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Palm Springs Art Museum takes glee in 'Pop! Goes the Humor'

The artists' whimsy is illustrated in an exhibition that includes works by Red Grooms and Andy Warhol.

June 23, 2012
  • Red Grooms, "Cedar Bar," 1987, photographic reproduction and lithograph.
Red Grooms, "Cedar Bar," 1987, photographic reproduction… (Palm Springs Art Museum )

No artists were more serious than the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. Even the word "school" carries with it something stiff and formal. Pop art, by way of contrast, was anything but solemn. If it could even be labeled a school, it would be of the variety for delinquents.

"Pop! Goes the Humor," a new exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum (through Oct. 7), gleefully illustrates the theme of artists who don't take themselves too seriously. Originating in Britain in the 1950s, Pop really flourished in the U.S. in the following decade. To judge by this show, at least, Pop artists were less concerned with social or political satire than with poking fun at one another or challenging the hierarchies of the art world.

Red Grooms, for example, is represented by a couple of playfully mocking lithographs. One is a caricature of the Cedar Bar, the famous New York School watering hole where Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and their brethren are displayed drinking and smoking and generally looking more like a bunch of sad barflies than philosopher-artists of modern angst.

The other Grooms work is a three-dimensional cut-out (something like a child's pop-up book) of Picasso and his studio. In the foreground stands a shirtless Picasso, next to one of his trademark owls; the background is a prolific display of paintings. It's a whimsical depiction of the artist surrounded by his own whimsical creations.

The show, drawn from the museum's permanent collection, ranges from Jim Dime's reverently hand-painted etchings of mundane implements (a spoon, pliers) to Andy Warhol's neon-coloring of Chairman Mao.

Like the Abstract Expressionists who came up with signature styles — whether it was a zip painting or a single, massive brush stroke — Pop artists generally strive for an individualized, recognizable motif. In David Gilhooly's case it's frogs. His sculptures recast iconicimages — such as a meditating Buddha or a heroic Prince Arthur — with green amphibians in the starring role.

But even in this class there's a clown. That would be Robert Arneson, whose self-portraits delight in his own bald, flabby, bearded face, one close-up of which shows him picking his nose. Even when Arneson veers away from his favorite subject he can't help turning art-historical conventions on their head. What could be less elegant than a hallowed Greek vase? Arneson's sculpture, "Rat Krater," suggest an answer: a drinking bowl with a large rat scurrying about.

— Michael J. Ybarra

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