“How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.. I think that would be so great, to be able to change styles. And I think that’s what’s is going to happen, that’s going to be the whole new scene.”
Mention the school of Pop Art to casual art lovers and you’ll immediately get the response, “Andy Warhol.” Warhol sucks up most of the oxygen in any discussion of Pop, with Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and a few others getting in the rare gasp. With the death at 89 years of age of Richard Hamilton, whose 1956 collageJust what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (detail shown above) many consider to be the first Pop Art work, it might be the right time to ask if Hamilton, and not Warhol, is the true king of Pop Art.
«Andy Warhol was the most successful and highly paid commercial illustrator in New York even before he began to make art destined for galleries. Nevertheless, his screenprinted images of Marilyn Monroe, soup cans, and sensational newspaper stories, quickly became synonymous with Pop Art. He emerged from the poverty and obscurity of an Eastern European immigrant family in Pittsburgh, to become a charismatic magnet for bohemian New York, and to ultimately find a place in the circles of High Society. For many his ascent echoes one of Pop Art’s ambitions, to bring popular styles and subjects into the exclusive salons of high art. His elevation to the status of a popular icon represented a new kind of fame and celebrity for a fine artist.»
The rare and iconic self-portrait by Andy Warhol was refused by his dealer as ‘too prophetic’. Photograph: Lee Durant/Lee Durant / National News and Pictures
Pop Art popped up around the world in various guises generally after the end of World War II. The “peace dividend,” only slightly offset by the cost of the simmering Cold War, led to a proliferation of commercial advertising that continues to this day. Swimming in this sea of commercialism, Hamilton, a devotee of Dada and Surrealism and, above all else, an acolyte of Duchamp, took the lessons of those movements and applied them to life in the mid-1950s. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? literally elevates kitsch to high art, as symbolized by the framed comic book cover against the wall. The body builder on the left and naked woman on the right embody the commodification of the human form into just another business transaction—something to be marketed to relentlessly, idealized in the name of selling deodorant and toothpaste. The collage collects all the ideas of pre-World War II anti-establishment art and updates them for the very different post-war world.
Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing, Richard Hamilton 1956
What separates Hamilton from Warhol, Lichtenstein, and other contenders for the King of Pop Art is that ability to take those complex ideas and apply them to the cultural debris of a less serious time. Warhol rightfully earns credit for his appropriation of commercial advertising in Campbell’s Soup Cans and for his rechanneling of the star power of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and others to his own purposes. Above all, Warhol’s superhuman self-promotional skills set him above the others. By extending his “15 minutes of fame” across the decades, even after death, Warhol overshadowed and almost erased the name of Hamilton.
At the time of his death, Hamilton was cooperating with curators on a major retrospective of his work to tour his native England and America in 2013. Perhaps Hamilton’s reputation will rise to the top during that retrospective, reducing Warhol not to obscurity, but perhaps to a more justified position as the artist and personality he truly was.
KEY IDEAS about how Warhol
+Warhol’s early commercial illustration has recently been acclaimed as the arena in which he first learned to manipulate popular tastes. His drawings were often comic, decorative, and whimsical, and their tone is entirely different from the cold and impersonal mood of his Pop Art.
+Much debate still surrounds the iconic screenprinted images with which Warhol established his reputation as a Pop artist in the early 1960s. Some view his Death and Disaster series, and his Marilyn pictures, as frank expressions of his sorrow at public events. Others view them as some of the first expressions of ‘compassion fatigue’ – the way the public loses the ability to sympathize with events from which they feel removed. Still others think of his pictures as screens – placed between us and horrifying events – which attempt to register and process shock.
+Although artists had drawn on popular culture throughout the 20th century, Pop art marked an important new stage in the breakdown between high and low art forms. Warhol’s paintings from the early 1960s were important in pioneering these developments, but it is arguable that the diverse activities of his later years were just as influential in expanding the implications of Pop art into other spheres, and further eroding the borders between the worlds of high art and popular culture.
+Although Warhol would continue to create paintings intermittently throughout his career, in 1965 he officially retired from the medium to concentrate on making experimental films. Despite years of neglect, these films have recently attracted widespread interest, and Warhol is now seen as one of the most important filmmakers of the period.
+Critics have traditionally seen Warhol’s career as going into decline in 1968, after he was shot by Valerie Solanas. Valuing his early paintings above all, they have ignored the activities that absorbed his attention in later years – films, parties, collecting, publishing, and painting commissioned portraits. Yet some have begun to think that all these ventures make up Warhol’s most important legacy because they prefigure the diverse interests, activities, and interventions that occupy artists today.