BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176

International Pop & The World Goes Pop

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA, & Tate Modern, London UK

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 DEC 15

Tadanori Yokoo, Moat, 1966, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 21 cm

One thing that struck me about the Walker Art Center’s huge survey of global and historical pop art, ‘International Pop’, and Tate Modern’s identically-themed show, ‘The World Goes Pop’, which opened within months of each other last year, was how this coincidence of curating was itself such an old-fashioned pop moment. You could imagine some day-glo-coloured frenzy of media excitement in 1965 – the kind of event styled by Mary Quant and theorized by Marshall McLuhan – as both museums announced a groovy new happening, an experiment in simultaneous curating. This experiment would have allowed visitors in Minneapolis to see bright, figurative paintings by Evelyne Axell and Keichi Tanaami’s zany, explosive animations at almost the same moment as their counterparts in London; it would have given them a sense of how the Vietnam War, Coca-Cola, The Beatles and the bomb were changing the world for all of us, right here and right now. Regional aesthetic differences would have collapsed into a shared visual language of bold lines and eye-popping colours. 

You could imagine this happening and then being forgotten about for the next 50 years as museums in the West slipped back into more comfortable art historical narratives of focusing on British and US pop art made by celebrated white men. Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney; Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol. The same old names and the same old stories repeated until communication technologies started to change and the art world globalized. As conversations opened up and new discoveries were made, trends in curating leaned toward rediscovery, reappraisal, retrospection, reevaluation, revisiting – but never that actual mechanism of pop, ‘retro’ – allowing museum visitors to see, once again, how so many artists from across the world during from the 1950s through to the 1970s were grappling with representing life in a new media and consumer landscape. But, by this point, the work was no longer pop: it was history. Newspaper collages foxed with age, acrylic paint cracking across decades old canvases, yellowing plastics and obsolete electronics. As early as 1957, Richard Hamilton famously defined pop art as: ‘Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.’ You could apply many of those terms to work produced under the sign of contemporary art today, but not to the works in these two shows, with their dust, wood and old varnish. 

‘International Pop’ at the Walker was organized by Darsie Alexander with Bartholomew Ryan and featured 140 works from 14 different countries including Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US. Tate Modern’s ‘The World Goes Pop’ was curated by Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri with Elsa Coustou and included 64 artists from across Central and Eastern Europe, North and South America, Asia and the Middle East. The Walker organized their tour across the world largely by country and chronology, the Tate by themes: politics, the home, bodies, crowds, folk and craft, consumption.

Evelyne Axell, Valentine, 1966, oil paint on canvas, zipper and helmet, 130 x 83 cm

Amongst an impressive array of painting, installation and sculpture – some familiar, much of it new to me – the curators of ‘International Pop’ chose to include a number of canonical works and in places (though by no means throughout) follow standard art historical lines. One early room in the show looked at British pop: Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty, Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Joe Tilson. The room reminded me of how pinched and ration-fed much British pop looked in comparison with its US counterparts: a dream of pop elsewhere, an elsewhere made of burgers, chrome, modern appliances and movie stars, not drab, bombed out cities, spam and BBC Radio’s Third Programme. Where the show leaned towards the obvious it also managed to throw in a few curveballs. Next to works by Andy Warhol was Paul Thek’s Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box (1965): a lump of flesh sealed behind Perspex on an upturned Brillo Box. It was a neat way of demonstrating how the story of pop in the US, at least, was not without its fissures, disagreements, dissenters.

What the Walker show did particularly successfully was show how the political stakes, for US and British pop artists, were lower than those of their contemporaries in Eastern Europe or South America. It’s one thing to live in New York and declare War is Over!, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono did in their 1969 letterpress print, another to experience daily life in an oppressive regime, as Antonio Manuel did under the Brazilian military dictatorship. His Repressão outra vez – Eis o saldo (Repression Again – Here Is the Consequence, 1968) comprises five large panels, each covered in black cloth, looking almost like fabric Ad Reinhardt paintings. Lengths of string attached to the cloth drapes could be pulled to reveal silkscreened images of police and rioting students. Pop was ‘Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.’ Also: Samizdat, Seditious, Revolutionary, Underground, Violent. 

Where the Walker made claims for pop’s political edge on the barricades and in the streets, the Tate looked at its relationship to the female body. ‘The World Goes Pop’ includes a sizeable selection of work by women pop artists – 27 out of 64 artists – providing a counterpoint to this male-dominated – and when it came to the female subject, scopophilic – art movement. Pieces by the likes of Axell, Judy Chicago, Eulàlia Grau, Kiki Kogelnik, Nicola L. confront pop art’s (and popular culture, more broadly) guilty exploitation of women’s bodies and place in society. Jana Želibská’s Breasts and Nose I–II (both 1967), crisp, flat depictions of body parts (the latter oddly reminiscent of Warhol’s 1961 ‘nose job’ paintings Before and After included in the Walker’s show) covered in gauzy decorative fabric were echoed by Martha Rosler’s photomontage Pop Art, or Wallpaper (from the series ‘Body Beautiful or Body Knows No Pain,’ c.1966–72), a more hard-edged and pointed dis-assembling of the female body. Isabel Oliver’s series of paintings ‘The Woman’ (1970–73) depict, variously, an anxious looking woman surrounded by a miniature city of cosmetics (Beauty Products), a child rendered in disturbing photo negative colours (It Is a Girl), and a large group of women in a modern looking living room, the exterior of the building looking like a nightmarish Salvador Dalí dreamscape (Happy Reunion). These scenes are shot through with unease, with a sense of bodies surrounded by malevolence and psychological claustrophobia. Over at the Walker, a pair of paintings from Wanda Pimentel’s Untitled – Série Envolvimento (Untitled Involvement Series, 1968) cast domestic space as heavy with narrative potential; stark, primary coloured interiors in which a leg or a knee could be glimpsed in ways that could be read as sexually voyeuristic. 

Wanda Pimentel, Untitled — Série Envolvimento (Involvement Series), 1968, acrylic on canvas, 116 x 89 cm

Pimentel’s paintings were made in Brazil, thousands of miles away from Europe, where Patrick Caulfield (not included in either show and, by his own insistence, not a pop artist) was making paintings of graphic, flat interiors that could easily have been the long-lost cousins of Pimentel’s works. Japanese artist Tanaami’s eyeball-bursting animations – rapidly cut, perpetual-motion scenes of sex and destruction (Commercial War, 1971 and Crayon Angel, 1975) looked like they were made by Yellow Submarine (1968) animator George Dunning after a brutally strong acid trip. Both the Walker and Tate shows were strong on themes but, excepting their richly packed catalogues, light on elucidating how pop art travelled from country to country and developed stylistic correspondences, or, in some cases, developed its own methodologies in isolation. 

One curious side-effect of both ‘International Pop’ and ‘The World Goes Pop’ was the way in which the institutions absented themselves from the conversation – that is, absented themselves from the idea that museums have been and are a part of popular culture. To see these shows was like watching a person with a psychological disorder unable to perceive themselves in a mirror. (A cruel way of putting that would be to describe institutions as vampiric, but the story of pop art is more complex than that.) The most famous pop artists of the West – the Blakes, Hamiltons, Oldenburgs and Warhols – have largely entered and circulated the popular visual imagination through museums: not just shows, but their merchandise, advertising and branding. Pop art was not some artistically vulgar but influential phenomenon that happened ‘over there’, at a safe distance from the clean, unhurried, sacred spaces of the museum. The world went pop because of developments in technology and media, certainly, and in the shaking up of old hierarchies in culture and society. But art institutions were also part of the distribution network of pop art. Today they are tourist destinations flocked to by millions. They have fancy cafes and open late for date nights. Pop musicians play concerts in their galleries and gardens. It was the museum that also made the world go pop too and, like it or not, today they are as much part of pop culture as Justin Bieber or True Detective – perhaps, in the broader role they play in civic and economic life today, more so than shows like these will admit.

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).