The Second World War was followed by a period of reconstruction in Europe and increasing prosperity there and in the United States. There was also a sense of collective exhilaration at what seemed to be the dawn of a new era of possibilities. Yet there was also an under current of pessimism. The war had caused enormous destruction, and many of its horrors had shown human nature at its worst. Now the world was entering the Cold War, with its attendant threat of nuclear holocaust. Abstraction flourished in the 1950s, both in Europe and the United States. In the 1960s, however, the emerging consumer society brought on a new return to realism.
British Pop Art
In the mid-1950s, the small Independent Group, made up of both artists (Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton) and critics (Lawrence Alloway), began to study commercial culture, focusing on inexpensive products, advertising, and their role in modern life. An exhibition held in 1956 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London marked the birth of what the critic Lawrence Alloway (1926-92) christened “Pop Art” in 1958.
Richard Hamilton (b. 1922) depicted cars, pin-ups, and electric appliances; Peter Blake (b. 1932) concentrated on comic strips and pop singers; and Eduardo Paolozzi (b. 1924), a magazine collector, made collage prints, recycling advertisement and comic-strip imagery.
American Pop Art
During the 1950s the art world in the United States was dominated by Abstract Expressionism; in the early 1960s American artists and critics embraced Pop Art enthusiastically. In 1962 the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York organized an exhibition entitled “New Realists” that included work by Jim Dine (b. 1935), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Tom Wesselman (b. 1931), and James Rosenquist (b. 1933).
In 1962, Andy Warhol became famous for his paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans, first rendered individually and then in immaculate rows. He also silk-screened the faces of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy by the hundreds. Repeated in this way, these images acquired a surprising power, offering ambiguous commentary on consumer and celebrity culture.
Roy Lichtenstein worked with comic-strip imagery. Beginning in 1960, he painted hugely blown-up images of individual comic-snip frames, complete with the enlarged benday dots of color newsprint.
At the same time, Claes Oldenburg began to make large painted plaster sculptures of sandwiches and cakes, which were soon followed by giant “soft” plastic appliances that droop disconcertingly.
Tom Wesselman brought together objects and collage elements in scenes and tableaux evoking everyday life, sometimes also incorporating reproductions of works of art.
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