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Pop Art: A Colourful History

Alastair Sooke

'It was hard,' said the American artist Roy Lichtenstein in 1963, 'to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one would hang it.' By the early 1960s, in other words, art had lost its power to shock. After a Guernica and a Jackson Pollock, what could a poor boy do? The answer, it turned out, was to make art that didn't look like art. 'To drink in those images was like glugging a quart of quinine water followed by a Listerine chaser,' said the art critic Max Kozloff when he first saw paintings by Lichtenstein that looked like a comic strip. What he was looking at was pop art, and it changed the course of 20th-century art.

Lichtenstein was displaying this work at about the same time that Andy Warhol was showing his paintings of the 32 flavours of Campbell's soup. Jasper Johns had paved the way in the 1950s with casts of light bulbs and ale cans, but it was in 1962, the year Warhol painted a giant Coca-Cola bottle, that the idea of art as mirror of the mass media really took off. This was also the year that New York's Museum of Modern Art recognised the earthquake that had hit the art world with a symposium on the movement. Pop art, says Alastair Sooke in his new history, 'illustrated a profound transformation that was occurring within western society following the Great Depression and the Second World War'.

Sooke's book, published to coincide with a big new show at Tate Modern, The World Goes Pop (and with a BBC4 documentary he will be fronting), is no conventional history, though it does place pop art in a cultural and economic context and sets out the key facts. Sooke points out, for example, that from 1947 to 1970, 'the real income of Americans rose by almost 80%', which is certainly a shift to warrant a revolution. The book isn't conventionally 'colourful' either. It does have a handsome cover, specially designed by Peter Blake, but inside it has a grand total of eight illustrations. Reproducing critiques of capitalism clearly isn't cheap.

What Sooke is aiming at, he says, is 'a sort of alternative, fractured micro-history of pop art, via a succession of encounters and personal stories'. The 'colour', in other words, will have to come from the words. His hope, he says, is that the artists he talks to will say things that 'help to illuminate how pop art emerged when and where it did' and 'reveal things that weren't known or said' before.

He has chosen to interview four people, each representing 'a different facet of pop art'. He starts with Blake, 'the godfather of British pop art', still best known for his album cover for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He continues with James Rosenquist, a New York-based former billboard painter who was one of the original 'big six' of American 'high pop', moves on to Edward Ruscha, the gas-station-painting key member of the 'West Coast six', and ends with the Bronx-born pop artist Rosalyn Drexler, who was, he argues, a bit more dutifully, sidelined because she was a woman.

By the time Sooke talks to Blake, he has already given a clear and lively outline of the history of pop art, discussing its 'fascination with brand names, movie stars and cartoon characters' as a reaction against what Mark Rothko called the 'tragedy, ecstasy' and 'doom' of abstract art and as part of a new 'excitable spirit' aiming to capture 'the bewildering experience of living in the modern world'. His analysis is convincing, if hardly new. He also reminds us that pop art was actually invented in Britain, and recounts Blake's anecdote about the dinner party in the 1950s where the term was first used. It was the art critic Lawrence Alloway, according to Blake, who asked him if he was 'trying to make a kind of 'pop art'. The story, says Sooke, is 'impossible to verify,' but 'has a pleasing ring'.

The key thing that emerges from his conversation with Blake is Blake's own sense of 'an instinctive relationship with popular culture' in which he was 'never standing back'. While other artist friends looked at the car ads in Hugh Hefner's new Playboy magazine, Blake would, he confesses, be 'looking at the pretty girl in the centrefold'. His engagement with popular culture, consumerism and pouting, naked women was, in other words, about celebration and not critique.

Rosenquist takes a very different view. 'I don't even know if I'm an artist,' he growls, but he does tell Sooke that he 'hates' advertising and that his early pop paintings were 'questioning the capitalistic system'. In his painting President Elect, for example, he juxtaposes a promotional photograph of John F Kennedy with a photo of a Chevrolet wheel and a woman's hands breaking a slice of cake. Rosenquist, says Sooke, 'was surely concocting a cynical statement about the value of the guarantees of politicians'.

The interviews are full of interesting facts and anecdotes that make the book (unlike so much art criticism) largely a pleasure to read. But you can't help feeling Sooke is straining towards a eureka moment he can't quite reach. 'Suddenly,' he announces, as if he has solved the mystery of the universe, 'I get it.' The 'sense of blankness' in Rosenquist's paintings, he decides, 'expresses the emptiness of existence'.

Perhaps he is right. It seems more likely that Rosenquist was doing what he liked doing, and that some of it was similar in spirit to what some of his contemporaries were producing. Some of it was a satire on contemporary culture. Some of it was a celebration. Some of it was probably both. As Ruscha says, when Sooke asks him a complicated question about his work: 'I guess you could say that. Anybody,' he adds, underlining the limitations of any book such as this, 'is free to interpret my paintings any way they wish.'

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