Daniella Lun, Dingding Shi, Lingxuan Yao, and Victoria Vigorito

Pop art reintroduces recognizable images from the media and popular culture, which is a major shift in the direction of modernism. It first appeared in the British in the mid-1950s, followed by America in the late 1950s. Although they are inspired by similar themes, British pop is often seen as very different from American pop. It appears in Britain amidst a post-war social and political atmosphere, where artists turned to celebrate ordinary objects. At the same time, try to evaluate daily life to the level of fine art. While pop artists in America also hope to get rid of the emphasis on personal feelings and personal symbols by using impersonal images and mundane objects. Early artists who shaped the Pop Art movement included Eduardo Paulzi and Richard Hamilton in England. Soon after, American artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and others begin to follow suit and become the most famous initiators and supporters of the movement. Pop art usually uses images currently used in advertising. Product labels and logos are prominent in the images chosen by popular artists, and can be seen in Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can labels. He criticized American society in the 1960s by repeatedly depicting the same canned product. The blind consumption of the masses’ demand for products has risen, causing factories to begin mass production, and they continue to copy the same design to meet market demand.

The pop art style, as the name suggests, focused on the aesthetics of pop culture, mass media, and mass production. But while its vibrant colors and familiar visuals presented a sense of optimism during the post-war consumer boom, the general movement of pop art also served as a critique of consumerism and commercialism, especially in American culture. As an additional reaction to abstract expressionism, pop artists chose an unusual approach of repurposing cheap, mass-produced materials as a way to challenge the standards of traditional art; the accessibility of these materials indicated that anyone can make art out of anything, which obscured the boundaries of high and low class culture in art. The language in pop art is meant to be humorous. It makes a statement about current events, and challenges the status quo. These paintings are translated from experiences from everyday life or products that are familiar which helps the viewer relate to the piece. The pieces narrate what the artist is trying to get across to the audience. This could be from a quote, word, or a statement. For example, when looking at well known pop artist Roy Lichensteins work, he commonly uses an art style inspired by comic book strips to explain his current life events which can be understood by modern society. His work explains well that in pop art, the object material selected by pop artists is sometimes visually separated from its known background or combined with irrelevant materials. The paintings of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman directly relate to the mediocre image of American pop culture. The objects they select most them are popular at the moment or that people yearn for, such as those foods that are produced in the factory. In their works, people can often find advertising slogans. They want to deal with this subject objectively and directly, clearly alluding to the idealization of mass production. They all use impersonal but popular images, hoping to get rid of the emphasis of abstract expressionism on personal feelings.

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963. Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers. 48 1/2 x 66 x 4”. MoMa

In Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #30, a still life collage finished in 1963. This work is completed by combining printed advertisements and plastic flowers as collage elements with oil painting. In the United States when the work was born, with the rapid development of electrical appliances such as television and advertising, people are also constantly promoting the American Dream. And the scene of Wesselmann Still Life #30 can reflect the life people yearn for at that time. He chose the most easily found advertising images in magazines combined with modern kitchen facilities to complete a seemingly serene and calm kitchen, but in fact, he is criticizing American society. Let’s first take a look at the objects Wesselmann selected in his works. Start with the collage elements; from the lower-left corner, you will see a modern pink refrigerator with three bottles of 7up above it, behind them hanging on the wall is a reproduction of an abstract expressionist painting from Picasso. On the right side of the painting are a plastic flower and a blue wall with decorations. The table on the lower right side is full of food. They overlap each other and include a can of Dole pineapple, a can of yogurt, a finished hot dog with mustard sauce, a bag of freshly opened sliced ​​bread, a stack of pancakes, some boxed corn flakes, some fruits, vegetables, and pork. In addition to the collages, back to the scene, the combination of these collages were all hand-painted by Wesselmann with oil paint. Including the red wall behind the refrigerator, curtains, and the scene outside the window. At the same time, the pink sink under the potted plants, the pink stove, and the coffee pot on the right, combined with all the flat stickers, show a very real American kitchen after the war. He placed the objects he selected in the real environment, and their actual proportions were also roughly the same. Wesselmann constructed his idealized reality in the existing images in the magazine. Keep the situation as real as possible so that the audience accepts that his imagination is real.

Just like the kitchen shown by Wesselmann, a luxurious kitchen. And this is exactly what he criticized. Having an enjoyable life means that people will be surrounded by the most advanced equipment and tools. Since then, people will gradually become inert. The refrigerator in the work is not only a product that brings convenience to people’s lives, but it is also decorated with pink, and the pink sink and gas stove on the side runs through the whole work. At this time, the kitchen is no longer only used functions but also beautifies kitchen. The significance of 7up in the refrigerator is very important. It communicated well its status in people’s lives at that time. 7up was considered a very exquisite beverage choice at the time, and it had the youngest consumers. It is therefore not put in the refrigerator but stored above the refrigerator. Regardless of the number and position, it tells viewers the importance of its existence and once again hints at the comfortable life that people dream of at that time. On the table, all foods with trademarks are distributed in every corner of the table. Wesselmann used these advertisements to fill a table with unrestrained food. So, what is the meaning of letting the advertising words appear in the work? The appearance of advertisements may be criticizing that this is what a good life wants people to have, but this is not necessarily what people need or want. At the same time, if these rich foods are removed, all the facilities in the kitchen will become useless. It can be seen that this work is closely related to consumer behavior. The scenery outside the window is a green lawn, and in the distance, it is a modern building. This may be explaining that the ideal life and reality are far worse. Back in the room, there is an abstract portrait of a woman hanging by the refrigerator, a reproduction from Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman (1973). This work does not seem to have much connection with this work. But when Wesselmann chooses objects, it has their meaning. The woman in the painting has long hair and a red dress, so its existence may also imply the ideal state of the mistress of this room. At the same time, the abstract flattening may also imply the blurring of the boundary between reality and ideal. The imaginary ideal life is to constantly want to ask for more things, so the goal that people want will never be achieved.

In the United States, pop style depicts a new visual world with recognizable images. One of its goals is to use pop culture images in art, emphasizing the banal or tacky elements of any culture, most commonly through the use of satire. For example, in Andy Warhol’s 200 Cans of Campbell Soup, he satirized mass production and the consumer mentality of the masses. This work is very similar to Still Life #30 discussed above. They all satirize the American social ethos at the time. At the same time, in pop art, the materials are chosen by the artist sometimes deviate from their known background. They will combine it with new, unrelated materials. Just like Wesselmann searched magazines for the most popular foods at the time. These foods were originally advertisements, but he used these foods with slogans to criticize people’s fantasy of a better life as unrealistic and unreal.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? ,1956, collage, 26cm × 24.8 cm, Kunsthalle Tübingen  

The Richard Hamilton’s “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” created in 1956, this collage artwork breaks the traditional aesthetic taste with its bizarre pictures and unconventional composition. It presents to us a pretty strong visual experience. There are a lot of elements that used in this artwork. A muscular naked man holding a racket-sized lollipop with the word “pop” written on it; a woman wearing a lampshade on a sofa and posing in strange poses; an orange chair is covered opened newspaper; black-and-white tape recorder on the wooden floor; TV set in front of the bed cabinet at work behind; comics with Young Romance title hanging on the wall; movie promotion that can be seen through the window; vacuum cleaner advertisement on the left side of the picture ; The badge icon placed in the corner; all of these various mass media express the way people exchanged information at that time. 

Looking at this artwork from a visual point of view, we can find that Richard Hamilton combines a series of previously unrelated things in daily life that people are familiar with in a brand-new way to show them in front of us. The familiar yet unfamiliar freshness forms a strong visual impact in this superficial contradiction and imbalance. Secondly, the creative technique of this artwork has also changed the traditional painting method, pioneering the use of ready-made materials and objects. Through collage and printing of image resources in popular life, entertainment products and information exchange elements of popular culture are concentrated in one room, which shows people’s spiritual and material lives at that time. And in my opinion, in terms of subject matter, this artwork has also stepped out of modernist painting creation, abandoned extremely abstract art forms, began to attach importance to concreteness, and used the daily necessities, mass media, and people that were despised by art in the past. Familiar images of public figures are used as creative objects and elements, thereby eliminating the difference between elegant art and popular art, allowing art world to be more easily integrated into people’s daily life. 

Moreover, I do think this artwork has brought us a certain kind of reflection from the depths of our hearts. On the surface, the author of this work is presenting us with scenes of contemporary life as an objective observer, but in essence, Richard Hamilton is trying to show us the essence of this era, so that we are truly aware of the surrounding cultural environment. The various popular elements presented to us in the works indirectly reflect the characteristics of consumer culture of this era. In this commercialized society, people have a certain degree of helplessness, emptiness and confusion behind the enrichment of their spiritual world through material and wealth. In addition, as far as I am concerned, when presenting the language of consumerism in this artwork, it is full of mockery of fetishism, reflecting the thinking of European intellectuals on the new social values after the war. 

Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 67 5/8 x 66 3/4″ (171.6 x 169.5 cm), MoMa

Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, created in 1963, is one of Lichtenstein’s most famous Pop Art paintings.The piece is described as a masterpiece of melodrama, showing a teary-eyed girl on a turbulent sea. She is emotionally distressed from a romance. The colors used in this painting consist of blue gradients which are used to display sadness and despair. To create this painting, Liechtenstein sampled a page from a romance comic book illustrated by Tony Abruzzo in 1962. Lichtenstein cropped the image to focus on the drowning girl surrounded by a threatening wave. By focusing on the girl’s frustrated expression, the image becomes more intense. In the original comic the boyfriends name is Mal. Liechtenstein changed the name to Brad as he felt it was more ‘heroic’ to assure the viewer that the girl will ultimately be rescued.

The girl in the painting is yelling “I DON’T CARE! I’D RATHER SINK THAN CALL BRAD FOR HELP!” which tells the viewer that she has experienced heartbreak towards her love interest which is the result of her suffering and loss of trust. The girl would rather let the waters consume her than to call Brad for aid. The language in this piece can be relatable to the viewer because it shows the struggles of a failing relationship where trust is lost and the girl would rather drown in her feelings than to call out for help. Without the thought bubble the image would be read as a girl struggling to stay afloat because of the heavy waters. The thought bubble gives clearer context and shows the viewer that the girl is drowning in her emotions. 

Although Roy Lichtenstein is known as one of the leading figures in pop art his work does get a ton of hate from critics because they view it as Lichtenstein copying other artists’ work. I can see visually how this can be true but when it comes down to the context of the pieces I disagree. The pop art movement was meant to mimic modern popular and commercial culture. Although Lichtenstein’s drowning girl has visual similarities with Tony’s Abruzzo’s run for love, the context between the two are widely different. In Lichtenstein’s work the girl is going through emotional distress from a heartbreak and the waters are meant to be seen as a metaphor. In Abruzzo’s piece the girl is actually drowning and doesn’t want to bother her boyfriend who she already feels despises her. I personally enjoy Roy Lichtenstein’s work since it is relatable. The drowning girl caught my attention because I have emotionally felt what the painting is portraying just like many women have at one point in their lives.

James Rosenquist, Sightseeing, 1962. Oil on canvas and glass, with painted wood and metal hardware. 48”x60”. The St. Louis Art Museum.

As its title suggests, James Rosenquist’s Sightseeing, 1962, is a visual depiction of the word, “Sightseeing.” This piece consists of two rows of letters, which respectively spell the words, “sight,” and “seeing.” Compositionally, there are three unequal parts–the top two being the rows of letters, and the bottom the negative space of the canvas–which decrease in size from top to bottom. This causes the word “sight” to be slightly cut off, effectively centering the second row, “seeing.” Standing at a remarkable forty-eight by sixty inches, this white, gessoed canvas also encompasses an unusual selection of materials. The upper half illustrates a set of delicate oil-painted, red roses, on top of a blue sky, all placed precisely within the blocked letters of “sight”; the lower half frames the middle portion of its letters with metal hardware and teal glass, depicting something reminiscent of a broken mirror. Furthermore, the orange letters within this frame are made of painted wood, while the surrounding letters are outlined with a gray shade of oil paint. With all this variety, what unifies this piece visually are the pops of warm color on cool-toned backgrounds, as well as the chosen font of the text.

Interestingly, this piece does the opposite of what most pieces with text do: placing the visual within, instead of around, the text. Rosenquist cleverly incorporates this artistic choice as a quite literal pun through the fact that the viewer may only make out any visuals inside the words “SIGHT” and “SEE” on an otherwise blank canvas. The intention of a mirror also takes this play on words a step further; the mirror’s frame is cleverly placed around the letters “S-E-E,” which blatantly describes its function of enabling us to see through a different plane of vision. The broken cracks of the glass allude to a broken vision–or an incomplete one. Perhaps because what we see in a mirror is our reflection, and because the broken mirror faces the viewer, Rosenquist is alluding to a collective inability to truly see the self. The fact that the word “Sightseeing” is somewhat cut off, both in each row as well as the top of the canvas, only further emphasizes this point through preventing the viewer from seeing the full picture.

The usage of materials within Rosenquist’s piece further builds upon this analysis, especially in the context of the pop art movement. Pop artists challenged the classist, traditional restriction of using expensive art materials through the movement of recycling cheap, everyday items for the purpose of art. Reusing these materials for the sake of art was also a way to counter the ecological morality of mass production. Rosenquist’s broken glass and metal hardware argues these same points, but regarding the specific intention of Rosenquist’s Sightseeing, it also critiques how the American public has reacted positively to the ideals of mass culture whilst overlooking its consequences. More specifically, the top and bottom rows of Sightseeing’s text alludes to the contrast of how mass-production seems harmless on the surface (a beautiful sight abundant with nature and roses) but in actuality inflicts detrimental harm toward the environment (a depiction of broken and wasted material, perhaps two wasteful consequences of mass products).