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ART REVIEW : 'Pop': Reminder of an Offbeat Celebration

July 29, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

SANTA BARBARA — The Pop '60s were important. After all, how many modern periods have been nicknamed for an art movement? Liberal and libertine, the decade said "yes" to everything, including the idea that everything is art and art is for the people.

We're reminded of all that by "Printed Pop," a searching show of about two dozen oversize prints at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Organized by curator Diana du Pont, it inhabits a handsome new graphics gallery.

Nothing better embodied the notion of Pop populism than the revival of the craft of printmaking, with June Wayne's Tamarind lithography workshop in Los Angeles leading the way. The idea was that printmaking's ability to produce multiple originals would bring prices within the reach of ordinary people. For a while it actually worked. Ed Ruscha's now classic "Standard Station" image could once be had for $75. Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe suite was $500.

Pop dealt in cliches and produced some great ones of its own, like Warhol's soup cans and Lichtenstein's war comics images. But cliches are always with us and thus seem eternally current, if not exactly fresh. "Printed Pop," drawn entirely from the permanent collection, has a cast of images sufficiently offbeat to bring the epoch back alive like some half-forgotten ditty from your high school prom.

Pop was a tongue-in-cheek celebration of everyday America, its history as well as its ephemeral present. Jasper Johns' "Souvenir" wafts suggestions of old 19th-Century fool-the-eye barroom paintings that accidentally predicted both Assemblage and collage. Robert Indiana's "Number 5" welds grass-roots barn emblems to the poetry of William Carlos Williams.

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A flower-child sweetness hid behind Pop. Lichtenstein's picture of a drugstore lunch counter sandwich and Coke has the crooked smile of nostalgia. Tom Wesselmann's collage of Valentine cards is even more tenderly funny. It takes its title from a heart-shaped paper doily bearing the motto, "Macy's has loved you for 100 years."

Sometimes real anger slipped out. Even Warhol's fey facade could not conceal his outrage in "Birmingham, Race Riot, 1964."

Pop was later characterized as a species of smug aesthetic American isolationism. It didn't feel like that either then or in this exhibition. It evidences an open embrace that intended to include both a new audience and new places. The period marked Los Angeles' first day in art's larger sun.

Ruscha's ongoing international importance is suggested. His "Drops" depicts that word spelled out with illusionistic water and is a good example of the way he grafted the zing of native ad art to the insights of Surrealism.

If the Pop spirit gave Angeltown its first crack at the big time, it positively revived London. David Hockney became its updated Noel Coward and moved here, creating an interesting new aesthetic hybrid. His "Wind," showing little photographs blowing along Melrose Avenue, reminds one of Joe Goode.

The opposite also happened. The American R. B. Kitaj settled in London to craft a subspecies of brainy Pop. His images look as if they were researched in the British Museum and pay homage to English pluck during the Blitz.

Like the Beatles and the Stones, Peter Phillips picked up a lot of Yankee Pop argot. He crafted it into images like "Crash" with its metal-flake car and tinfoil babe. They are as unshakably locked into their time frame as the classic Ford Thunderbird.

Things stay frozen in time. People don't have to. Many of the artists here have evolved since. The general direction for people like Malcolm Morley, Jim Dine, Kitaj and Ruscha has been toward a sadder-but-wiser form of humanism. The suggestion is that Pop, for all its postures of cool airheadedness, was always on the side of the angels.

* Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara, through Nov. 27, (805) 963-4364, closed Mondays.

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