Adam Ash

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Why is Pop Art more lasting than Abstract Expressionism?

From LA Times:

A critique of stinginess by David Pagel
Pop art has evolved, creating an ever more fertile fusion of high spirits and purposefully lowbrow aesthetic

Pop art is not what it used to be. What began with Andy Warhol in New York and Ed Ruscha in Los Angeles has grown up over the last 45 years, maturing into a style as sophisticated, refined and elegant as the best of Abstract Expressionism. Today, Fred Tomaselli's mind-bending mélanges of pills and pictures, Sharon Ellis' artifice-laden landscapes and Marcelo Pombo's meticulously dripped paintings take Pop far beyond its humble beginnings.

Pop got its start by making fun of the platitudes that second- and third-generation Abstract Expressionism had settled into, mocking the increasingly popular movement's increasingly shrill insistence on gestural spontaneity, existential anxiety and psychological authenticity.

In a nutshell, popularity was a problem for Abstract Expressionism, which derived its significance and the core of its identity from not fitting into the culture around it. That led to a precarious foothold in the world and a case of old-fashioned elitism. In love with its otherness, Abstract Expressionism could not survive success.

Popularity was never a problem for Pop. Success is still Pop's stock in trade, its modus operandi and raison d'être. Having changed the way the world looks, its influence extends across all levels of culture.

David Reed's abstract canvases draw equally on CinemaScope movies and Baroque painting, creating noir-tinged dramas suffused with smoldering sensuality. Philip Argent transforms the airless otherworldliness of virtual reality and the whiplash graphics of digital design into expansive images of breathless beauty and unsettling perfectionism.

From the beginning, Pop threw in its lot with the flash and glam of commercial culture. Broadly addressed to the populace rather than niche-marketed to a handful of cognoscenti, Pop had no problem with large audiences or with the unruliness that accompanied their love. Its artists used marketing techniques to make works in which easy-to-read emblems ridiculed the ideals of established art while serving up similar visual kicks. Pop criticized high art's exclusivity and privilege in the name of shopping — of finding, or realizing, individual desires in mundane products and eventually cobbling together an identity out of mass-produced things made powerful because they were available to others and not private.

Ever since Romanticism, which followed the standardization that swept Europe during the Industrial Revolution, art's identity has been tied to its capacity to enable aficionados and fans to distinguish themselves from the masses, who are invariably disparaged for being uncouth, unschooled, uncool and vulgar. To snobs, being different meant being better than everyone else.

In contrast, Pop embraced sameness. It did not rely on specialists or put stock in specialness. Sticking to the superficial (but never simple) appearance of things, Pop required no experts to translate its deep inner meanings. Although detractors contended that its serial works were blasé, Pop lived and died by its capacity to create the exhilarating sense that my excitement about something in no way diminishes your excitement about the same thing, and vice versa. Meaning was not a zero-sum game. Objects were not inert things to be accumulated, but transitory vehicles that function as lightning rods for talk, argument and (sometimes) writing. Pop sidestepped established hierarchies by proposing — and delivering — a world of voluntary participation and self-selective equality.

Because of its egalitarian ethos, Pop had a problem with opulence. In the '60s, opulence seemed old-fashioned and conservative. Pop concentrated on expanding the franchise of art, broadening the parameters of aesthetics by getting art out of the institutions in which it had been ghettoized. The battle left little room for refinement, and Pop's groundbreaking works were blunt. Lacking formal niceties, they borrowed the look of posters and trafficked in the renegade urgency of grass-roots social movements.

After 40 years, opulence is no longer a problem for Pop. Subtlety and sophistication are as much a part of it as brashness and vulgarity. Luxury and accessibility meet in Jorge Pardo's laser-cut lamps made of plywood, Lari Pittman's paintings of operatic comics and Polly Apfelbaum's flowers cut from swatches of tacky synthetic velvet. The civility of good manners mingles promiscuously with the characteristics of bad taste: garishness, excess, spectacle. Pop now embodies uptown eloquence, self-effacement and understatement, but always filtered through a downtown vocabulary of sleazy verve and boldness.

In contemporary and first-generation Pop, social and economic class play out differently than they do in European art. In the United States, art does not belong to the aristocracy, the state or even big business. A product (and an advertisement for itself), American art has more autonomy than art in societies whose social fabrics are more tightly woven. Here, more free play exists between the pleasures and privileges and powers of art and those of more traditional forms of wealth.

Even so, this country's ruling aesthetic is modeled on Minimalism. The durability, severity and seriousness of that style's works echo the virtues of business: predictability, efficiency and detachment. It's no coincidence that the homes and offices of the rich and powerful are designed to look like art museums, with restraint, control and a puritanical denial of sensuality as dominant design features.

Contemporary Pop flies in the face of such authoritarian parsimony. Its works make a place for the extravagant appetites of the unglamorous strata of society, for whom bigger is better, more is merrier and lavishness is the whole point of having an appetite.

A type of lowbrow baroque takes shape. It fuses a working-class love of things (grounded in appreciation of manual dexterity) with an equal — but not opposite — love of intellectual prowess, historical wisdom and formal rigor. Its amiable relationship with craftsmanship corresponds to a lack of antipathy toward design, resulting in user-friendly hospitality and more-where-that-came-from generosity.

Pop and connoisseurship are no longer opposed. Sophistication is not limited to highbrow cultivation but encompasses enthusiasms that cut across classes, arising wherever passion has room to pursue its own ends, on its own terms.

Contemporary Pop offers a critique of stinginess — whether of concept, attitude or material — by making a place for a wealth of embodied experiences that include bedazzlement, awe and joy.

(David Pagel is curator of "POPulence" at Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, June 25 through Aug. 27. His essay is adapted from "Not Your Father's Pop," to be published in the exhibition catalog.)

1 Comments:

At 6/28/2005 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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