The long march of Pop art

Scholarly account of the movement’s enduring influence
By Pac Pobric

Antônio Henrique Amaral's Homenagem ao Século 20/21 (Homage to XX/XXI Centuries), 1967. Courtesy Walker Art Center.

Since the advent of Pop art in the late 1950s, artists have been tasked with contending with its legacy and implications. Scholars and curators are now looking at the movement with a similar sense of urgency.

This month, Yale University Press is due to publish the art historian Thomas Crow’s book The Long March of Pop: Art, Music and Design 1930-95, which examines the place of artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein within the wider web of 20th-century American and international culture. The book surveys Pop art’s long history, placing it in line with American folk art traditions and linking it with later developments like the Los Angeles Punk scene of the 1980s.
The standard narrative is that Pop art faded away at the end of the 1960s, Crow says. “But I don’t think that was the case. The book offers a demonstration that the Pop impulse that came together so vividly in the 1960s was long prepared-for,” he argues. “After that, it migrated into other realms of culture.”
Crow’s book is the latest in a string of contemporary re-examinations of Pop art’s wide-ranging influence. The Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting “Pop Departures” (until 11 January), which pairs historic artists like Warhol with living ones like Josephine Meckseper. Crow’s book also comes out ahead of “International Pop” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (9 April-6 September), which casts a glance at Pop’s development beyond the Western world. But the conversation is not taking place only in the US: the Tate in London recently held retrospectives of Roy Lichtenstein (co-organised with the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013) and Richard Hamilton (in 2014).
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has been a particular hub for shows about Pop and its legacy in the past few years. In 2012, the museum hosted two shows that looked beyond Pop’s glitz and towards its darker implications: “Sinister Pop” and “Dark and Deadpan: Pop in TV and the Movies.” The following year, the Whitney held “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love”, the artist’s first US retrospective, which was followed by the museum’s grand Jeff Koons retrospective in 2014.
Donna de Salvo, the chief curator at the Whitney and co-organiser of “Sinister Pop,” says the renewed scholarly focus on Pop accompanies a reassessment of our own contemporary culture. “In many ways, the multiplicity of images we now see everywhere that are drawn from already-existing imagery was at the heart of Pop,” she says. “So Pop speaks to our current situation. History allows us a way to look at our own time and, in a funny way, Pop gives us a way to focus.”
The art historian Hal Foster, who wrote the book “The First Age of Pop” in 2011, says that in particular, Pop marks changes in the way we understand our identities. “After a certain moment in capitalist society, our status becomes that of homo imago,” he says, referring to the idea that our identity is tied to the way we are represented in images. “People are now a species of image, and this is a historical insight we can grant to Pop, and Warholian Pop in particular,” Foster says. The rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are awash in pictures, speak to Foster’s point.
For Crow, Pop art needs to be understood in its deeper social history in order for it to make sense. “Fine art is not enhanced if you isolate it,” he says. “It becomes diminished if you aren’t looking at cross-fertilisations and feedback loops.” Pop art, perhaps more than any other art movement, invites those parallels, and illustrates their continued relevance. “It is coming to light that Pop has never gone away.”