Pop Art Introduction Essay

Pop Art: A Brief History

In the years following World War II, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic and political growth. Many middle class Americans moved to the suburbs, spurred by the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced homes. Elvis Presley led the emergence of rock and roll, Marilyn Monroe was a reigning film star, and television replaced radio as the dominant media outlet.

Yet by the late 1950s and early 1960s, a “cultural revolution” was underway, led by activists, thinkers, and artists who sought to rethink and even overturn what was, in their eyes, a stifling social order ruled by conformity. The Vietnam War incited mass protests, the Civil Rights Movement sought equality for African Americans, and the women’s liberation movement gained momentum.

Inspired by the Everyday

It was in this climate of turbulence, experimentation, and consumerism that a new generation of artists emerged in Britain and America in the mid- to late-1950s. Pop artists began to look for inspiration in the world around them, representing—and, at times, making art directly from—everyday items, consumer goods, and mass media. They did this in a straightforward manner, using bold swaths of primary colors, often straight from the can or tube of paint. They adopted commercial methods like silkscreening, or produced multiples of works, downplaying the artist’s hand and subverting the idea of originality—in marked contrast with the highly expressive, large-scaledabstract works of the Abstract Expressionists, whose work had dominated postwar American art. Pop artists favored realism, everyday (and even mundane) imagery, and heavy doses of irony and wit.

Yet Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were very aware of the past. They sought to connect fine art traditions with pop culture elements from television, advertisements, films, and cartoons. At the same time, their work challenged traditional boundaries between media, combining painted gestures with photography and printmaking; combining handmade and readymade or mass-produced elements; and combining objects, images, and sometimes text to make new meanings.

Related Artists:Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Pettibone, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann

One of three base colors (blue, red, or yellow) that can be combined to make a range of colors.

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Relating to or characteristic of an area, usually residential, on the outskirts of a city.

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A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

Watch videoGlossary

A printing technique in which areas of a silkscreen, comprised of woven mesh stretched on a frame, are selectively blocked off with a non-permeable material (typically a photo-emulsion, paper, or plastic film) to form a stencil, which is a negative of the image to be printed. Ink is forced through the mesh onto the printing surface with a squeegee, creating a positive image.

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The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.

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A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.

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A term describing a wide variety of techniques used to produce multiple copies of an original design. Also, the resulting text or image made by applying inked characters, plates, blocks, or stamps to a support such as paper or fabric.

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Cultural activities, ideas, or products that reflect or target the tastes of the general population of any society.

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A movement composed of initially British, then American artists in the 1950s and 1960s, which was characterized by references to imagery and products from popular culture, media, and advertising.

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A term for small-scale, three-dimensional works conceived by artists, and often produced commercially, in relatively large editions.

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A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.

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An artistic movement made up of American artists in the 1940s and 1950s, also known as the New York School, or more narrowly, action painting. Abstract Expressionism is usually characterized by large abstract painted canvases, although the movement also includes sculpture and other media.

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A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

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A number of books provide useful overviews of Warhol’s life and work. The standard biographies are Bockris 2003 and Bourdon 1995, the latter generously illustrated with many color plates. Kostenbaum 2001 and Danto 2010 offer more concise biographies of the artist, each taking different departure points. Scherman and Dalton 2009 and Colacello 1990 offer lively biographic portraits of the artist during particular phases of his successful career, Scherman and Dalton 2009 in the 1960s and Colacello 1990 in the 1970s and 1980s. Hickey, et al. 2009 provides an archival and artistic overview of the artist, complete with a wealth of illustrations and short, thematic essays. Ketner 2013 is a solid, yet very brief, overview of Warhol’s entire artistic career. Warhol is not always praised; Hughes 1984 is the most thoughtful of the scathing critiques of the artist.

  • Bockris, Victor. Warhol: The Biography. New York: Da Capo, 2003.

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    Written by a Warhol friend and Factory insider, this is the standard biography of the artist’s personal and professional life. Its lively account shies away from art historical issues, and it is sparsely illustrated.

  • Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

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    As a close friend to the artist and an active art critic in the 1960s and 1970s, Bourdon gives equal treatment to Warhol’s life and art. Richly illustrated with both his art works and materials from his archives, it is valuable as a biography and as an introduction to Warhol’s artistic career.

  • Colacello, Bob. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

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    Written by a former editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, this trade volume provides keen observations and a lively, intimate portrait of the artist running the Factory in the 1970s and 1980s. Colacello explores, among other things, the artist’s social awkwardness, his business acumen, and various bits of gossip surrounding Warhol and his friends and associates.

  • Danto, Author C. Andy Warhol. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

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    Part of Yale University Press’s Icons of America series, this short biography considers Warhol’s broad appeal, positioning his artistic works as both social criticism and philosophy.

  • Hickey, Dave, Kenneth Goldsmith, and David Dalton. Andy Warhol: Giant Size. London: Phaidon, 2009.

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    Published in two versions, a huge and cumbersome volume (weighing 15 pounds) and a more manageable “regular size,” this book features some 2,000 photographs documenting all phases of Warhol’s life and career (many of which are in color). Augmented by short essays by an array of commentators, including critic Dave Hickey and poet Kenneth Goldsmith, this volume serves as a comprehensive visual introduction to the life and work of Warhol.

  • Hughes, Robert. “The Rise of Andy Warhol.” In Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Edited by Brian Wallis, 45–58. New York: New Museum, 1984.

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    This is the classic take-down of Warhol, issued by one of the critical voices in the art world of the 1980s and 1990s. Hughes rebuts the idea of Warhol as a radical artist, suggesting, instead, that the artist’s obsession with fame and money, not ideas or talent, drove his practice, resulting in meaningless and empty works.

  • Ketner, Joseph D. Andy Warhol. London: Phaidon, 2013.

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    Generously illustrated with works from Warhol and other period artists, this book’s very short but incisive text considers the entirety of Warhol’s career from an art historical perspective.

  • Kostenbaum, Wayne. Andy Warhol. New York: Penguin, 2001.

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    Part of the Penguin Lives series, this slim biography by a noted poet and cultural critic purports to get beyond Warhol’s indifference to find in his life and work an erotic, queer, and deeply human body.

  • Scherman, Tony, and David Dalton. Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

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    A collaborative work of a music writer and an art writer, this biography tackles Warhol’s life and work in the 1960s. With access to his full archives in Pittsburgh, the authors chart his transformation from commercial artist to fine artist to cultural icon by the end of the decade. This is a breezy trip full of anecdotal detail, but it lacks an art historical bite.

  • Smith, Patrick. Andy Warhol’s Art and Films. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1986.

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    Based on extensive interviews with Warhol’s friends and associates as well as on materials in Warhol’s own archives (before the artist’s death), this text absolutely brims with biographic, contextual, and artistic details concerning all phases of Warhol’s career. The book’s appendix (longer than its text) offers verbatim transcriptions of Smith’s invaluable interviews with Warhol associates.

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