Pop to Popism

November 15, 2014
Roy Lichtenstein’s In the Car (1963). Photograph: estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein’s In the Car (1963). Photograph: estate of Roy Lichtenstein

“Witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business…” all these terms were part of the definition of Pop Art put forward by British artist, Richard Hamilton, in 1957. The manifesto preceded the movement, as the term “Pop Art” wasn’t in general usage until the 1960s. There is no agreement about who invented the name or when the Eureka! moment occurred.

Historians dispute the date of Pop Art’s birth and when it ended. It could be argued that it never came to a halt at all, being merely absorbed into the mass culture that provided it with such startling iconography. Pop and its legacy are so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine that some early commentators viewed it as a radical, iconoclastic force that threatened to undermine the foundations of western civilisation.

Pop’s crime, and its lasting achievement, was to ignore the invisible dividing line that separated high and low art. It created works for the art museums and academies that were accessible, understandable and instant. It treated the imagery of mass consumerism with a reverence previously reserved for religious or mythological subjects. It came as close as any movement in history to fulfilling the avant-garde ideal of dissolving the boundaries between art and everyday life.

Maria Kozic’s Masterpieces (Warhol) (1986). Photograph: Maria Kozic and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Maria Kozic’s Masterpieces (Warhol) (1986). Photograph: Maria Kozic and Anna Schwartz Gallery

The Art Gallery of NSW is badly in need of a show that is witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and big business. Pop to Popism carries a greater burden of expectation than almost any local blockbuster I can remember, as it’s the first major show to be initiated by the Gallery since the end of Edmund Capon’s directorship at the end of 2011. His successor, Michael Brand, has been busy hiring and firing, while talking up the idea of a $450 million extension, but original exhibitions have been rarer than the Yowie.

Last year’s summer offering, America: Painting a Nation, was a package picked up on its way home from South Korea. It was a second-rate affair and audiences stayed away.

Apart from the surge at Archibald Prize time, attendances have been in the doldrums, and this has conferred an exaggerated importance on Pop to Popism. The show has been on the drawing board for at least three years, with responsibility falling on the shoulders of head curator of Australian art, Wayne Tunnicliffe. This is the biggest, most ambitious show that Tunnicliffe has given us, and – like the Gallery itself – he needs a hit.

Will he get it? It’s possible, because Pop Art is one of the few modern movements with widespread appeal, but don’t expect any attendance records to be broken. It’s an entertaining exhibition (with a solid catalogue) that covers many different aspects of Pop Art and its legacy. The chief drawback is an inconsistent selection of works. As usual with locally produced surveys, viewers will recognise many pieces sourced from Australian public collections. There’s an argument for seeing these works in context, but it is disappointing to keep meeting familiar product when one wants to be surprised.

The show is divided into seven sections dealing with the origins of Pop Art; British, American, European and Australian Pop; Pop Art after 1968, and ‘Post Pop and Popism’. This makes it a very different proposition to Pop Art 1955 -70, which was shown in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne in 1985. This survey selected by Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, had a much tighter focus, although a number of pieces from that show are back for Pop to Popism.

Tunnicliffe’s innovation is to include Australian Pop Art and later work influenced by Pop. It should come as no surprise that these are the most problematic parts of the exhibition. The Australian art holds up reasonably well, with the stand-outs being two cartoon-abstracts by Dick Watkins from 1968; Colin Lanceley’s Love Me Stripper (1963) – only incidentally a ‘Pop’ work; and Peter Powditch’s The big towel (1969), which looks as if it were painted yesterday. The obvious stars such as Martin Sharp, Richard Larter and Mike Brown are all represented, although there will be many arguments about the choice of works.

Brett Whiteley’s monumental The American Dream (1968-69) is also featured, although it must be one of the most relentless exercises in cosmic kitsch ever committed to canvas. This was the project that undid Whiteley’s promising international career, sending him back to Australia where he became a home-town hero.

The exhibition grows threadbare when we reach the final rooms, which resemble a rather indifferent trophy cabinet of international and Australian works from the 1980s onwards, grouped under the label: ‘Popism’. There is no sense of necessity in these galleries, which feel like padding, not a careful consideration of the later permutations of the Pop aesthetic.

The word Popism may have originated with Andy Warhol, but in Australia it denoted an attempt by Melbourne writer, Paul Taylor, to create a local ‘movement’ in the same manner that the Italian critic, Achille Bonito Oliva, had lumped a disparate group of artists under the title TransAvantGarde. It was mystifying to me at the time how willingly everyone jumped aboard the bandwagon, and it’s hardly less puzzling today. I’ve never understood the superficial appeal of artists such as Howard Arkley and Jenny Watson, yet here they are treated as figures of historical importance.

A shallow or clumsy work doesn’t become a masterpiece by virtue of its age or its acquisition by a museum. Public collections, I’m sorry to say, are full of junk. It’s the role of curators to keep reassessing the value of such works, detaching the object from whatever false glories it once enjoyed.

That task is better realised in the early parts of the exhibition where the check-list includes several works of unquestionable significance, including David Hockney’s youthful provocation, We two boys together clinging (1961); Peter Blake’s wonderful, deadpan Self-portrait with badges (1961); Jasper Johns’s small but seminal White numbers (1957); and Roy Lichtenstein’s first ever ‘cartoon’ painting, Look Micky (1961), which is still capable of raising a smile, and possibly eyebrows.

Andy Warhol’s most celebrated series are viewable in various incarnations, including the Campbell Soup Tins, Marilyn, Elvis and the Electric Chair. There is only one Mao, when it would have been good to see a set, but Warhol’s pictures never sustain much attention, even if they are obligatory inclusions.

One of the notable aspects of this selection is the decision to include works by women artists such as Rosalyn Drexler, Martha Rosler and Evelyne Axell, as well as Australians such as Vivienne Binns. I only wish I could make a case for Drexler that goes beyond mere gender balance. It may be some sort of compensation for all those pictures of naked women by male artists that signified sexual liberation in the 1960s, and simple sexism today.

It’s good to see a large soft sculpture of an electric fan by Claes Oldenburg, but disappointing that an artist such as Ed Kienholtz is represented by only one small fragment from the Power Collection. Nikki de Saint Phalle is included, but George Segal has been omitted.

Andy Warhol summed up the spirit of Pop when he talked about the ideal of democracy associated with a bottle of Coke. From the President of the United States to a bum in the gutter, the bottle of Coke they drink is exactly the same. This was the way Pop Art appeared to devotees of high culture who worried that the museums would soon be awash with vulgarity. As it turned out, vulgarity is endemic to contemporary art, and sometimes provides a useful injection of vitality.

The democratic nature of Pop proved to be just as ephemeral, as iconic works now change hands for millions of dollars at auction. Warhol himself showed his keen appreciation of “business art” by having his assistants churn out a long series of silkscreen celebrity portraits. Some Pop artists took a political turn, others floated happily on the ocean of pop culture. Many, such as Johns, Rauschenberg and Hockney would develop in such a way that it soon seemed ridiculous to identify them with any particular style. Some have argued that Pop was essentially a critical movement, others follow Warhol’s doctrine: “Pop is liking things.” This flawed but likeable exhibition gives scope to both points of view.

Pop to Popism
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
until 1 March 2015

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 15th November, 2014