The World Goes Pop. Tate Modern. Until 24 January 2016
The World Goes Pop (Tate Publishing) by Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri
Pop art — a complicit reflection of and a critical response to the plethora of media that bombarded popular culture in the 1960s: magazines, photographs, billboards, colour advertising, television, brand names, celluloid – was bound up with the climatic ascendency of US power in its manifest destiny to conquer the world with military might and icons and logos of the good life and the free market. Baudrillard noted this in 1970 when he characterised pop art as the ‘total integration of artwork into the political economy of the commodity sign’.
On the one hand, pop art merely offered an artistic prayer by aestheticizing this new world of unbridled consumption and laisser-faire economics; on the other, it was a series of cultural subversions that undermined a crass world of marketing brands and the retailing of desire. One of the more thought-provoking paintings in The World of Pop exhibition is Erró’s American Interiors depicting Maoist-style proletarians invading bourgeois homes. Is collectivism hijacking the status quo or is triumphant capital laughing at the notion of subversion? — a crowd of people, even dissenters, becoming just a collection of potential consumers.
Tate Modern’s exhibition refocuses this debate not by bringing together the familiar works of Pop Art but by looking at its international face and showing how it was used by artists to raise social and political issues that went beyond the remit usually associated with Warhol et al.
For Evelyn Axell, the space age of the 1960s becomes a site of sexuality in Valentine (1966) by showing Valentine Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut, waiting to be unzipped in an act of erotic voyeurism that celebrates female intimacy. In Joan Rabascall’s Atomic Kiss (1968) the archetypal movie-inspired female mouth in red lipstick is juxtaposed with an image of an atomic explosion. These are interesting and arresting but other pieces on show seem lightweight, like Teresa Buga’s Cubes (1968) which looks like a dismantled Rubik’s Cube painted with graphic signs. It is supposed to anticipate a post-modern world where meaning is never fixed, always subject to deconstruction and reconfiguration, but if you were unkind you’d say it would not be out of place in a children’s play area. Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian who went to New York and met Warhol, Rauschenberg and the gang, gives us Bombs in Love (1962), a mixed-media sculpture of two found bomb-casings painted in lurid colours of hippydom. It has a curiosity value but a museum rather than an art gallery might best serve as its permanent home.
The essays in the accompanying book for this exhibition make abundantly clear just how international was the reach of Pop Art and they draw out what is of lasting importance about its lesser-known manifestations in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
In one of the essays, David Crowley’s ‘Pop Effects in Eastern Europe Under Communist Rule’, it is argued that the conceptual form of pop art work of artists like the Russians Komar and Melamid, founders of Sots-art (socialist art), injected ambivalence and distance into an otherwise orthodox art form. The book also features new interviews with many of these relatively unknown artists and the wealth of colour illustrations make it doubly valuable.
It would require another exhibition to probe what is of lasting value in the canonical works of pop art that we are all more familiar with. Deborah Levy in Things I Don’t Want to Know says ‘I reckoned that every time Andy Warhol painted a tin of American soup it was his way of escaping from the flat brown fields of Eastern Europe where his parents were born’. No tins of soup appear in The World of Pop exhibition or the accompanying book but Levy was definitely onto something that sheds light on the work of those artists that do make up this exhibition.