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Pop art in the US

Surrounded by the products of consumer culture, American Pop artists were inspired by what they saw and experienced living within that culture. Read more about Pop art's founding figures in the USA.
Edward Ruscha, Cheese Mold Standard with Olive, 1969, screenprint on paper, 65 x 101cm (Tate)

What is Pop art?

In 1957, British pop artist Richard Hamilton listed the “characteristics of pop art” in a letter to his friends, the architects Peter and Alison Smithson:
Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.
Pop art is an art movement that emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s, taking inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture such as advertising, Hollywood movies and pop music. It began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art could (and should) be. Drawing on popular imagery and mass-produced consumer products, Pop art elevated aspects of everyday culture in the middle of the 20th century to the status of art, but the intention was not to glorify those things but to view them with a critical lens through the use of irony and satire.

Why did Pop art emerge in the US?

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, It's a Psychological Fact Pleasure Helps your Disposition, 1948, printed papers on card, 36 x 24cm (Tate)
A post-World War II boom in the economy led to higher salaries and more leisure time, and mass-production led to the creation of objects like televisions, dishwashers, and cars on an unprecedented scale. Hand in hand with new technologies in print production, dissemination, and the rise of the brand-driven advertising industry, each of these consumer goods was sold with the promise of giving their owners fulfilment and satisfaction. With new-found wealth, mobility, and free time, many Americans moved to the suburbs (because homes were mass-produced and widely available, too) and television became the dominant media of the 1950s.
But in the ‘60s, many saw this dominant social order and its endless replication of forms stifling – they rebelled against what they saw as a pre-fab lifestyle, and challenged the political establishment through protesting the Vietnam War, for example. Social movements seeking equality and civil rights for African Americans and women flourished. This spirit of rebellion took root in the art world, too, as many young artists at the time felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums had little to do with their lives and the culture that surrounded them. In protest, they turned to sources like pop music, product packaging (like the Campbell's soup can), comic books, and Hollywood movies, taking the imagery of mass-production to create art that critiqued and subverted it. And Pop art was born.

What was different about American Pop art?

Surrounded by the products of consumer culture, American Pop artists were inspired by what they saw and experienced living within that culture. In the United States, the Pop style was seen as a return to representational art, or art that depicted the visual world in a recognisable way. In the previous decades, American post-war art had been dominated by the Abstract Expressionists, who (as their name suggests) used expressive gestures and abstract, non-representational imagery. Faced with a world of consumer “stuff”, Pop artists turned away from that abstraction, instead making use of hard edges and recognisable forms to make art about the visible world around them. By using impersonal, mundane imagery, pop artists also wanted to move away from the emphasis on personal feelings and personal symbolism that characterised abstract expressionism.
Roy Lichtenstein, _Brushstroke,_ 1965, screenprint on paper, 56 x 72cm (Tate)

Who were the American Pop artists?

If you’ve heard of Pop art, you’ve probably heard of artist Andy Warhol and his silkscreen prints of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and the infamous cans of soup. Warhol’s influence on Pop art was huge (you can read more about it here) but there were many other American Pop artists who led the way with their work.
In the 1960s, Roy Lichtenstein became a major player in the Pop movement when he broke with the established traditions of abstract expressionism. He chose instead to create paintings that mimicked the the techniques of printed materials (such as the famous Ben-day dots above) and drawing on popular imagery from comic strips, advertisements, and other printed sources. Lichtenstein makes us think about the paradox of being an artist -- someone who we often think of using their hands to make something -- in an age of mechanically produced and printed images.
Claes Oldenburg, on the other hand, took commonplace objects like light switches, hamburgers, and lipsticks, and recreated them as sculptures on a massive scale, inserting them into ordinary landscapes and calling attention to status of everyday things. Artists like Ed Ruscha stuck to traditional media like painting but incorporated words, images, and phrases that evoked '60s life and culture (like the gas station at the top of this page.)
Claes Oldenburg, Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus, London, 1966, printed paper on postcard on board, 25 x 20cm (Tate)

What is the legacy of Pop art?

With its emphasis on recognisable forms and experimentation with new media, Pop art paved the way for later artists to explore questions about the conceptual nature of art, its form, its relationship to mass production, and its relationship to the everyday things around us.
It created a precedent for artists to consider directly how they engage with their own cultures, helping to set the stage for contemporary art to address, critique, and deconstruct the world around us. Read more about the ongoing influence of Pop in contemporary art here.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ∫∫ Greg Boyle  dG dB
    Pop art seems to be very similar to the Dada readymades. How did Pop art influence the rise of postmodernism?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Luisa @ Tate
      Emerging in the 1950s in both Britain and the US, pop art embodies many principles that afterward became identified with postmodernism. The distinction between high and low art, for example, started to blur as traditional views of what art should be were resisted. This latter point is critical in shaping postmodern thought, which questions the dominance of the modernist mindset and aesthetic.

      Whilst popular in post-war America, modernist movements such as abstract expressionism later seemed dated and irrelevant to citizens experiencing their own cultural and consumerist boom. Interest in seeing elements of everyday life in art grew and motivated artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to experiment with new styles that borrowed from mass culture. Dada readymades also mark this shift, questioning the originality and authorship of the artist.

      This rejection against modernism and other traditions of Western art history led to the development of other artistic forms associated with postmodernism, such as performance, video, participatory, installation, conceptual and minimalist art. For this reason, postmodernism does not have a defined style; rather it is discussed as a series of ideas and attitudes.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Joel Magee
    How many different kinds of Pop art are there?
    (1 vote)
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    • purple pi pink style avatar for user nishita
      It would depend on the artist. Many painted, others sculpted. There were styles that were significant to an artist, but as such, there were no different "types" of pop art.

      For example, Andy Warhol was into printing. Oldenburg did sculpting. Lichtenstein used Ben-Day method. And so on.
      (1 vote)