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Book Review : A Studied Celebration of Artists From '50s and '60s


Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s and '60s by Sidra Stich (University of California: $60 hardback, $24, paperback; 280 pages)

"I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit . . . in a museum," declared Claes Oldenburg in the hot and heady '60s. "I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself."

That rollicking manifesto is one attempt to define the work of contemporary American artists in the '50s and '60s, a subject that is both celebrated and studied in depth by Sidra Stich in "Made in U.S.A." Stich flatly rejects Pop Art as a label for the wildly diverse work of American artists during that boisterous era, and she looks beyond the hothouse of Manhattan to describe "California and Chicago artists who were simultaneously creating art derived from and related to American mass culture." Above all, Stich places a sometimes baffling body of art into its cultural, political and economic context.

The work presented in "Made in U.S.A." is nearly mythic--Warhol's soup cans, Oldenburg's upholstered Good Humor bars, Lichtenstein's canvas-sized cartoons--but I am still tempted to ask: Is it art? Yes, Stich says, and it is art that offers a perfectly authentic expression of its time and place: "Consumerism, commercialism and the celebration of celebrity--the prevailing character of the art community reflected the general postwar climate in America," she explains. "In this era of transitions, the place of art and the role of the artist in American society were also redefined . . . art became big news and big business."

A Berkeley Original

Stich is a senior curator of the University Art Museum at Berkeley, where "Made in U.S.A." originated as a traveling exhibition of contemporary American art, and her book is the official catalogue of the exhibition. At the same time, the oversized format, the abundant and exquisite color plates and the hefty price tag may tempt us to look on "Made in U.S.A." as a coffee-table art book. But "Made in U.S.A." is so rich, so complex, so ambitious and yet ultimately so accessible and illuminating, that both labels are slightly misleading. "Made In U.S.A." is one art book that is a pleasure not merely to look at but also to read, to ponder, to talk about.

Stich has chosen what she calls "an iconographic and contextual approach," with the result that each reproduced image--a canvas by Larry Rivers or Jasper Johns, a sculpture by Oldenburg or Marisol, a Warhol silk-screen--becomes the focus of Stich's impressive scholarship in history, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, mass media, popular culture. (And the book is further enriched by James E. B. Breslin's essay on the relationship between poetry and fine art in the '50s, Thomas Schaub on contemporary American fiction and Ben H. Bagdikian on the media.)

Thus, for example, Stich introduces the seminal imagery of Larry Rivers' 1953 painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware," by pointing out how the work played off Emanuel Leutze's reverential classroom icon of the same scene, which had been given fresh currency in 1952 during the public celebration of the 175th anniversary of the crossing. And she reminds us of the calculated repercussions of Rivers' choice of subject matter and treatment, which was both "a blatant affront to the purist ideals of Abstract Expressionism" and an effort at "debunking the esteeming paradigm" of patriotism at a time when a political pit bull called McCarthy was at large.

Meaning Behind Imagery

In one sense, "Made in U.S.A." is a catalogue of American iconography--the flag, the gas station logo, the soup label, the images of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse and Elvis Presley--and its expression by American artists in the '50s and '60s. Significantly, Stich rarely concerns herself with the pure aesthetics of the work--she is much more interested in the source and meaning of the imagery, especially as a refraction of the American reality and the American dream. "Their art stands not as propaganda," she points out, "but as a telling reflection of America's postwar obsession with expressing, defining, analyzing, promoting and criticizing its Americanness."

The best example of Stich's method--and, for me, the most intriguing--is her exploration of Warhol's soup can art. "The paintings display the salient American tendency to view the everyday world in terms of commercial brand-name products," Stich writes. And she points out that even Warhol's abandonment of hand-painting in favor of silk-screening ("Warhol's duplication aesthetic") is an artful social critique: "Derived directly from the economics of mass production, Warhol's aesthetic also captures the spirit of the nascent age of automation . . . which places no value on originality or uniqueness in an image's facture or design."

And I wonder how many other art historians are so well-versed in the packaged-food industry that they are able to observe in passing, as Stich does, that "Campbell's condensed soup . . . exemplified the theory of production expansion. Within the company's first seven years, the original tomato soup of 1897 was augmented by 19 other varieties."

Soup or art, indeed!

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