Soup Tins & Comic Strips

The glorification and elevation of a soup tin to high art could only happen in a country that was the birthplace of democracy and considers the pursuit of happiness a national pastime.  The generation that grew up in war time was clearly going to be different from previous generations, and this was evident in almost every aspect of their lives. There was a sense of impermanence, and the desire to enjoy life for the moment. When the children of the people who fought in the war became adults, they lived life on their own terms; changed their hairstyles, shortened their dresses, removed hats and collars, listened to music that was definitely not their parents’ music, and freed art from the shackles of fine art and refinement.

Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze 1960

In their adulthood, by the late 1950s, America was a place of affluence and material wealth. Families purchased new age gadgets like automobiles and televisions, moved to the suburbs, and lived a consumerist life. Capitalism in society also inspired the art movement known as Pop Art which started in the late 1950s and lasted until the 1970s. The movement was mainly limited to the United States and Britain, and its most defining feature was that it took art lightly and turned to mainstream media and culture for inspiration.

James Rosenquist, Dishes, 1964. Oil on Canvas

            The art world’s immediate reaction to World War II was to turn inward to an art movement that eventually came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. By 1960s, the artists who grew up with and learned their trade from the abstract expressionists were ready for a change. And since no conventional realism would do, the answer came in the form of Pop Art – this happy medium of abstract and realism, which is both and neither at the same time, was coined “Pop Art,” by British art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1951 referring to the pop culture of the era.

Roy Lichtenstein, In The Car, 1963, Oil and Magna on Canvas

            Pop Art was a product of its times. By the 1960s, the US was a consumer goods society with mass media extensively promoting material goods to a society looking to increase its material possessions. Pop Art looked towards the graphics and images from advertisements and other forms of mass media for inspiration. Mass media had already perfected images to sell products to the American public and Pop Art elevated these images further by putting by elevating them to an art form; what art critic described aptly as gilding an already gilded lily. In the UK too, a public tired of war rations and shortages wanted to reap the material benefits and affluence so seductively presented in American films and magazines.

Richard Hamilton, Fashion-Plate, 1969 – 1970

            Among contemporary art movements, Pop Art, with its bold, bright colors, is one of the most instantly recognizable styles of art. Pop Art blurred the distinction between fine art and commercial art by turning to banal, everyday items for inspiration. This art movement captured everyday items such as ice cream cones, soup cans, billboards, and comic strips and recorded a moment in time of American life. Pop art presents realistic images of these items, but not in the conventional sense; the enormous sizes, though not unrecognizable, are sufficiently transformed by the artist to be no longer realistic.

James Rosenquist, The Facet 1978

The revolutionary group of artists who worked in Pop Art were not only rebelling against the status quo in the art world, they were also affirming the post-war capitalist boom in America.  Similar to previous generations of artists who recorded the ever changing contours of the great American outdoors, the avant-garde group of pop artists sought to capture the transient nature of the subject matter they painted. Among the most well-known were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, and Robert Indiana. British pop artists, who were influenced by American culture from a distance, included Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, and Peter Blake.   

In my next blog I’ll write about three of these artists, their works, and some concluding remarks about this art movement.