Looking back now at the ’60s from the vantage point of the late ’80s, it is easy to detect a sense of innocence in Pop art’s relationship with consumerism. However malevolent- even occasionally violent- its subject matter may have been, Pop’s attitude was nonetheless always characterized by the feeling of joy with which these artists appropriated much of their content matter from the mass cultural world.
For the original Pop artists, the popular culture of the ’50s and ’60s suggested a kind of cultural democracy. Warhol’s statement that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, was a telling comment. Mass consumption and production were the favorite preoccupations of these artists. Utilizing silkscreen serialization, the media imagery was, for them, an empty form that could be easily assimilated into the open fields of post-war abstraction.
The next generation of artists to use media imagery in the late ’70s were to discover very different qualities in the imagery. Theirs was an almost surrealist fascination with the labyrinthine complexities of the media image. Embroiled in the world of the media, the contemporary artist has lost the sense of innocence embraced so wholeheartedly by the American Pop artists of the ’60s.
Yet by the early ’70s, the culture industry itself started to turn the tables on some of the Pop artists as it began to appropriate and recycle works of art back into the world of consumerism. Lichtenstein’s carrier bags and Warhol’s T-shirts became designer chic as the boundary lines between avant-garde art and the media started to disintegrate and blur.
In retrospect, we can see now that Pop art was eclipsed in the ’70s by a period of extraordinary fragmentation and diversification within the media complex. In a way, Pop was forced to reflect back on its roots in high art and away from consumer culture. (Lichtenstein’s abstract expressionist brush stroke and his pastiches of Picasso; Warhol’s homage to the fake de Chirico and his Last Supper homage to Leonardo.)
Now, in the ’80s, the original Pop artists have reacted to the changing circumstances of contemporary society in different ways, though none of them have fundamentally changed their individual styles or the process of their work. The changes that have come over their work and in almost every case, the changes are drastic -can be summed up as a change in mood. Rosenquist’s hopeful panoramas of consumerism in the early work, belong inexorably to the Kennedy era and to its sense of cultural democracy. Similarly, like all Oldenburg’s work of the ’60s, his invasion of the city’s spaces with gigantic enlargements of his minute details of detritus, embodied a joyful humanistic celebration of the everyday. But his recent commissions for multinational corporations and cities are more like emblems of technological bleakness. In a world in which the presence of Disney is synonymous with the presence of U.S. imperialism throughout the world, Oldenburg’s monumentalizations of American techno-culture become increasingly sinister and ambiguous.
Paradoxically, Lichtenstein -whose work, at least superficially, has shown the least change in style over the last twenty-five years- is perhaps the best barometer of this change of mood. His painted celebrations of commonplace images and objects of the ’60s, though cool, always had a humanistic pathos. But from the ’70s onwards, a neoclassical chill seems to have spread through his work. The paintings of the ’80s have become thresholds, devoid of human presence like the empty mirrors of which he is so fond. In like manner, Rauschenberg’s visual exuberances of the ’60s seemed to celebrate the wealth of consumerism, while his most recent work though seized by the same vertigo of discovery seems more like laments at cultural poverty. Even the most glittery productions of Warhol’s latest paintings are haunted by a sense of alienation and death. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s he became the most well known media nonpersonality; the ultimate ghost of the media machinery. And today, his work continues to represent a disquieting and disruptive presence in the art world.
There are those who believe that Pop art died at the end of the ’60s (both symbolically and actually with the shooting of Warhol by Valerie Solanis). Whether that is so or not, its afterlife, as represented by the works of the original exponents of American Pop during the past twenty years, now shows the sinister underside to those innocent dreams of the ’60s.