Sam Francis

Untitled, 1984

106.7 X 73 inch


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Reinvention of the Art world: The Insurgency of Pop Art

Reinvention of the Art world: The Insurgency of Pop Art (Roy Lichtenstein CRAK !, 1963-1965)

Art is anything we make of it. It is defined by what we find exciting or creative, and that is the same idea that led to the advent of pop art. Pop art emerged in Britain as a reaction to mass media consumerism and popular culture. The response resulted in a movement that has revolutionized the art world ever since.  It is distinctive from other forms of art due to its bright colors and bold, eclectic shapes, which are heavily influenced by the advertising industry.


The genesis of Pop art dates back to the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s that the world felt its presence in America and Britain. It began as a resistance against the then-dominant approaches to art and culture. A couple of young artists challenged the traditional ideologies on what art should be; they felt that what was taught in art schools misrepresented the meaning of art as none of it made sense to them. Art school taught about ancient history while museums showcased items and narratives that were irrelevant to their lives. The young artists sort for relatable sources of art, things that they interacted with and saw around them daily. They could redefine the entire concept and turn to unconventional sources such as Hollywood movies, collectibles, product packaging, advertising, pop music, and pretty muchanything that could inspire them.

American Pop Art

In its early stages, pop was the opinion of a few artists and did not quite catch the public's attention. Gradually, it found its place and an overwhelming acceptance as a form of art relevant to the mass-media-oriented society from the Western countries.

The movement, which started as a response to commercialism, draws its iconography from the media, comic books, movie magazines any form of advertising. The entire concept was an attempt to go back to the objective and universally accepted art while criticizing the supremacy of "high art" that society valued in the past. It was firmly based on expressionism and eventually became a cultural event due to its close reflection of social instances and easily comprehensive images.

The coming of pop art was hinted at by assemblages from Rauschenberg and Johns and announced through elaborately staged events designed by the likes of Allan Kaprow. The intention was to trigger their audience with sensory stimulation through surreal sculptures. The imagery was not short of vinyl-covered kapok-stuffed enlarged objects, including cigarette butts and hamburgers. The technique was precisely commercial, taking advantage of the media's consistent presence to bring forth art that was democratic and non-discriminatory.

Pop culture came into the limelight through the works of several artists. Roy Lichtenstein was known for scaling up versions of individual images sources from commercial comic strip magazines while merging them with some of his references to elevate them to what was referred to as "fine art." On the other hand, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist focused on consumer abundance with literal paintings and silkscreen prints of soup can labels and rows of soft drink bottles that depicted the supermarket era while mimicking mass production techniques. On the darker side, Warhol produced Death and Disaster silkscreens that severally displayed distressing images of car crashes from police files. He also created several pictures of Marilyn Monroe.   His exceptional work took advantage of brightly colored overlays.

A couple of other artists, such as Tom Wesselman, created salient forms of Pop art. He is better known for the Great American Nude series that comprises direct paintings of faceless sex symbols. Robert Indiana, a painter, sculptor, and printmaker, is particularly famous for his Love sculpture series found in more than 30 locations worldwide. 

The freedom that accompanies pop art is quite noticeable through Keith Haring. Also known as The Alphabet, Haring made art that used very few lines and primary colors to communicate. Most often than not, his extraordinary art, majorly cartoon-like characters, made up Haring's "alphabet" and told strong stories and sent messages in a way never seen before.

These are just some artists that significantly made a presence and massive impact on American pop art. This solid foundation laid the ground for the vast acceptance of pop art in the 20th century, attracting masses to channel their creativity in the best way they know-how.

European Pop Art

Most European countries are known for their deep-rooted traditions in fine arts. From paintings to sculptures, to music to dance, architecture, name it. Interestingly, pop art stood firm in changing how people perceived art. Pop art emerged in France as Nouveau Realism which, according to critic Pierre Restany was a new way of perceiving the real. In neighboring Germany, capital realism defined artists with an American Pop influence. Famous names in the scene included Gerhard Ritcher and Konrad Lueg, who studied and dissected pop culture imagery and photography.

As these other European countries were struggling with the idea of pop art, London has embraced it. This overwhelming acceptance paved the way for the development of pop art, with artists such as David Hockney, Joe Tison, and Billy Apple at the forefront.

Although American art history made assumptions on "Pop Art” in Europe, only London had wholeheartedly joined the bandwagon. Other European cities directed their efforts towards reconnecting with their pre-war artistic history. European pop art took time to catch on as most of what we know from the region took place in the second half of the sixties. With London as the city of reference, Europe experienced a generational split not seen in American pop. As pop art was flourishing in the United States, It was just beginning in London.

It is not surprising that most conversations about European pop culture circle around London-where it all began. Several independent groups of artists from the Institute of Contemporary Art convened in London from 1952 to 1955. These artists included Peter Blake, Allen Jones, R.J. Kital, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Reyner Banham, and Lawrence Alloway. To date, the world celebrates Richard Hamilton as the founder of Pop Art and the visionary that outlined the vision, its aims, and the ideals.

Lawrence Alloway, an art critic, will always be remembered for coining the term "Pop Art." Later on, in 1956, the same artists participated in a group exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, featuring another word, "New Eden." The show covered a post-war America and its consumer culture that made everything and anything possible. It also starred Robbie (the robot from the film "The Forbidden Planet") featuring "Adam" and Marilyn Monroe as "Eve" - An unlikely couple that could live without shame in the Pop Paradise.

In the 60s, London took the baton from America as most pop art developments thrived from the city. England had recovered from the deprivations of war and was creating a new generation of pop culture. It was a shift from the fine arts that European countries had boasted for centuries. In a way, the new form of art transformed what was seen as "low" culture to "high art." The art came from the young people who consumed the same products. A few fine artists, including Bridget Riley, whose Op Art paintings made statements in the burgeoning fashion scene, transitioned to this new trend. The class barriers that stood in the way of art crumbled when "lower" class artists such as Michael Cain rose to stardom. In contrast, pop art redefined the term artist to include designers, musical groups, photographers, movie directors, movie stars, and many more.

The influence of Pop made a significant presence all through to the 70s and even early 80s. During this period, the contributions of several artists made a significant impact in defining pop art. One of the renowned artists, Peter Blake, is often referred to as the "Godfather of British Pop art." Considering that he was born and raised in a country recovering from war, his interests focused on a happy lifestyle. His art was diverse, incorporating drawing, collage, and assemblage, and made from various materials such as paper, wood and stone, and pretty much anything he found. Manolo Valdez used almost similar techniques but drew from art history to create prints, paintings, and sculptures. On the other hand, Enrico Baj used his work to depict irony and sarcasm and criticize the social and civil context of his home country - Italy.

Pop art in Europe brought a divide between the winners of the war (America and England) and the losers (France and Germany), thus its success in London, who embraced western capitalism.

Asian pop art (political pop)

Asia arrived at the party quite late with Political pop. The term "Political pop" was coined by Li Xianting, an art critic, to define the works of Chinese artists who incorporated the American pop style in their art. The art was primarily a juxtaposition of Cultural Revolution propaganda iconography.  Essentially Political pop is the synthesis of Western pop art with the socialist realism of the Maoist era. One great example of political pop is the portrait of Mao Zedong with commercial symbols of popular signature brands such as Gucci and Coca-Cola. Expressionism is undoubtedly a part of political pop thanks to the ironic, wry, and instances of humorous criticism against the surging fascination over wealth, luxury, and austerity of Chinese society.

Political art debuted in China in the 1980s. The first political pop art was a portrait of the Chinese leader Mao, which was created by a Chinese plastic artist Li Shan, who printed, cut, and pasted the picture over an acrylic-colored background with a flower in his mouth. This piece was inspired by the portraits of "Mao," created by Andy Warhol in the 1970s.

Another remarkable creation was the painting "Great Criticism-Coca-Cola" by Wang Guangy. The painting is an authentic representation of social realism. It displays Chinese workers holding red flags on a pen with the famous Coca-Cola logo at the bottom part of the painting. The workers appear detached from the propaganda poster. Wang Guangyi created striking artwork and greatly influenced the Chinese avant-garde as one of the founding members of Shu Qun and Ren Jian.

We must not forget to mention Ai Weiwei - a Chinese sculptor, filmmaker, musician, and architect who has fought for the Chinese people's liberation through his work. He created photographs, videos, sculptural installations, and architectural projects in his activism and openly criticized the abuses of the Chinese government. His American influence conditioned his approach to the avant-garde field, otherwise known as Conceptual art. Like pop art, his interactions with art led him to think of raw materials as life objects.

Takashi Murakami is also a prominent artist in Asian pop art. The Japanese painter and sculptor are well-known for blending commercialism, fine art, Japanese aesthetics, and cultural criticism. The artist rose to fame among art circles in Japan and America for his unique craft showcased in his overwhelmingly successful handbag designs for Louis Vuitton. His works are substantial in political art as he manages to blur the lines between fine art and low art. Takashi Murakami has made an incredible impact on the young generation of Japanese artists and earned the title "Godfather of Japanese Art."

Political pop art has received its share of backlash, with critics arguing that the movement imitates propaganda and consumerism and uses stereotypes to attain the demands of the Western market. However, pop culture is a response to the rampant modernization of Asian countries and created a way for their people to accept Cultural Revolution. Although it started a bit later than pop art in America and Europe, It defines what the Asian people relate to while creating the connection between them and other cultures. Additionally, political pop creates a channel that empowers artists to question political and social climate issues that affect them and their people.

Pop art was able to reintroduce identifiable imagery and move away from the rigid definition of art. It eliminated the hierarchy of culture and introduced an aspect of inclusivity into everything art. Thus it has made it possible to continually transform culture into a more fantastic and meaningful artistic spectacle while facing the reality of capitalism. With the focus on instilling value in what each society deems necessary, pop art's potential is inexhaustible. Even better, artists can create things that will remain relevant throughout various periods and different social structures. Today, several iconic artists keep the pop art fire blazing through exciting and widely accepted works.

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