Pop Culture as Art
Much of the world is familiar with the American artist Andy Warhol, his famous Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes, his colourful prints of screen beauty Marilyn Monroe, and his triple exposure of Elvis. Warhol took the mundane, mass-produced products of America and made them into art; he identified the cultural icons of the time and played with their image through his work, finding ingenuity in repetition. Warhol was an important figure in the pop art movement, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, and represents the fusion of pop culture and high art to many people.
However, he is not the only artist to use these methods or to see the world through this lens. Viewing pop culture as art is an approach taken by many artists the world over, using different mediums, techniques, and processes. The finished products can look wildly different from one another, but they all share a similar source. When you look at the bold lines and block colours of Disney cartoons and McDonald’s signs, you think of Banksy’s work as a graffiti artist; when you see the iconic playing card designs or shape of the roulette wheel in a Bond movie intro or at Poker stars, you can see parallels with Lichtenstein’s work. This fusion of ‘low’ and ‘high’ art is an interaction between commercialism and creativity. Here we’ll take a look at some of the best known names in the world of pop art and those artists using pop culture in their work.
Roy Lichtenstein – 1923 – 1997
Roy Lichtenstein was a contemporary of Andy Warhol, working during the 1960s in America. He was part of the original pop art movement, and several of his pieces have gone on to become recognisably iconic works from the time. His signature style was strongly influenced by the comic strips like those published by DC and Marvel, with the artist often lifting compositions directly from the pages of a comic book and transforming them through his own vision. Lichtenstein used bold black outlines and simplified images to convey recognisable emotions, filling in blocks of colour using the Ben-Day dots popular in the manufacture of comics. His most famous pieces include ‘Drowning Girl’ (1963), ‘Whaam!’ (1963), ‘Look Mickey’ (1961) and ‘Masterpiece’ (1962), which sold at auction for $165 million in 2017.
Yayoi Kusama – 1929 –
When you speak of dots in pop art, it is impossible not to think of Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist who was also part of the artistic counterculture in the USA during the 1960s. Her best known works include installations such as the Mirror/Infinity Rooms (1963 – present), the Obliteration Rooms (2002 – present) and ‘Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees’. Kusama’s use of the repetitive polka dot motif acts as an expression of the artist’s intrusive thoughts and her work often aims to include audience participation in the final creation of the piece. The Obliteration Rooms invite visitors to add to the spectacle of a room covered in polka dots using colourful stickers provided upon entry; the Mirror/Infinity Rooms place visitors in a space where tiny winking lights seem to stretch out into infinity on all sides through the clever use of mirrors.
Peter Blake – 1932 –
Blake is perhaps best known for his part in co-creating the sleeve art for the 1967 Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, although he was also involved in producing art for the Band Aid singles, as well as releases from The Who, Eric Clapton and Oasis. His signature style marries collaged images of cultural icons (people, places and objects) with original painting work. Once again, this is an artist who combines ‘low’ art – collages of popular culture – with ‘high’ art – innovative painting. He often includes nostalgic references to Victorian Britain and lost English hobbies and pastimes in his work, whereas his collages feature familiar faces ranging from Mae West, to Edgar Allen Poe, to Bob Dylan, to Bette Davis.
David Hockney – 1937 –
Another English pop artist is David Hockney, who has worked in both the UK and America during his long career. Hockney primarily uses painting techniques to reproduce recognisable pop culture images on canvas, including portraits of cultural icons, prints influenced by fairy tales and other artists, and landscapes of his native Yorkshire, England. He is also known for his photo collages, whereby he takes many different photos of the same subject using various different angles and perspectives, before composing them into one cohesive image. Hockney’s art is appreciated all over the globe and, like much pop art, has come full circle to be a referenceable pop culture touchstone itself, with individual pieces selling for tens of millions of dollars to wealthy collectors. In fact, in 2018 his piece ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ became the record holder for most expensive work sold by a living artist, (it fetched $90.3 million).