February 2015

Arts & Letters

Made in Oz

By Julie Ewington
Detail from MASTERPIECES (Warhol), 1986, Maria Kozic. © Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
‘Pop to Popism’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

What goes around comes back differently. Refracted by the times. In 1985 I reviewed the only other substantial exhibition of pop art held in Australia, also at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Thirty years later I’m struck by the radically different propositions put forward by Pop to Popism (until 1 March 2015). In the intervening decades, popular culture and communications have changed, and expanded enormously: it’s a whole new world. So what does pop art mean now, in the age of the internet and social media?

Back in 1985, Pop Art 1955–70, curated by Henry Geldzahler, New York City’s pope of pop, was an authorised package direct from MoMA and the undisputed capital of modern art. The US was pop’s heartland in every sense, with the spectacular growth of postwar capital and its cultural forms: advertising, newspapers, comics, movies, TV. Then, as now, debates raged about pop art’s relationship to consumerism: was it complicit or (however ambivalently) critical? Was pop art merely the palatable messenger of American global domination? (My 1985 review noted connections between the exhibition sponsor, United Technologies, and the Australian government’s defence commitments.)

Ambitious, inclusive and energetic, Pop to Popism, curated by the AGNSW’s Wayne Tunnicliffe, establishes pop as a broadly international, and interrogative, phenomenon. Importantly for Australian artists, the British were early entrants, but in many manifestations, from Melbourne to Milan, pop artists not only registered but also critically examined the postwar world’s burgeoning consumerism and its effects on society. Earlier artists, such as Picasso, Braque and Schwitters, had raided the mass media, but the singular achievement of mid-century pop artists was to put the entire unstable spectacle at the centre of their art. Whether, like Richard Hamilton or Erró, they pulled pop culture apart to repackage it or, like Rosalyn Drexler or Andy Warhol, seemed to mimic it deadpan, the pop artists, as Chris McAuliffe notes in the exhibition catalogue about the Americans, “entered the functional territory of mass culture’s new hieroglyphics”.

Today it’s abundantly clear that McAuliffe is right. Pop artists were asking intelligent questions about the new universe of manufactured abundance. They were on to it. From Eduardo Paolozzi’s exquisite 1940s collages to Maria Kozic’s exploding Warhol Campbell’s soup can in the late 1980s, artists tackled pop culture on its own terms. In 1967 the Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström hyphenated Esso with LSD – both marketing manufactured energy; from the same year, in a different register, Claes Oldenburg’s soft fan sculpture is the friendly ghost of America’s dying heavy industry. Read against the times, rather than through the prism of style, pop art had real bite.

Crucially, Pop to Popism stakes Australia’s claim to pop. In the catalogue, Tunnicliffe says he is “seeing pop through Australian eyes”, exploring “how Australian artists were part of the story”. In a welcome innovation, Australians are shown with their international contemporaries: for example, works by Mike Brown, Ross Crothall and Tony Tuckson accompany assemblages by the American Robert Rauschenberg. Yes, international influences were negotiated in our peripheral culture, but Australian pop had its own inimitable character: mordant, irreverent, sophisticated. Especially in the section titled “Made in Oz”, Australian pop emerges as a distinctive hybrid; its florid blooms, like Vivienne Binns’ Phallic Monument (1966), grew out of Sydney’s Libertarian leanings, and a few years later Martin Sharp’s drug-dreamy graphics and the work of the Yellow House collective were nourished by the city’s countercultures. Australian pop flourished principally in Sydney’s sophisticated media culture, with Gareth Sansom in Melbourne and Robert Boynes in Adelaide among the few exceptions; it was not until 1982 that the Paul Taylor–curated Popism exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria claimed pop culture for Melbourne. (Taylor’s Popism manifesto was, in part, a tactical challenge to Melbourne’s official culture, as he admitted.)

The final “Popism” section, coming after generous rooms devoted to British, American, European and Australian pop, and the splendidly varied offerings in “Late Pop”, stages dialogues in the 1980s between Australian and international artists. Warhol, Gilbert & George (who first appeared at the AGNSW in 1973), Martha Rosler, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring (with projects in Sydney and Melbourne in 1984): as exhibitors and/or visitors, all profoundly affected Australian art. Evidently, artists across the globe were becoming increasingly aware of each other: popism is one of the earliest terrains of late-20th-century global art. Occasionally there were significant legacies, like Gordon Bennett’s dialogues with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Richard Bell’s appropriations of Roy Lichtenstein, obliquely acknowledged on the catalogue cover. Appropriately enough, given pop is an art of quotation, Pop to Popism requires visitors to treat the exhibition as a text. The visual arguments in “Popism” are complex, as critics have noted; it’s certainly more demanding than your usual summer fare.

I admire the exhibition’s fine grain, however. Its density mirrors popular culture’s insistency and recapitulates Richard Larter or Mike Brown’s claustrophobic collages. I enjoyed seeing cross-referenced images and issues: Warhol stalks the works, from Elvis and Liz early on, to a magnificent multiple Mona Lisa that nods to Marcel Duchamp and, finally, to the raddled late self-portrait borrowed from the National Gallery of Victoria. Marilyn is the presiding muse – in Warhol, Hamilton, Sharp (via Warhol), Cindy Sherman, in Juan Davila’s pop-psychoanalytic catalogue; and women, both as subjects and as exhibiting artists, are especially sensitively presented. Many works have significant histories: James Rosenquist’s Silver Skies (1962) is from his first solo show; many live in Australian collections, such as Warhol’s Electric Chair (1967, acquired by Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia in 1977) and Niki de Saint Phalle’s Black Beauty (1968, acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1982); Euro-pop works from the JW Power Collection at the University of Sydney were collected in the late 1960s; and Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey (1961) and Jasper Johns’ White Numbers (1957), both in the 1985 exhibition, make thoughtful second comings here.

Pop to Popism’s rethinking of pop via Australia’s participation acknowledges that it was a global phenomenon, which will also be signalled in 2015 exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and London’s Tate Modern, and has been noted in new books by the art historians Thomas Crow and Hal Foster. Razzle-dazzle aside, this is a serious exhibition. For pop art was always much more than an artistic style, as Paul Taylor astutely noted. From the start pop was plural, the name a convenient brand for multiple attempts to come to terms with the behemoth of post-industrial imagery. That is why Pop to Popism, with works spanning four decades, is so heterogeneous. (Some gambits don’t come off. The often biting and melancholy works in the “Late Pop” section question social norms, but Brett Whiteley’s huge 1968–69 opus The American Dream is pure studio angst: it’s the wrong tone entirely.)

Today, Pop to Popism feels like the end of an era. It’s history, after all, and many famous works now look tame, even quaint. Collages that once looked naughty are now just nice. The stars and stories are 50 years old, and some products, like Campbell’s soup, are living off the pop past: last year the cans appeared on Australian supermarket shelves with four different Warhol labels. But even in its heyday pop was nostalgic. I noticed how often collaged comics and advertisements were torn, tatty, at times cutely archaic, when artists were supposedly celebrating contemporary popular material. Paolozzi, like Rauschenberg, preferred his materials pre-loved, junk status intact.

Surprisingly, some still want to shoot the pop art messenger. Today, with mass media suffusing daily life, pop art has been overrun by digital culture. The ways artists use digital media, from video to social platforms, and the contemporary museum’s love of interactivity make pop art seem oddly static, when once it seemed noisy and nervy. Its interactivity is strictly old school – solo, introspective; this is made painfully obvious by the exhibition’s children’s activity, which tellingly involves screens.

So why this atavistic horror? Was pop really the Trojan Horse in the house of culture? Of course. That was the point, and it remains the insult. Pop predicted the immediate future, when the media flux began to challenge artistic egos. Pop to Popism finishes in 1987, with the death of Andy Warhol, just before the advent of the internet, digital communications and, eventually, social media. Later in the century, digital media became the great shared space, the place of dreams – common ground, if not “the commons”. In my view, the public response to Sydney’s Martin Place siege, just a few blocks from the AGNSW, showed that the ancient craving for participatory action, now enabled by social media, remains as strong as ever.

And it is, in many senses, ungovernable. Pop art’s real offence, then, is to remind us how tenaciously and unpredictably the forms and fragments of popular culture remain in our consciousness and become our memories. Whether we want them or not. We are colonised by advertising jingles and shopping mall muzak; we see life through unbidden images. The really knotty problem here is the mass media’s simultaneously beguiling and repulsive affects. With pop, and pop art, love and loathing and desire and disgust are always intertwined, forever unresolved.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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