The Pop Art Of The Man Who Assembled Sgt. Pepper’s Iconic Posse

Considering the star power involved, both in terms of the subjects depicted and the four well-known clients who commissioned it, it was never likely that Peter Blake would create another work of art as famous as his cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Undoubtedly, that bustling, vibrant image is one of the most enduring pieces of pop art ever created. But a new exhibition shows the work that has existed in the shadow of that famous mob, including some jubilant, Pepper’s-esque pop culture collages alongside lesser-known works, like still life paintings, readymades, and found-object sculptures.
The name of the exhibition, Rock, Paper, Scissors, comments slyly on some of the artist’s most commonly used tools. Blake began making collages in the 1950s, inspired by the work of artists like Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst. But the exhibition, currently wrapping up at the Waddington Custot Gallery in London, proves that Blake has devoted just as much attention to other media in his prolific, six-decade career.
Still, the impulses and interests that shaped those early collages, culminating in the Sgt. Pepper’s cover, which Blake designed with then-wife Jann Haworth, are evident throughout much of his work. Some of Blake’s sculptures are essentially Sgt. Pepper’s in the round--densely arranged dioramas of toys and figurines, often including Snow White and her diminutive coterie paying a visit to some individual or another (in one work, the owner of a Swiss chalet; in another, a bowler hat-clad Surrealist who we can safely assume is supposed to be René Magritte).
As critic Marco Livingstone notes in a piece that introduces the exhibition’s catalog, Blake returned to his favorite subject--the unlikely group, whomever it might consist of--throughout his career. "As an adult," Livingstone writes, "this once cripplingly shy teenage loner has been constantly drawn to such assemblies of striking and eccentric individuals, perhaps out of a romantic attachment to the bonhomie of social interaction and from a desire to have a sense of belonging.
But when you look at Blake’s entire body of work, it’s hard not to identify a persistent playfulness throughout. Livingstone himself finds "a particularly English sense of humour" in the pieces, which gleefully mash up mass-produced toys and art-history allusions.
To some, Blake’s art will seem conceptually potent; to others, it will work simply on an aesthetic level, as series of lively, colorful odes to pop culture. But most important, the exhibition makes clear that there’s plenty more we can do with Peter Blake’s work than sit around trying to figure out who that is above Ringo’s head, between Edgar Allen Poe and W.C. Fields.

Surrealist Terrors From A Visionary Japanese Pop Artist

This month in Zurich, 76-year-old artist Keiichi Tanaami shows vivid works made after a bout with severe illness.
There are conventional ways to describe Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami: Pop Art superstar. Designer of album covers for the Monkees and Super Furry Animals. Long-time art director of Japanese Playboy. Subject of dozens of solo exhibitions and inspiration to megastar artists like Takashi Murakami. Then there are unconventional descriptors, which somehow seem more appropriate: “Dark magician of electric cinema . . . manager of the mental discotheque . . . designer of young girls’ beards.”

 Tanaami, who is now 76, has lived through some of the most significant events of the 20th century. He was nine when he survived the Tokyo air raid, which threw him into “the enigmatic monstrosity of war.” He participated in the explosion of the city’s avant-garde in the 1960s. He hung out in Andy Warhol’s Factory and spent a few years doing LSD in San Francisco. In his dense body of work, horror, joy, and eroticism intermingle.
NO MORE WAR, at Studiolo in Zurich, focuses on a fruitful but tortured period of Tanaami’s career: the '80s, when a severe illness nearly killed him. During his recovery, he experienced intense hallucinations and visions, and afterwards, he started experimenting with sculpture.
 The wooden sculptures draw on traditional Japanese puzzle-making craft, but the imagery comes directly from the hallucinations. Gnarled, neon-hued pine trees snipped from a vision he remembers, women hanging from gold crests, and phallic shapes inlaid with fish bones. Goldfish are a constant motif for Tanaami, who says they recall his father’s malformed goldfish after the war. The sculptures are intensely personal, but their proportions and volumes were clearly influenced by Memphis, the maligned Italian design group.
It’s always difficult to assess an artist outside of what you know about his or her life. Would Tanaami’s haunting visual language exist if he hadn’t been subjected to the horrors of Tokyo in 1945, or tripped in San Francisco in the 1970s? What if he hadn’t defied death in the early 1980s? For Tanaami, it doesn’t seem to matter; memory and imagination are one continuous fabric. “On the night of the air raid, I remember watching swarms of people flee from bald mountaintops,” he recalls. “But then something occurs to me: was that moment real? Dream and reality are all mixed up in my memories, recorded permanently in this ambiguous way.”

Beyond pop

SINGAPORE - One of the first things you'll notice in Justin Lee's Ten Years Of Art And Craft exhibition at Art Seasons gallery is a shiny metal bin with the words "Anti Warhol" in stark red lettering.

Like Andy Warhol, Lee's career is backgrounded in graphic design and commercial screenprinting. His mash-ups of eastern and western cultural icons earned him the tag as a leading pop artist on our shores. So why "Anti Warhol"?
For the Singaporean artist, even a well-meant label carries with it the baggage of the past (although he would prefer to look at the "now"). And besides, it's not as if Lee is all about pop art. He has also been dabbling in performance art, a recent example being Eat Fast Food Fast, at the Singapore Art Museum. In this video of the performance, we find out that even though you can blend fast food, chugging down the resultant goo probably isn't the most pleasant experience in the world - a rawness (though tinged with humour) which might surprise those more familiar with his intricate, polished prints, or his gleaming renditions of terracotta warriors.
Which is why focusing on the present is a good place to start viewing Lee's eighth solo. Despite its title, it's not a survey of his past decade of work. Rather, we've got Lee drawing on past memories and influences to focus on the present, and the future.
Having lived and worked through the '80s and '90s, Lee has trained his eyes on many of the rapid changes that have made Singapore the massively globalised, networked city it is today. In a sense, you could say that his pin-sharp, culture-remixing wit is just the foil to the lightning-fast modernisation (some might say Westernisation) of Singapore.
The Lion City's story isn't just one of becoming a big shiny city, though, and the show reflects that. It's particularly evident in his Singapore Day series, one of which features in white a panoramic silhouette of our skyline, with a vast red sky above. It is somehow quiet and turbulent at the same time.
The show also features evolutions of previous themes, such as a trio of paintings which seem to link the billowy-sleeved courtiers of old China with China's first woman in space, via the unlikely figure of the late Princess Diana.
That preoccupation with space travellers extends to Everyone Loves Everyone, which seems twee at first (it's tiny spacemen on children's rides) but carries an uncanny edge - the spacemen's blank, dripping faceplates amplify the self-circularity of the title.
There are also significant departures and new directions, but let's not spoil the surprises that Lee has in store.

‘Sinister Pop’ at the Whitney

Pop Art is big money at auction these days, and big box office at museums; witness “Regarding Warhol” at the Met and the touring Lichtenstein survey now at the National Gallery. And with Pop’s popularity comes pressure on museums to make it new, to stop serving up the same old Coke bottles and Brillo boxes.
The Whitney, which has substantial holdings of Pop Art, manages to do this in the sharp new collection show “Sinister Pop.” Its dark and truculent mood is conversant with recent presentations of Warhol’s death-and-disaster paintings, but on the whole it’s less beholden to him. In some ways it’s an inverse of the Met’s exhibition; Warhol is here, but no one is paying him much regard.
Organized by the Whitney curators Donna De Salvo and Scott Rothkopf, “Sinister Pop” is careful to include just one or two usual suspects (Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Wesselman, et. al.) per gallery. Not everything in the show is overtly sinister. And not everything, for that matter, is recognizably Pop. (A chair festooned with plastic flowers, by Lucas Samaras, doesn’t seem to fit either category.) But the point is not to cast a pall over Pop as we know it; it’s to find common ground between the winking consumerism of early-1960s art and the antiwar, anti-corporate sentiment of work made later in the decade and into the 1970s.
The show does that, in part, by bringing photography into the mix — and not just in the form of magazine clippings and other source materials for paintings and sculptures. Here you will find black-and-white photographs by Ed Ruscha, Weegee, William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, among others, in which the banality of the American landscape becomes oppressive or even menacing. A Catskills resort, as seen by Mr. Meyerowitz, looks like a film-noir set; ditto the cheap-looking Los Angeles apartment buildings staked out by Mr. Ruscha from the confines of his car.
A drawing by Mr. Ruscha, with the word “Safety” written in gunpowder on black paper, gets the show off to a riotous start. It’s followed immediately by a gallery of bondage, fetishism and sexual aggression: Nancy Grossman’s sculpture of a head in a leather mask, Christina Ramberg’s painting of an armored female torso, and Rosalyn Drexler’s collage painting “Love and Violence.” In this company the nose job depicted in Warhol’s “Before and After” looks like an act of masochism rather than self-perfection.
In the next room the Pop body undergoes further malevolent transformations at the hands of several Chicago artists: Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke. Breaking up the boys’ club is an imposing wall relief by Lee Bontecou, its metal grimace echoing the bared teeth in a head drawing by Lee Lozano. We are in cartoon land but a long way from the family-friendly Sunday comics used by Lichtenstein.
It’s not until the third gallery, about halfway through the show, that you’ll find the familiar Warholian works: “Nine Jackies” and one goth-looking “Marilyn,” to be specific. But they’re upstaged by Allan D’Arcangelo’s painting “Madonna and Child,” with its faceless, paper-doll figures and rigid halos, and by Paul Thek’s “reliquary” of an artificial bone oozing marrow inside a yellow plexiglass vitrine.
Here too are some haggard celebrities: Mick Jagger, looking rough in stills from Robert Frank’s 1972 documentary on the Rolling Stones, and the Warhol star Viva, caught with smeared eye makeup in a photograph by Louis Faurer.
Pop domesticity also gets a grim overhaul, in a gallery anchored by early Lichtenstein (the severe black-and-white “Bathroom”) and Mr. Oldenburg’s monumental ashtray. Mr. Eggleston’s photograph of a freezer interior, stocked with beef pies and vanilla ice milk, painted a dismal picture of the American diet.
The space heater in a realist painting by Vija Celmins, meanwhile, glows red hot against its cool gray background, looking as if it’s about to ignite.
It’s a short step from these rumblings of discontent to the explosive Vietnam-era pictures in the next room, dominated by Peter Saul’s knock-your-socks-off painting “Saigon.” It hangs close to Warhol’s orange-and-green Richard M. Nixon (titled “Vote McGovern”) and Jim Dine’s rouged and lipsticked Johnson and Mao, revealing a strategic alliance between Pop and psychedelia.
“Sinister Pop” would not be complete without Warhol’s race riots and electric chair; both are here, though in screen prints that are not as good as the paintings at the Met. And though you won’t find any car crashes (by Warhol, Weegee or anyone else), there is a solemn final gallery in which Mr. Ruscha’s nocturnal photographs of gas stations, a barred-off highway landscape by Mr. D’Arcangelo and George Segal’s plaster-cast sculptural tableau “Bus Stop” evoke gloomy thoughts of fuel shortages and road closings.
The mood is a bit lighter in “Dark and Deadpan: Pop in TV and the Movies,” an excellent companion show in the Kaufman Astoria Studios Film and Video gallery next door. It includes footage of the Moon landing, the trailer for Godard’s “Breathless” and a strangely mesmerizing short film of Warhol laconically unwrapping and eating a fast-food hamburger.
Both exhibitions make you look anew at Pop, eschewing the high gloss and high camp for a more scabrous, if not always sinister, movement.

Russian underground art comes to London

A red door, a black window, a vertiginous tunnel drawing the viewer into the infinite dark: Many images in “Breaking the Ice” are bold and simple. Others are layered and textured.
Dmitri Plavinsky’s metaphysical collages include seeds, matchsticks, fragments of lace, or woven reeds; Oscar Rabin’s extraordinary Soviet cityscapes are rendered in thick impasto with embedded food labels. From Vladimir Veisberg’s white cubes to the faux-desecrated paintings in Ilya Kabakov’s installations, this exhibition is, by turns, intense and subtle, comic and eerie, moving and thought provoking.
In fact two major exhibitions of Russian art opened last week, simultaneously and confusingly, in London’s Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea: a huge display of contemporary works, and a survey of late 20th-century masterpieces.
Many visitors assume the shows are linked, that “Breaking the Ice” (on the top floor), is some kind of prequel to the installations and photographs below it. Certainly, it makes sense to start at the top, but, in some ways, the louder, larger, less thoughtful exhibition on the first two floors is a distraction from the historic treasures in the attic.
The art in“Breaking the Ice” is carefully curated from Moscow’s fecund period of underground creativity, between Stalin’s death and perestroika; it includes the Thaw-era rebirth of abstraction and modernism, pop art, conceptualism, and more. The exhibition is funded by the Tsukanov Foundation, which now owns a large number of works from the “second Russian avant-garde.”
London-based Igor Tsukanov is charmingly understated. Although his family’s collection contains enough works from this period to fill several exhibitions, he has enlisted other collectors to produce the strongest possible show. During the selection process, he deferred to curator Andrei Erofeev. “It’s not about what I like or what I think,” he told RBTH in an interview last week.
The entrance to the exhibition is lined with black and white photographs, conjuring up the city and epoch that gave birth to these striking works. Abstract or metaphysical art in the Soviet Union was necessarily political, but many of these artists were concerned with creative freedom rather than overt protest.
The official state-sanctioned aesthetic involved Socialist-realist depictions of scenes that glorified the achievements of the communist government. The un-official works on show became known, as the curator Erofeev explains in the massive catalogue, through the “magic and invincible power of art.” Produced in hidden studios, rumors of their brilliance spread through Moscow’s artistic circles.
Abstraction to Sots Art
The exhibition is organized thematically, with works grouped according to stylistic tendencies and genres. Abstract artists like Lydia Masterkova deliberately resurrected the pre-revolutionary experiments of the first avant-garde. Francisco Infante’s“Space-Movement-Infinity” is a mass of lights and metal in geometrical patterns spinning inside each other, like the kinetic mobiles of the early constructivists.
The floating, fauvist faces of Oleg Tselkov’s luminous crowds also look back to modernist experiments, but they do more than this. Fellow artist, Eric Bulatov, commented on Tselkov’s works: “They have nothing to say about the time and place in which they live. They are of a different nature … they emanate from the dark and sinister things lurking at the bottom of any man’s soul.”
 Bulatov’s own paintings, represented towards the end of the exhibition, include the celebrated “Vkhoda Net.” The Russian word “Vkhod” (“entrance”) recedes from both sides of the picture into the distance; the pale blue color and foreshortened perspective suggest the open sky, but the words are obscured by an angry “Vkhoda Net” (“no entrance”) in two-dimensional red.
At the same time, the letters “DA” (“yes”) appear in the center of the painting. Bulatov’s works play with ideas of space and of volition. One wall of the exhibition is dedicated to Bulatov’s huge black square with a white dot in the middle. The artist spent months measuring the invisible lines behind this work, one of many tributes to Kazimir Malevich’s famous 1915 “Black Square.” Alexander Kosalopov, whose “Coca Cola Lenin” and eye-shadowed Gorbachev are icons of Russian pop art, humorously transforms Malevich’s square into a symbol on a cigarette packet.
 Two rooms contain works by the inventors of “Sots Art,” Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Sots Art is a hybridization of pop art and socialist realism, as Komar explained:“If pop-art was born by the overproduction of things and their advertising, then Sots Art was born of the overproduction of ideology and its propaganda.”An ironically nostalgic series of paintings from the 1980s includes a chained bear and a red flag.
Tsukanov hopes the exhibition will bring the art he loves not just to a wider audience, but a new generation. The Saatchi gallery, with its free entry and large-scale installations, is attractive for younger people and Tsukanov sees this show as breaking out of the “small world” of collectors and specialists.
Art dealer Mark Kelner, who has worked with Tsukanov since 2006, agreed.
“That’s the point of the show, to look at Russian post-war art as it crosses over into the international scene,” he told RBTH last week.
He praises Tsukanov’s skill in bringing collectors together. “Anyone could have bought paintings,” he said, “but not everyone can excite a community.” For Kelner, “this is the show that everything will be measured up to for years to come.”
“Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-1980s” runs at the Saatchi Gallery until February 24th 2013.