‘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.