Explore the History of Pop Art: 1950s to the 1970s

Mid-1950s to Early 1970s

Stroher & His Pop Art Collection
The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images

Pop Art was born in Britain in the mid-1950s. It was the brain-child of several young subversive artists—as most modern art tends to be. The first application of the term Pop Art occurred during discussions among artists who called themselves the Independent Group (IG), which was part of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, begun around 1952–53.

Pop Art appreciates popular culture, or what we also call “material culture.” It does not critique the consequences of materialism and consumerism; it simply recognizes its pervasive presence as a natural fact.

Acquiring consumer goods, responding to clever advertisements and building more effective forms of mass communication (back then: movies, television, newspapers, and magazines) galvanized energy among young people born during the post-World War II generation. Rebelling against the esoteric vocabulary of abstract art, they wanted to express their optimism in a youthful visual language, responding to so much hardship and privation. Pop Art celebrated the United Generation of Shopping.

How Long Was the Movement?

The movement was officially christened by British art critic Lawrence Alloway in a 1958 article called "The Arts and Mass Media." Art history textbooks tend to claim that British artist Richard Hamilton's collage Just What Is It that Makes Today's Home So Different and So Appealing? (1956) signaled that Pop Art had arrived on the scene. The collage appeared in the show This Is Tomorrow at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, so we might say that this work of art and this exhibition mark the official beginning of the movement, even though the artists worked on Pop Art themes earlier in their careers.

Pop Art, for the most part, completed the Modernism movement in the early 1970s, with its optimistic investment in contemporary subject matter. It also ended the Modernism movement by holding up a mirror to contemporary society. Once the postmodernist generation looked hard and long into the mirror, self-doubt took over and the party atmosphere of Pop Art faded away.

Key Characteristics of Pop Art

There are several readily recognizable characteristics that art critics use to define pop art:

  • Recognizable imagery, drawn from popular media and products.
  • Usually very bright colors.
  • Flat imagery influenced by comic books and newspaper photographs.
  • Images of celebrities or fictional characters in comic books, advertisements, and fan magazines.
  • In sculpture, an innovative use of media.

Historic Precedent

The integration of fine art and popular culture (such as billboards, packaging, and print advertisements) began long before the 1950s. In 1855, French realist painter Gustave Courbet symbolically pandered to popular taste by including a pose taken from the inexpensive print series called Imagerie d’Épinal. This immensely popular series featured brightly painted moralizing scenes invented by French illustrator (and art rival) Jean-Charles Pellerin (1756–1836). Every schoolboy knew these pictures of street life, the military, and legendary characters. Did the middle class get Courbet's drift? Maybe not, but Courbet did not care. He knew he had invaded "high art" with a "low" art form.

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso used the same strategy. He joked about our love affair with shopping by creating a woman out of a label and ad from the department store Bon Marché. While Au Bon Marché (1913) may not be considered the first Pop Art collage, it certainly planted the seeds for the movement.

Roots in Dada

Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp pushed Picasso's consumerist ploy further by introducing the actual mass-produced object into the exhibition: a bottle-rack, a snow shovel, a urinal (upside down). He called these objects Ready-Mades, an anti-art expression that belonged to the Dada movement.

Neo-Dada, or Early Pop Art

Early Pop artists followed Duchamps' lead in the 1950s by returning to imagery during the height of Abstract Expressionism and purposely selecting "low-brow" popular imagery. They also incorporated or reproduced 3-dimension objects. Jasper Johns' Beer Cans (1960) and Robert Rauschenberg's Bed (1955) are two cases in point. This work was called "Neo-Dada" during its formative years. Today, we might call it Pre-Pop Art or Early Pop Art.

British Pop Art

Independent Group (Institute of Contemporary Art)

  • Richard Hamilton
  • Edouardo Paolozzi
  • Peter Blake
  • John McHale
  • Lawrence Alloway
  • Peter Reyner Banham
  • Richard Smith
  • Jon Thompson

Young Contemporaries (Royal College of Art)

  • R. B. Kitaj
  • Peter Philips
  • Billy Apple (Barrie Bates)
  • Derek Boshier
  • Patrick Canfield
  • David Hockney
  • Allen Jones
  • Norman Toynton

American Pop Art

Andy Warhol understood shopping and he also understood the allure of celebrity. Together these Post-World War II obsessions drove the economy. From shopping malls to People Magazine, Warhol captured an authentic American aesthetic: packaging products and people. It was an insightful observation. Public display ruled and everyone wanted his/her own fifteen minutes of fame.

New York Pop Art

  • Roy Lichtenstein
  • Andy Warhol
  • Robert Indiana
  • George Brecht
  • Marisol (Escobar)
  • Tom Wesselmann
  • Marjorie Strider
  • Allan D'Arcangelo
  • Ida Weber
  • Claes Oldenberg - common products made out of odd materials
  • George Segal - white plaster casts of bodies in everyday settings
  • James Rosenquist - paintings that looked like collages of advertisements
  • Rosalyn Drexler - pop stars and contemporary issues.

California Pop Art

  • Billy Al Bengston
  • Edward Kienholz
  • Wallace Berman
  • John Wesley
  • Jess Collins
  • Richard Pettibone
  • Mel Remos
  • Edward Ruscha
  • Wayne Thiebaud
  • Joe GoodeVon Dutch Holland
  • Jim Eller
  • Anthony Berlant
  • Victor Debreuil
  • Phillip Hefferton
  • Robert O’Dowd
  • James Gill
  • Robert Kuntz

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