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What is POP Art?

Andy Warhol, “Campbell's Soup I,” screenprint on paper

What is POP Art?

Andy Warhol, “Campbell's Soup I,” screenprint on paper
Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup I,” screenprint on paper (1968). Sold for $852,500 via Sotheby’s (October 2017).

Perhaps the most well-known artistic development of the 20th century, Pop art emerged in reaction to consumerism, mass media, and popular culture.

This movement surfaced in the 1950s and gained major momentum throughout the sixties. Pop art transitioned away from the theory and methods used in Abstract Expressionism, the leading movement that preceded it. Instead, it drew upon everyday objects and media like newspapers, comic books, magazines, and other mundane objects to produce vibrant compositions, establishing the movement as a cornerstone of contemporary art.

This introduction of identifiable imagery was a major shift from the direction of modernism, which Pop artists considered empty and elitist. Many artists associated with the movement—most notably Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein—achieved unprecedented fame and status, an experience that brought practitioners closer to mainstream celebrity. Today, Pop art is one of the most instantly recognizable forms of art.

What is Pop Art?

Pop art is a movement that emerged in the mid-20th century in which artists incorporated commonplace objects—comic strips, soup cans, newspapers, and more—into their work. The Pop art movement aimed to solidify the idea that art can draw from any source, and there is no hierarchy of culture to disrupt this.

A Brief History of Pop Art

Pop art began in the mid-1950s in Britain by a group of painters, sculptors, writers, and critics called Independent Group. It spread soon after into the United States. Much of the movement’s roots were prompted by a cultural revolution led by activists, thinkers, and artists who aimed to restructure a social order ruled by conformity. The movement spread quickly, and many believe that U.K. Pop pioneer Richard Hamilton‘s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? marked the official beginning of the cultural phenomenon after it appeared in Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Hamilton described the movement’s characteristics writing, “Pop art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.” After the movement burst onto the scene in the United States, it quickly spread across the globe and continues to influence fine art and popular culture today.

Pop Art Characteristics

Pop art is easily recognizable due to its vibrancy and unique characteristics that are present in many of the most iconic works of the movement. Below are some of the defining characteristics of of Pop art:

  • Recognizable imagery: Pop art utilized images and icons from popular media and products. This included commercial items like soup cans, road signs, photos of celebrities, newspapers, and other items popular in the commercial world. Even brand names and logos were incorporated.
  • Bright colors: Pop art is characterized by vibrant, bright colors. Primary colors red, yellow, and blue were prominent pigments that appeared in many famous works, particularly in Roy Lichtenstein’s body of work.
  • Irony and satire: Humor was one of the main components of Pop art. Artists use the subject matter to make a statement about current events, poke fun at fads, and challenge the status quo.
  • Innovative techniques: Many Pop artists engaged in printmaking processes, which enabled them to quickly reproduce images in large quantities. Andy Warhol used silkscreen printing, a process through which ink is transferred onto paper or canvas through a mesh screen with a stencil. Roy Lichtenstein used lithography, or printing from a metal plate or stone, to achieve his signature visual style. Pop artists often took imagery from other areas of mainstream culture and incorporated it into their artworks, either altered or in its original form. This type of Appropriation art often worked hand in hand with repetition to break down the separation between high art and low art, which made the distinction between advertising and media from fine art.
  • Mixed media and collage: Pop artists often blended materials and utilized a variety of different types of media. Like Robert Rauschenberg, whose works anticipated the Pop art movement, artists Tom Wesselmann and Richard Hamilton combined seemingly disparate images into a single canvas to create a thoroughly modern form of narrative. Similarly, Marisol is known for sculptures that use many a variety of different materials to represent figures.

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