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ART | ESSAY

A critique of stinginess

Pop art has evolved, creating an ever more fertile fusion of high spirits and purposefully lowbrow aesthetic.

June 19, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Pop art is not what it used to be. What began with Andy Warhol in New York and Ed Ruscha in Los Angeles has grown up over the last 45 years, maturing into a style as sophisticated, refined and elegant as the best of Abstract Expressionism. Today, Fred Tomaselli's mind-bending melanges of pills and pictures, Sharon Ellis' artifice-laden landscapes and Marcelo Pombo's meticulously dripped paintings take Pop far beyond its humble beginnings.

Pop got its start by making fun of the platitudes that second- and third-generation Abstract Expressionism had settled into, mocking the increasingly popular movement's increasingly shrill insistence on gestural spontaneity, existential anxiety and psychological authenticity.

In a nutshell, popularity was a problem for Abstract Expressionism, which derived its significance and the core of its identity from not fitting into the culture around it. That led to a precarious foothold in the world and a case of old-fashioned elitism. In love with its otherness, Abstract Expressionism could not survive success.

Popularity was never a problem for Pop. Success is still Pop's stock in trade, its modus operandi and raison d'etre. Having changed the way the world looks, its influence extends across all levels of culture.

David Reed's abstract canvases draw equally on CinemaScope movies and Baroque painting, creating noir-tinged dramas suffused with smoldering sensuality. Philip Argent transforms the airless otherworldliness of virtual reality and the whiplash graphics of digital design into expansive images of breathless beauty and unsettling perfectionism.

From the beginning, Pop threw in its lot with the flash and glam of commercial culture. Broadly addressed to the populace rather than niche-marketed to a handful of cognoscenti, Pop had no problem with large audiences or with the unruliness that accompanied their love. Its artists used marketing techniques to make works in which easy-to-read emblems ridiculed the ideals of established art while serving up similar visual kicks. Pop criticized high art's exclusivity and privilege in the name of shopping -- of finding, or realizing, individual desires in mundane products and eventually cobbling together an identity out of mass-produced things made powerful because they were available to others and not private.

Ever since Romanticism, which followed the standardization that swept Europe during the Industrial Revolution, art's identity has been tied to its capacity to enable aficionados and fans to distinguish themselves from the masses, who are invariably disparaged for being uncouth, unschooled, uncool and vulgar. To snobs, being different meant being better than everyone else.

In contrast, Pop embraced sameness. It did not rely on specialists or put stock in specialness. Sticking to the superficial (but never simple) appearance of things, Pop required no experts to translate its deep inner meanings. Although detractors contended that its serial works were blase, Pop lived and died by its capacity to create the exhilarating sense that my excitement about something in no way diminishes your excitement about the same thing, and vice versa. Meaning was not a zero-sum game. Objects were not inert things to be accumulated, but transitory vehicles that function as lightning rods for talk, argument and (sometimes) writing. Pop sidestepped established hierarchies by proposing -- and delivering -- a world of voluntary participation and self-selective equality.

Because of its egalitarian ethos, Pop had a problem with opulence. In the '60s, opulence seemed old-fashioned and conservative. Pop concentrated on expanding the franchise of art, broadening the parameters of aesthetics by getting art out of the institutions in which it had been ghettoized. The battle left little room for refinement, and Pop's groundbreaking works were blunt. Lacking formal niceties, they borrowed the look of posters and trafficked in the renegade urgency of grass-roots social movements.

After 40 years, opulence is no longer a problem for Pop. Subtlety and sophistication are as much a part of it as brashness and vulgarity. Luxury and accessibility meet in Jorge Pardo's laser-cut lamps made of plywood, Lari Pittman's paintings of operatic comics and Polly Apfelbaum's flowers cut from swatches of tacky synthetic velvet. The civility of good manners mingles promiscuously with the characteristics of bad taste: garishness, excess, spectacle. Pop now embodies uptown eloquence, self-effacement and understatement, but always filtered through a downtown vocabulary of sleazy verve and boldness.

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