Pop to Popism

Roy Lichtenstein In the car 1963 oil and magna on canvas, 172 x 203.5 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Purchased 1980 © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Photo: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

This story first appeared on former NRMA site Living Well Navigator on October 24, 2014. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The biggest pop art exhibition to ever be shown in Australia is heading to the Art Gallery of New South Wales this November.

Over 200 artworks by more than 70 artists – including Roy Lichtenstein’s In the car, Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis and Marilyn, and David Hockney’s Portrait of an artist – which have been borrowed from some 35 lenders around the world, including the Tate, Centre Pompidou, Museum of Modern Art and the Andy Warhol Museum, will feature in Pop to popism.

However, the exhibition, which spans the mid-1950s through to the 1980s, has a key point of difference – it will also showcase the works of Australian pop artists alongside their international peers. This will include works such as Brett Whiteley’s 22-metre-long The American dream and Howard Arkley’s Triple fronted.

We spoke with the collection’s curator Wayne Tunnicliffe to learn more.

Pop to popism is the most comprehensive survey of pop art ever shown in Australia. How did you approach bringing it all together?

The first thing was working out what story we wanted to tell about pop art, which for us was to tell it from an Australian perspective; the international pop art that was known here in the 1960s and which interested artists and the public. The other key thing we wanted to do was to exhibit Australian pop artists with their international peers, which has never happened before.

There are a few Australian pop artists who are well known, such as Martin Sharp and Richard Larter, but when we began researching the period we found many more artists working with a pop subject matter and style. Some of whom are virtually forgotten now like Michael Allen Shaw and Bridgid McLean. We also wanted to look at the resurgence of interest in pop art from a younger generation of artists in the late 1970s and into the 1980s in the ‘popism’ section of the exhibition. This includes Australian and international artists like Howard Arkley, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons.

Once we worked out which artists and artworks we wanted for the exhibition and the narrative we were telling about pop art, then the long process of negotiating loans began. This involved my travelling to museums and private collections in London, Paris, Germany and America convincing people why they should lend to an exhibition in Australia. Many people were very positive and particularly liked the Australian content which they did not know about previously, and others took some curatorial arm wrestling! Many of the international works are iconic and museums want to keep them on display in their own galleries, but we had some amazing successes and have exceptional paintings, sculptures and prints coming for the exhibition.

What do you enjoy most about pop art?

I love that pop art broke down the barriers between high art and popular culture. Pop brought the visual world of people’s everyday lives – from advertising, magazines, consumer goods, films, TV and comic books – into museums and art galleries. It re-energised art practice and made it more accessible and relevant to how people actually lived in the 1950s and 1960s, when modern advertising, consumer production and mass media really got underway. In many ways pop art foretold our current moment in which Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has become 15 seconds of fame on social media!

Andy Warhol once said “Pop art is for everybody”. Do you agree?

I do agree – pop art uses a very accessible visual language, which is familiar to all of us. That is not to say that pop is simple however. In taking images and objects out of our everyday world and into an art gallery the pop artists are asking us to think further about what we are seeing and how these things may shape our experiences of the world.

Andy Warhol didn’t differentiate between images of celebrities and soup cans and he is making the point that both have become marketed commodities. This may seem more obvious now, but in the 1960s this was a new insight. Also, pop art has subsequently become part of popular culture as some of the pop works are amongst the artworks people know and love best.

Pop to popism spans three decades – from the mid-1950s to 1980s. How did pop art change and evolve over this period?

In the 1950s artists were just beginning to use images from magazines and newspapers and collaging real things from the world into their work. This was pretty experimental and raw at times. In the 1960s artists really became adept at using images of movie stars or presidents, or from advertising campaigns or product designs in their work. They effectively emulated marketing and advertising styles and techniques to create their own brand in a sense, a process we are very familiar with now.

Late in the 1960s and into the 1970s pop became more political, reflecting general social anxiety about the war in Vietnam, concerns about capitalism, and the emergence of feminism as well as other movements.

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, artists began using a really sophisticated language derived from popular media, which asks us to consider the inherent power structures at play in advertising and marketing. Equally, some artists celebrate street culture as with Keith Haring and Jean Michel-Basquiat, and others reuse the language of 1960s pop in a revved up version, as with Howard Arkley and Maria Kozic.

There are over 200 works by 70 artists drawn from some 35 international institutions and private galleries. Any personal favourites or highlights?

Many, many highlights and favourites! These include English artist Peter Blake’s Self-portrait with badges(1961), which shows him wearing a denim jacket and jeans, basketball boots, and with fan badges and an Elvis Presley magazine; but he is standing in a suburban British backyard, yearning for his American heroes. Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis (1963) or Marilyn (1967) – works that epitomise the glamour of celebrity but also the hollowness of these images, which say as much about our desires as the people depicted. Bridgid McLean’s paintings – she was an Australian pop artist who only painted Formula 1 racing cars and racing car drivers – they’re terrific and unexpected for a female artist in the late 1960s. And David Hockney’sPortrait of an artist (1972) which shows him moving away from pop art into new forms of realism, but is an absolutely iconic swimming pool painting that comes towards the end of that great series.

The exhibition features Australian pop artists alongside international names. Do you think they have a unique perspective or point of difference to their international counterparts?

Australian artists have their own distinctive pop art, whether it’s using an Australian subject such as a suburban brick house in Howard Arkley’s Triple fronted (1987); or Garry Shead’s girl in a bikini in Bondi(1968); the cheeky irreverence in Maria Kozic’s exploding version of a Warhol painting of a Campbell’s soup can; or the woman sticking her tongue out in Richard Larter’s Prompt Careb (1975); or in the mixing up of American and British pop styles in the works of many artists to come up with their own local hybrid pop art.

Pop to popism runs from 1 November 2014 to 1 March 2015.