The Darker Side of Pop Art

Pop art appropriates everyday objects and aesthetics to examine — or embrace, as the case may be — the very culture of mass production and consumption in which they exist. Sinister Pop at the Whitney Museum of American Art is more pointed—a method designers should take to heart.

While it wasn’t always obvious how technicolor pop art felt about the ever-broadening culture it represented (Warhol maintained that he sincerely loved mass production and its cultural fallout), the pieces in Sinister Pop usually have a clear target and the mood is angry. They more overtly attack the darker backdrop of ’60s America (today’s too): war, gender bias, racism, labor disputes, segregation, class war, the death penalty.

This exhibition, aside from being an enjoyable exploration of the dark side of pop, provides a helpful hint to designers: Don’t bury “the lede” (journalism speak for the key part of a story).
If there’s something very important you’re trying to say, make sure you make the message loud and clear. Imagery, tone and text should work together to create a message that’s hard to ignore.

Peter Saul attacks the Vietnam War in “Saigon” by making it disturbing to look at, with tawdry colors and vicious imagery. He also includes the text “white boys torturing and raping the people of Saigon.” In “L.B.J” Judith Bernstein takes on a president complicit in that same war war, both visually and rhetorically, by masking his image in steel wool and scrawling attacks against him in writing.
Milton Glaser’s United Farm Workers’ protest poster, effectively titled “Don’t Eat Grapes,” says just that front and center, right above a cluster of grapes arranged like a skull.
The Whitney wields its substantial pop art holding to show a more varied array of artists than are normally on a pop-art bill and a much darker side of the movement, one that is also an exercise in saying what you mean. It’s worth visiting if only to show that beyond pop art’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s all teeth.
Sinister Pop
Whitney Museum of American Art
Through March 31
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

Yale gallery presents work by Pop Art forerunner Alex Katz

Yale gallery presents work by Pop Art forerunner Katz

n exhibit of works by Alex Katz (b. 1927), postwar American artist and predecessor to the Pop Art movement, at the Yale School of Art 32 Edgewood Gallery offers lessons in simplicity and color and its resulting impact.
Katz is known for his large, bold paintings employing flatness of color and form and simple lines, inspired by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.
The show comprises some 70 pieces that are all drawn from Katz's large, personal collection, some of which have rarely, if ever, been shown. It documents the Brooklyn-born artist's 60-year career as a painter, draftsman and printmaker.
Included are several of what Katz calls "cutouts," a technique he developed in the late 1950s in which he paints on cut wood or aluminum panels that stand freely like sculptures and can be viewed differently from both sides, but are actually compressed into planes more like paintings.
Among highlights of the exhibit are portraits of Katz's many famous artist and poet friends-Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, Edwin Denby, Allan Ginsburg, George Ortman and Red Grooms-as well as recent portraits of family members and critics Brooks Adams and Lisa Liebman. Landscapes are inspired by views of New York City, where Katz lives in SoHo, and of Maine, where he spends several months of the year.
Robert Storr, dean of Yale School of Art and curator of the exhibit, says, "At 85, Alex Katz is, arguably, the freshest and most active of the New York School 'Old Masters.'"
Although never categorized as a Pop artist, Katz has been recognized in both the U.S. and Europe as a rival of Andy Warhol for his observant, highly stylized, and exquisitely executed depictions of American people, manners and mores.
But, while his iconic, bigger-than-life-sized paintings remind viewers of Warhol's celebrity portraits, Storr points out that Katz's style has always been more identifiable with the painterly realism of such contemporaries as Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher and Philip Pearlstein. And at the same time, "his daring explorations of gesture and scale ally him with abstract artists of the 1950s and '60s, such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Ellsworth Kelly."
Storr is thrilled to have an exhibition of Katz's work in the Yale School of Art gallery.
"Alex taught here in the '60s. A lot of young artists have him on their minds: the coolness, American-ness, deliberate stylization of his work," he says. "He's the epitome of a New York artist."
Referring to the gallery space, Storr notes, "We wanted to account for his whole career in a very economic way-from 1949 to the present-in all media."
Katz's process is to spend the majority of his time in the pre-painting stage, and then actually paint canvases 12 feet wide by seven feet high-or even larger-in a six- or seven-hour session.
"He works out very carefully in advance and when he paints, it's rather quickly," Storr says. "Like a performance, a jazz musician, he develops a theme spontaneously.
"He's still totally active, painting three to five paintings a year on a grand scale," Storr adds, "and doing lots of other (work), too."
The idea of the exhibit, Storr says, "is to show students how to get from A to Z…How to have a long life in art."

Remembering Roy Lichtenstein: The day that Pop died

Ahead of a major retrospective, Richard Cork recalls meeting Roy Lichtenstein in his New York studio in 1997. The great American artist was painting, making music, even roller-skating – and within weeks he was dead 
A few weeks after I met Roy Lichtenstein in 1997, he died of complications arising from pneumonia. His going was unexpected and shocking. Only 73, Lichtenstein had been in excellent health and enjoyed an eventful year alive with new possibilities. That summer, he had shown a roomful of clangorous, brilliantly coloured sculpture at the Venice Biennale. He had also had a solo exhibition in Boston of paintings inspired by Oriental art, which suggested a new direction. His work was defiantly on the move.
As was Lichtenstein himself. When I arrived at his New York studio, a window-barred building at 745 Washington Street to the west of Greenwich Village, I was confronted by a scowling guard dog with the word "GRRR!" erupting in bold capitals beneath him. It was, of course, a comic-book animal, endearing rather than ferocious. But the energy embodied in the dog was shared by the artist who created him. While I was there, Lichtenstein didn't sit down once. The so-called Grand Old Man of American Pop Art turned out to be lean, understated, soft-spoken and spry. His white hair tied back in a neat pigtail, he paced round his wide, barn-like studio in T-shirt, jeans and trainers. When I photographed him in front of an enormous new painting, part of a serene series called Landscapes in the Chinese Style, he paused only for an instant. He still possessed the formidable energy that, a generation earlier, had enabled him to make such a controversial and crucial contribution to the Pop Art movement.
The other paintings ranged on easels around the studio suggested that he had no intention of slowing down. Most were interiors, where young women ruminated among plants, furniture and bookshelves or lingered mysteriously at the side, sliced off by the canvas edge. I took a photograph dominated by a painting called Interior with Nude Leaving, which will be included in Tate Modern's forthcoming retrospective. The elusive woman on the left of Interior with Nude Leaving is clearly related to the flaxen-haired beauties who thronged his early Pop pictures in the 1960s. The dots, diagonal stripes and thick contours deployed in this new painting are consistent with the style he had developed 36 years before (also to be represented in the Tate's show). But the colours are lighter, cooler, more airy. There are no speech-bubbles floating in space, and the exiting woman can barely be glimpsed.
Near the centre of his immaculate studio, a former ironworks converted eight years earlier, Lichtenstein's sofa was strewn with evidence of his interest in visual culture at its highest and lowest. My gaze fell on big books about Cézanne and Matisse. But I also spotted a copy of Falling In Love magazine, subtitled Yesterday's Sweetheart. It is difficult, now, to imagine just how heretical such source material would have seemed in 1961. That was the year Lichtenstein's work underwent a radical change. Suddenly, he rejected the abstract art he had been making, and began deploying comic-book imagery.
At the beginning, he was as startled as anyone. Recalling the decisive moment, he told me: "I felt my change from the 1950s work was a rupture, a huge shock – like the one Picasso delivered in 1906. For me, it started with the idea of painting clichés, jotting down little drawings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The cliché gave my work a certain power. It was brave, risky and so far from anything I'd been taught in art schools. It was saying something about real life, and it wasn't done as a joke. But I knew that it couldn't be taken seriously."
Last year, one of these Pop paintings, Sleeping Girl, sold for a record auction price of £28.2m. But in the early 1960s, Lichtenstein's heretical new art was anathema to a generation reared on Jackson Pollock, with his heroic emphasis on a wholehearted, muscular interaction between canvas and paint-splattered artist. Lichtenstein's reliance on cheap commercial images seemed an appalling rejection of everything that had made post-war American art so admired around the Western world. In 1964, following his notorious show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Life magazine published a feature headlined: "Is he the worst artist in America?"
Lichtenstein found himself shunned. "The US museums weren't looking at my paintings at all – they hated them, irredeemably. People metaphorically threw up when they saw my work! They thought I was enlarging comics, or just copying them." The Tate recognised his talent very early, and was wise enough to purchase his immense 1963 canvas, Whaam!. Its impact is still overwhelming. This Boy's Own adventure strip, of one fighter plane attacking another, has been blown up so much that it hits us in the face. With its big screening dots and diagonal stripes, the image assaults us, its apocalyptic dynamism a comment on the way young men get caught up in war as a deadly game.
On the whole, though, Lichtenstein's Pop pictures could not be described as tragic. I asked him about one of my own favourites, a 1963 painting called Drowning Girl in which she weeps as her thought-bubble defiantly exclaims: "I don't care! I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!" When I quoted those words to Lichtenstein, he laughed and insisted that the sinking girl "didn't drown. I've always felt optimistic. I don't know why. I know it would be much more interesting if I wasn't. I've never done an anguished painting. I don't think about how I feel: I'm very even. Something terrible can happen in my life, but I wouldn't put it in my art. Is that the right yellow – that's all I'm thinking."
In a 1963 interview, "What is Pop Art?", Lichtenstein was at pains to stress that "the formal statement in my work will become clearer in time". I asked him what he meant by this prediction, and his answer was unequivocal. "I think what distinguishes good from bad painting is the formal statement, the position of marks and contrasts," he explained. "If you forget that I'm trying to depict a table, a window or some flowers, abstract qualities to do with size and positioning become important. That's what Mondrian was doing."
So perhaps Lichtenstein's art was more abstract than anybody realised. Music played while we talked, and it clearly nourished him. Lichtenstein told me that he had recently started playing the saxophone, and even maintained with a grin that "what I really want to do is music, but I won't give up my day job!" Although his tone was self-mocking, I noticed that the studio was stacked with CDs. And in the catalogue of his recent exhibition at the Venice Biennale, his one-sentence statement revealed: "I'm trying to make paintings like giant musical chords, with a polyphony of colours that is nuts but works. Like [Thelonious] Monk or Stravinsky."
He seemed one of the least puffed-up artists I had ever encountered, and his serenity was doubtless enhanced by his decision to spend only a couple of days each week in Manhattan. The rest of the time he worked in rural seclusion, in a place he described as "right near the ocean, too seductive to believe". Lichtenstein lived there with his wife Dorothy, but continued to think of himself as a New Yorker, and loved the life of the streets, even confessing to me that "I nearly killed myself roller-blading round here the other day".
Sadly, Lichtenstein's death, so soon after this interview, prevented the world from seeing how he would have developed in the new century. The loss is immeasurable, but the coming Tate exhibition will reveal just how much he did achieve.
'Lichtenstein: A Retrospective', Tate Modern, London SE1, 21 Feb to 27 May
Richard Cork's The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals is published by Yale