Feel the love

Pop to Popism
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
1 November 2014 – 1 March 2015

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’s summer blockbuster ‘Pop to Popism’ sliced and diced modern art along the fault line of consumerism, putting Australian work alongside international classics.

The exhibition showed artists taking their content and methods from mass media, commercial art and popular culture, as the new mood brought about by pop art took hold. This move was different from other art movements, in that it collapsed the opposition of fine art to its others. This was visible in every corner of the exhibition, down to the pop-up café with Moet at $42 a piccolo. It was the unconscious of the exhibition, itself an artefact of this revolution, as one of the long line of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions designed to be seen by all and sundry, ready or not.

The vitality of art has of course survived pop art, but the conception of fine art and the gallery has not recovered. The exhibition showed how it has been transformed in all directions: the use of its space (the picture plane gave way to installation); the permissible mediums (oils surrender to acrylics, photography and video); authorised palettes (bright pop colours were all over everything) and styles (Howard Arkley’s airbrush, Martha Rosler’s collage, to name two); the graphic, cartooning and posters become art, and text was pasted on the image, found objects incorporated onto canvas and a host of other unorthodoxies. Beneath it, the show bore witness to the seismic shift that has made even ‘priceless’ into a commodity, and the ‘original’ into a gnomic category rather than a self-evident source of value.

This began, the exhibition observed, with the rise of mass consumerism in America after World War II. It has dragged other questions in its wake for art and artists — globalisation brings political challenges but also collapses regional markets into a one-size-fits-all regimen. For satellite art communities, like Australian’s, it meant maintaining the necessary pilgrimage to the cultural origin of London and making a name there — as did Brett Whiteley and Martin Sharp, to mention just two. And, added to this, the effects of US cultural imperialism, meant one now had to make it in New York as well to be ‘best in show’. 

Coca-colonisation was seen in European art of the era from the fifties, but of course the change wrought by this political history is monumental and is still playing out. It is making the world for Australian artists both larger and smaller.

The trashing of painting was perhaps the most visible effect on the walls. Andy Warhol towered over the others with the satanic genius of screen-printed photographic images from mass culture — gun-toting Elvis was there, a new (art)world comin’ to git yew. It was plain in the showing of Warhol here: everything turned inside out, low made high; the lauding of commercial imagery (Campbell’s soup) from advertising to celebrity magazines (Marilyn and Jackie), and finally the evacuation of content leaving only the packaging (tomato ketchup boxes). 

And there’s the electric chair — a sinister steal from photojournalism, as if acknowledging this new world is bringing the plague. The vigour of this assault sometimes obscures the radical perfection of Warhol’s techniques. Printmaking, as the opposite of painting, is turned into gallery-quality canvasses for the first time since Dürer, perhaps. Gold and silver, not seen in painting since the middle ages, is used. Photographic imagery, and the power of repetition, are ranged against the oppression of the original, defying Benjamin on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. 

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the wonderful leakage of the graphic and the minor genres could be seen in posters, artists’ books, and collage. Martha Rosler in particular, taking up where Hannah Höch left off, juxtaposes images of the Vietnam war onto home beautiful postures, making a graphic statement in all senses. About the only fine art shibboleth Warhol seemed uninterested in destroying was the gender bar. Rosler’s work was first disseminated as political flyers. But the appearance of women artists was an inevitable consequence of the era that the exhibition documents. Work of Barbara Kruger, Vivienne Binns, Bridgid McLean and Cindy Sherman all found their place in the survey.

Despite the sexual revolution, sexism reigned; when Richard Larter painted the female genitals it was art, when Binns made the vagina dentata into a pop frolic it was howled down. Examined anew in the context of pop, Binns’s work seems to more than stand up to comparison. Perhaps her ‘mistake’ was to use paint? Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger gained more purchase on the moment, with their portrayals of the male ‘gaze’ through photography stills and buzz-word text.

Benjamin feared that art would lose its ‘aura’ and authority in the age of mechanical reproduction, since ‘the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’. Interestingly, this has not quite turned out to be the case. Reproducing art has proven to amplify ‘its presence in time and space’ — as this exhibition attested. And an image’s ‘unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ turns out to multiply and proliferate, not dissipate, when extruded into new contexts.

While mass production of images did bring about the tremendous shattering of tradition of which Benjamin warned, this exhibition shows that, unlike Humpty Dumpty, tradition has been glued back together again. Just rather differently.

In its wake, the art world has found room for feminism, conceptualism, postmodernism, Indigenous art, outsider art, community arts and more. Tracing the effects into the ‘post-pop’ and ‘popism’ decades, the curatorial rationale notes that theoretical reflection on what had happened in the fifties and sixties broke out in a flourish of French theory and other ‘–isms’ in the eighties. 

As usual, the art itself is equivocal about theory: it gives such diverse artists as Richard Hamilton, Brett Whiteley, Martin Sharp and Howard Arkley a context, but not much more in the way of explanatory power. The ‘art-shaped hole’ that Peter Fuller discerned is yet to be filled. Or perhaps that is being filled with fluid affects yet to settle again into sediment.

It was all here in this exhibition, if you cared to join the dots. Or — another legacy of this revolution in artistic thinking — no need to. Forget art history, and just ‘feel the love…’


Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, from the series House beautiful: bringing the war home, 1967-72. Photomontage. © Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. 

Howard Arkley, Triple fronted, 1987. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 169.9 x 241.9 x 5.5cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales Mollie and Jim Gowing Bequest Fund 2014. Photograph Diana Panuccio. © The Estate of Howard Arkley. Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art. 

Vivienne Binns, Vag dens, 1967. Synthetic polymer paint and enamel on composition board, 122 x 91.5cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1978. © Vivienne Binns.