STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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“International Pop” — or “I-Pop,” as they call it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — is both celebratory and critical.
Although the museum’s John Alchin and Hal Marryatt associate curator of contemporary art, Erica F. Battle, described the memorable mid-20th century art movement as “a call and response” to American post-war dominance, pop art was not just a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. An infographic family tree at the beginning of the exhibit (an exclusive to the exhibit’s Philly stop, according to Battle) points out that pop art was, indeed, international, happening in England, Japan, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, France and other places, giving voice to a young generation of artists.
“International Pop” features a freewheeling “new realism” in nearly 150 paintings, sculptures, assemblages, installations, prints and films by more than 80 artists, gathered from public and private collections.
In 1957 British artist Richard Hamilton said: “Pop art is popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, wicked, sexy, young, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.” Hamilton’s painting “Hers is a Lush Situation” offers witty commentary on the advertising adage that sex sells. The forms and shapes of a Buick are deconstructed to evoke a human body, punctuated by a disembodied cut-out of Sophia Loren’s lips.
Tom Wesselmann’s “Still Life #35” features recognizable advertising images for Royal Crown Cola, Libby’s beef stew, Sunbeam bread and Pan-Am Airlines. “These artists weren’t all that concerned about intellectual property,” noted Battle.
If you thought it was merely a modern version of dadaism that elevated the kitschy and banal to the status of fine art, you haven’t seen the entire scope of pop art. “International Pop” examines the factors that shaped artistic activity in the social democracies of Europe, the repressive military regimes of Latin America, and Japan in the aftermath of U.S. occupation.
According to the Art Museum, it’s the first traveling exhibition in the U.S. to present such a comprehensive account of the development of pop art, and the stop in Philadelphia is the only venue on the East Coast to show it.
Yes, you have Andy Warhol (his famous “Yellow Brillo Box” and “Sixteen Jackies” are here), Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book stylings, Jasper Johns’ well-known “Flag” encaustic painting, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana and Claes Oldenburg. You also have one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “War is Over!” posters. But there are also collages by Japan’s Keiichi Tanaami featuring pin-up models, and one that juxtaposes comic strip characters “Nancy and Sluggo” and the Hindu god Ganesh. A whimsical shrine invites you to kneel and pay homage to a neon light image of Brazilian rock star Roberto Carlos. “Frigo Duchamp” by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely is a refrigerator rigged with two working sirens. A single 35 mm slide in a Kodak slide projector shows an image of a billboard with images of models and a query in Spanish: “Why are they so cool?” A frenetic 8 mm film by German “capitalist realist” Manfred Kuttner features rapid-fire shots of traffic, shops, Kuttner’s family and flickering, hand-colored frames.
Political and sociological statements abound in “International Pop.” Argentinian León Ferrari took aim at the Vietnam War in 1965 with a plaster crucified Jesus affixed to a large model of an Air Force fighter. It was so controversial, said Battle, that it was removed from an anti-war art installation in Buenos Aires. What the artist was saying, she said, was: “We can use religion, or any ideology, to justify violence and senseless war.”
There’s a “Love & Despair” room dedicated to provocative themes of voyeurism, desire, glamour and eroticism. The eye-popping 1964 painting “Ice Cream” by Belgian artist Evelyne Axell, depicts a woman licking an ice cream cone. “This is her moment of pleasure, and you’re not invited in,” commented Battle.
Pop art even reached Iceland, as evidenced in Erró’s commentary on consumption and gluttony, “Foodscape,” an oil painting of a nauseatingly oversaturated kaleidoscope of images that look like they came straight out of grocery store circulars.
Further reflecting on commodity and the emerging hyper-commercialization of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the “Market as Medium” gallery references 1964’s “The American Supermarket” exhibition at the Bianchini Gallery in New York, in which Warhol, Robert Watts, Billy Apple and others staged their works as a grocery store display.
An International Pop playlist compiled by musician and radio personality Ben Vaughn, and featuring the likes of The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Them, is available for download on your personal device at www.philamuseum.org/ipop or by searching Philamuseum on Spotify.
In Philadelphia, the exhibition will be accompanied by “Passport to Pop,” a series of public programs including artist talks, lectures, panel discussions and special tours. In addition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is collaborating with International House in West Philadelphia and Ed Halter of Light Industry in New York, to host eight nights of pop art films through May.