“Pop is everything art hasn’t been for the last two decades. It’s basically a U-turn back to a representational visual communication, moving at a break-away speed…Pop is a re-enlistment in the world…It is the American Dream, optimistic, generous and naive.”
Pop art is now most associated with the work of New York artists of the early 1960s such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, but artists who drew on popular imagery were part of an international phenomenon in various cities from the mid-1950s onwards. Following the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists, Pop’s reintroduction of identifiable imagery (drawn from mass media and popular culture) was a major shift for the direction of modernism.
It could be argued that the Abstract Expressionists searched for trauma in the soul, while Pop artists searched for traces of the same trauma in the mediated world of advertising, cartoons, and popular imagery at large. But it is perhaps more precise to say that Pop artists were the first to recognize that there is no unmediated access to anything, be it the soul, the natural world, or the built environment.
Andy Warhol was the most successful and highly paid commercial illustrator in New York even before he began to make art destined for galleries. Nevertheless, his screen-printed images of Marilyn Monroe, soup cans, and sensational newspaper stories, quickly became synonymous with Pop art. He emerged from the poverty and obscurity of an Eastern European immigrant family in Pittsburgh, to become a charismatic magnet for bohemian New York, and to ultimately find a place in the circles of High Society. For many his ascent echoes one of Pop art’s ambitions, to bring popular styles and subjects into the exclusive salons of high art.
Warhol’s early work in commercial illustration was all about elevating an ordinary product into a more glamorous light for the purpose of selling it as an object of desire to the masses. His drawings of women’s shoes were decorative and whimsical examples of this where a high heel might be festooned with flowers and birds, lending it an ephemeral female connotation. This early experience in manipulating popular taste would come to inform his original Pop works, which placed everyday objects on a pedestal in their stark and unadorned simplicity. Unlike the commercial work, designed to seduce, this new art would produce the opposite effect by lending a more dispassionate and impersonal mood.