and further explore other artists of interest. Van, Wyk G. Pop Art: 50 Works of Art You Should Know. Munich: Prestel, 2013. https://archive.org/details/popart50worksofa0000vanw/mode/2up 

Additional resources:

Pop Art on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Pop Art and New Kinds of Rock


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Origins of Contemporary Art, Design, and Interiors Copyright © by Jennifer Lorraine Fraser is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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