Tim Pendry's Reviews > Pop Art: Colour Library

Pop Art by Jamie James
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Nov 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: art, history-of-art
Recommended for: Anyone interested in art

The Phaidon Colour Library is a remarkably cheap set of full colour guides to the great artists and to some of the schools of art that make up the canon.

This particular book, published in 1996, is a good short introduction to the Pop Art School with 48 full colour plates.

Jamie James, an arts correspondent based in New York provides a good introduction to the three schools of Pop Art - the London (Paolozzi, Blake, Hamilton and early Hockney), the New York (Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and Warhol) and the less inspiring West Coast, with a very brief nod (too brief) to the German School of Polke and Richter.

The reproductions are excellent. The Jasper Johns masterpiece 'Flag' of 1955 is presented so that you can see its painterly quality in a way that many art books do not allow. In this respect, the Phaidon series is generally superior to the Taschen series, examples of which will be separately reviewed.

The Pop Art School is presented through the eyes of a man of the mid-1990s, just before the debasement of the style into post-modernism. We have seen, since, Brit Art and a whole slew of contemporary mimicries that represent similar localised reactions to great wealth seeking ostentatious participation in the art market under the aegis of entrepreneurs like Saatchi, a positively Barnum-like phenomenon in high culture.

Historians may look elsewhere for something that represents the next stage of artistic evolution - possibly not to be found in paint or sculpture or in galleries or museums but in the actual performance of popular culture.

The two themes of Pop Art are cool (as James describes) and sexuality (which he merely alludes to). Cool, an attitude of detachment, sometimes verging on the sociopathic, is not what we find in Britain but it is the core of the revolt against the tormented egoistic individualism and hermeticism of Abstract Expressionism in America. Abstract Expressionism, in turn, was partly derivative of the equally hermetic psycho-drama of Surrealism. Abstract Expressionism was intrinsically liberal in a dutiful sort of way while Pop Art was libertarian in a cynical way.

The history of twentieth century art is partly a political history - an attempt to liberate the 'artist' as self-appointed representative of suffering humanity. 'Guernica' was the type of this attitude, as if a painting could change anything. Abstract Expressionism merely turned this inwards towards the psychic suffering of the intellectual faced with a greyness that held little optimism after Auschwitz and Hiroshima - a recognition that the artist could change nothing.

The American pop artists (again the British were motivated differently as were the Germans, using Americana for local purposes) said, 'to hell with all that po-faced earnestness, let's go party', sell paintings and have ideas, lots of them to startle and impress. This was art reflective of consumerism and as consumable for the very rich. It suggested that nothing needed to be changed - or conformed to for that matter.

This form of art is not the only form that has emerged in the last third of the twentieth century but it is the dominant one. Its politics is worn lightly if at all and generally only to say that the artist's playfulness and marketability should not be interfered with. The works are startling and impressive at their best, but precisely to the degree that they can be interpreted as intellectually and emotionally shallow.

The other aspect of twentieth century art, sexuality, is often neglected. It is the history of the artist's attempt to find sexual freedom within a very closed cultural system, at least until artists and circumstances opened it up. In general, this consideration of liberation has been a male prerogative and it helps to explain that canard that women cannot be great artists.

What this really means is that women cannot easily find groups which can link to markets that meet the cultural needs of the time, needs that are generally only the needs of a dominant few. There may be a psychological truth that the male mind does tend to open up new territory and breach taboos more easily but the structure of twentieth century culture seems to have mitigated against the corollary - that women can take that space and make it mean something.

Obviously, much of the history of art (perhaps epitomised by Boucher) is represented by the male gaze, generally laid on the female or young male model. By the turn of the century, artists like Schiele and Klimt and the Symbolists are making the imagery increasingly pornographic and distanced from reality with visions of the woman as vampire or some other stereotype that merely tells you that the sensibility was adolescent because the culture was so repressed in matters of sexual expression (although calling that pre-Hitlerian culture adolescent is truly an insult to today's sophisticated Western teenagers).

The Surrealists are liberatory because they recognise both the sheer intensity of desire (Bataille) and of the unconscious - and yet the woman is nearly always the object of desire. It is no accident that any anthology of Surrealist Art will tend to refer to only one female artist, Dorothea Tanner, actually rather derivative but able to join the group as wife of Max Ernst, and one 'master work', Meret Oppenheim's fur covered cup and saucer, which is only included because this single creative act caught the public's imagination. Nothing much else of real consequence emerged from Ms. Oppenheim.

The Abstract Expressionists were similarly inclined to the heterosexual but they returned to the repressed, throwing more paint on canvas to represent their inner selves and, again, few women were involved except as causes of torment.

And so we come to Pop Art where we see an inordinate influence from 'gay' artists (Johns, Rauschenberg, Hockney, Haring and others), homosexuality being associated then (possibly now) with masculine detachment, with presentation and with style over content. This is not to stereotype as a fact but only to recognise that a certain type of sexuality was able to merge its sensibility with the cultural direction of the time (shifting from grey earnest liberalism requiring correct behaviour and thought to fun-loving libertarianism and 'art pour l'art') and with the market. Rothko kills himself but Warhol gets shot at.

This liberation to some extent permitted heterosexuality to break free of masculine neurosis, initially through some obviously quasi-pornographic artistry (Jones, Ramos and Koons) that seemed to intensify the 'chauvinist' aspects of the case. Jamie James, who does not refer to Allen Jones and avoids the sexual content of Koons, is po-faced and negative about an artist on only one occasion: he refers to Wesselman's use of nudes as 'naive and dated' because of 'changes in sexual politics'.

In fact, the righteous anger of feminism and the psychological detachment of the complex gay culture of the major cities increasingly seems transitional. The assertive ironic treatment of heterosexuality as a result of the Pop Art revolution has created space, possibly for the first time in history, for a genuine feminine sensibility in art that might well show great fruits in the next artistic cycle.

The marker works (not in this book) may prove to be the sexually explicit cycle produced by Koons with his then-wife La Cicciolina in which the kitsch and explicitness is matched by a genuine equality of experience between man and woman. This woman loves bonking and does not mind who knows it. And the man is not using her, or forcing her to submit to some weird symbolist sterotype.

By one of those paradoxes which are central to cultural life, the ultimate in the pornographic may free the spirit to move away from the object-centred treatment of sexuality (unless women decide to reverse things and portray men as objects) towards something different. Perhaps towards subject-centred sexuality which has room for the emotion of love as well as the torment of desire.

In this book of nearly 30 artists, only three are women (which at least is just better than in the Surrealism volume). The sensibility of Marisol is quite definitely female and Cindy Sherman has a formidable body of work in her own right. Perhaps Deborah Kass is simply reinterpreting Warhol as a Jewish Lesbian and missing the 'cool' point but the door is opening. Tracy Emin's importance is that she has grasped this challenge and run with it on her own account.

Perhaps I am too optimistic because the two other conditions of change, in addition to people of talent, are a community of artists who share and compete with ideas and a market for art that fits with the cultural needs of the age. We just do not know what the post-credit crunch world will bring. Who will pay for art and on what terms and, if it is the public purse, will the art oblige artists to offer politically correct versions of what it is to be a woman or will women artists make those choices themselves.

This essay on sexuality in art may not have been overly helpful in assessing this book. The book is cheap and should be bought for the reproductions if for no other reason but it strikes me that art is not just an entertainment but a force for contemplation. The coolness and detachment of Pop Art tells us a great deal about that phase of civilisation that began intellectually in the 1960s, reached its apogee in the 1980s and now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, is in its death throes. It was a culture of maximum detachment from value and of maximum personal freedom - and it may not last much longer.
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