The Original Pop Stars

Pop is probably one of the most well-known art movements in history; so well-known and widespread in fact that it has even become a photo filter. The key players were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosequist and Tom Wessleman. Between them, they delivered some of the most iconic images of the twentieth century. The term pop art conjures up images of bright saturated colours, celebrity screen print portraits and Brillo boxes; but just what was Pop Art all about?

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‘Marilyn Monroe,’ Andy Warhol, 1962-7

Pop Art emerged in the early 1960s at the dawn of a new age in American culture; the consumerist age. This new media era of American history was a time where everything, even the American Dream, was for sale. Adverts and billboards from the Mad Men ad executives re-shaped the American landscape convincing the public that happiness was a comodity that could be bought.

The pop artists took this imagery and used it to form the basis of their art. The strong use of heavy black outlines, bright saturated colours and pixelated dots which dominated Roy Lichtenstein’s art for example, reflected the reproductive techniques in adverts and newspapers.

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‘Masterpiece,’ Roy Lichtenstein, 1962

Initially, Pop Art was seen as shallow and media-obsessed with its portrayal of celebrities and a celebration of the capitalist world, devoid of the intellectual qualities seen in its predecessor Abstract Expressionism. Rather than a celebration, the Pop Artists used this imagery to expose a more sinister side to the now dominate glossy adverts and to reveal truths about society.

‘Still Life No. 30,’ Tom Wesselmann, 1963

Behind the shiny facade of advertising was a darker side. James Rosenquist worked as a sign painter when he was just seventeen and witnessed first hand the other side of advertising. When painting the signs that encouraged people to buy the advertised goods and thus happiness, it wasn’t uncommon for painters to fall to their deaths.

Warhol’s representation of celebrities, most notably Marilyn Monroe, demonstrated a shift in times and had influences of Renaissance art. The format of having the central female figure displayed against an ornate backdrop was a typical mode for representing the Virgin Mary as was a gold backdrop. The feature of Marilyn Monroe, one of the most infamous actresses of her time and today, references the cult of celebrity as the religion of the modern day.

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‘Gold Marilyn,’ Andy Warhol, 1962

The loss of the artist’s touch, such as the use of printed techniques by Andy Warhol, could initially be interpreted as a lack of artistic skill. These artworks however, represented not a lack of skill and artistic quality, but the new ready-made age that was approaching. They referenced printed advertisements, billboards and a mass-produced era and used modern techniques to reflect the modern age.

Similarly in Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ series, he used the images circulated in news reports to illustrate the impact it had on people to continually view these pictures in the media. By taking one image and printing it over and over again, Warhol demonstrated a lack of feeling and a deadening effect that it eventually has on the viewer. When repeatedly exposed, sinister images become less shocking and eventually viewers will feel neutral to this type of imagery the more times it is seen.

What is interesting about the Pop Artists as a whole, is that they were never part of the same ‘group’ so to speak. They all worked independently of one another but all worked in the commercial world in some capacity before becoming artists. It is perhaps this shared background which led them to develop and see the same outlook of the impending consumerist age and the empty promises that were offered for sale.

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