Pop Art is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s

Vogue Gorilla with Miss Harper
study for Mouth #10
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Pop Art

Pop Art began as a response to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, an inward-looking art movement inspired by the individual artist’s subconscious emotional expressions. It was challenging to understand and frequently ridiculed.

Pop Art is about instantly recognisable subjects like brand-name products, current events, and celebrities. Pop Art challenges the elitism of the art world by elevating ordinary objects to the status of fine art. The post-war optimism of Pop Art comes through in bright colours, strong lines, and visually appealing graphic elements. Technology is embraced with materials and techniques not previously employed to create art, like plastics, silk screen printing, collage-style graphics, and airbrushing. What unites Pop Art is not the medium but the subject matter, so even furniture can become fine art.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The Pop of Life! exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) presents artworks that encompass initiators of the movement alongside other artists associated with Pop Art. Iris Amizlev, curator of the exhibition, explains, “This exhibition offers depictions laced with humour and critical commentary of the real and sometimes frivolous world, alongside works reflecting the social, historical and political events that defined the 1950s to the 1970s.”

Pop Art Pioneers: Andy Warhol & Eduardo Paolozzi

The name most closely associated with Pop Art is American Andy Warhol. Arguably, he did it best, but he was not the movement’s initiator. That distinction goes to the British, who were still suffering from World War II rationing and enviously eyeing the prosperity advertised in glossy American magazines in the early sixties. One of these hungry-eyed artists was Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005). A skilled printmaker, he collaged images cut out from American magazines that he collected from American soldiers during the war. His prints, like Vogue Gorilla with Miss Harper (1972), helped shape the movement and the ideas and techniques were adopted by others, including Canadian Michel Leclair (b.1948), whose print Fries with Gravy and a Coke! followed the same pattern.     

This exhibition offers depictions laced with humour and critical commentary of the real and sometimes frivolous world, alongside works reflecting the social, historical and political events that defined the 1950s to the 1970s.

Iris Amizlev, MMFA Curator

European Pop Artists

European Pop Art was not confined to museums; furniture designers decided to revolutionise chairs using new plastic moulding processes and polyurethane foam. Pierre Paulin’s (1927-2009) design for the Tongue Chair, rapped in brightly covered stretchable materials, was a huge sales hit, as was Chair (model PA 100), 1960-1967 by Verner Panton (1926-1998). Not only was Panton’s design the first stackable chair, but its complex cantilevered design was also the first moulded from a single material, polyurethane foam.

An out-there crazy design using similar polyurethane foam came from two Italians, Guido Drocco (b.1942) and Franco Mello (b.1945). Their one-metre design for Cactus Coat Rack is still in production. Examples of all three of these European furniture designs are in museums worldwide.

German Peter Klasen (b.1935) adopted the artistic language of Pop Art to share his critical ideas of sexualised consumer culture. Unlike Andy Warhol, Klasen intended to criticise, not to celebrate the swinging sixties. His ‘binary’ airbrush paintings are based on the representation of contrasting fragments, usually sexually charged images of female body parts and mundane objects, as can be seen in Sink (1967).

Tom Wesselmann

American Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) was the polar opposite of Klasen. His series Mouth (of which study for Mouth #10, 1967 is a part) was created from an extended study of the female figure. Wesselmann’s paintings are intentionally ‘flat,’ lacking any illusion of depth and volume, which again challenges the hierarchy of fine art. His simplified painting of forms used a limited pallet of red, white, and blue and those associated with American patriotic motifs such as gold and khaki. These artistic simplifications encourage viewers to engage with the artwork as a direct and unmediated celebration of popular culture.

Fries with Gravy, and a Coke!
Gallery View
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James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist (1933-2017) was a New York billboard painter who transitioned to artist in 1960; he was one of the first Americans to reject Abstract Expressionism and embrace collages of advertising images as his subjects. The billboard-sized scale on which he painted made Rosenquist’s work stand out. His gigantic artworks demanded attention, and he became an acknowledged leader in the Pop Art movement. He was also unapologetic with his subjects, using his work to criticise war efforts. In the case of Flamingo Capsule, he commemorates the three astronauts who died in a flash fire onboard Apollo 1 during a 1967 training session.

Celebrities as Art: Marilyn Monroe & Elvis Presley

The most influential American Pop artist, Andy Warhol (1928-1987), recognised early the consumer shift from the elitism of the art world to works of recognisable images people already loved. His images of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as images of consumer products such as Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, resonated with the society of the time and fostered a greater sense of community. He blurred the boundaries between art and commerce by embracing commercial techniques such as silk-screen printing, mass production, and repetition. This challenged the notion of art as a unique, one-of-a-kind object and instead embraced the idea of art as a reproducible commodity. By elevating everyday objects and celebrities to the status of art, he commented on the influence of mass media, commercialism, and celebrity culture on society. His work raised questions about the nature of fame, identity, and the commodification of art.

Pop Art continues to resonate with contemporary artists and audiences because it is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. This exhibition at the MMFA is an opportunity to find a community of like-minded people drawn together by art that speaks across cultures and generations.   

Text Martin Wray / Photos courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts