Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Pop Art is Back to the Future

Today I am passing the blog over to our PhD student Kate Hall, she has written a review of the Pop Art Design Exhibition held at the Barbican, London over the winter.  Thank you Kate. 

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

Pop Art Design at the Barbican October 2103 – February 2014   

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If there was ever a period in art and design that was hard to ignore and whose influence would reverberate for decades, it was the Pop Art movement of the mid 20th century.  The rapidly developing mass media gave the movement the perfect platform from which art and design could reject everything that had gone before. This was an absolute “out with the old and in with the new.”

Image used by By Przykuta under a Creative Commons Attribution License, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pop Art Design show was mounted in collaboration with the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein in Southern Germany, in cooperation with Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk and Moderna Museet, Stockholm. So it was no surprise that the exhibition should draw on these and other private collections, the result, a distillation into a psychedelic, retro, shop style time warp presentation and celebration of the material culture of 20th century.

I caught the show on the last day and the crowds were still coming. The setting was the Barbican in London and it was buzzing with visitors on a Sunday afternoon, looking for a little culture, entertainment, somewhere to meet. Sitting in one of the many Cafés there, sipping my English Breakfast Tea and a huge piece of cake, costing an arm and a leg, looking out over a damp, grey East End with its old architecture sitting comfortably next to the new, my eyes were drawn to the white plastic seats and chairs that were set outside, for somewhat better weather. The Sussex Benches designed by Robin Day punctuated the terrace reminding me that the influence of Pop Art design was not just a passing phase but has repercussions that impact on so many contemporary artists and designers and a resonance that continues to filter through their work.

Barbican Terrace image by author

Pop Art, say the experts was the most important and influential movement of the post war era with its overtly controversial and dynamic dialogue between Art and Design.  This exhibition drew on some of the main protagonists; Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Judy Chicago with design objects by Charles Eames, George Nelson, Achille Castiglioni and Ettore Sottsass, names that read like a Pop Art Celebrity ‘A’ List.

Richard Hamilton, “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” Image by Ian Burt (oddsock via Flickr) under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

The objects selected for the show echoed the social and cultural shifting of the period with a host of examples that demonstrated the elevation of the everyday to iconic status. There was Warhol’s advertising of that soup and that famous American soda; the urbane, yet perfectly useful Tupperware containers, Lichenstein’s comic book parodies of an industrial, consumer oriented America through his instantly recognizable Ben-Day dot paintings. There was kitsch, there was bizarre, there were chairs that had became something else entirely, items that looked other-worldly, metaphor and symbol, politics and preposterous all woven into a marvelously colourful time capsule of the period.  

Andy Warhol. Image by Jack Mitchell, used under the Creative Commons Attribution License-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photo by Jack Mitchell. Source: Wikipedia

The Show’s gaze was not confined to Pop Art according to the US and UK but explored the wider inspirational reaches taking in continental Europe, especially Italy. It drew on an eclectic but carefully selected mix of sculpture, furniture, clothing, signs, advertising, film, computers, electronics; many constructed and created from new materials that were liberating both artists and designers of the era. The products and subjects were instantly recognizable such that a generation not yet born during the zenith of the movement, could identify with the objects and images without prompting but equally some challenging shapes and forms that prompted more than a few younger visitors to ask the inevitable “what’s that Dad?”

The 1960s and 1970s are seen as the highpoint of the Pop Art movement but the show also dipped into its conception in the late 1940s and its legacy drawing in contemporary artists such as Hume, Murakami, Opie and Koons.

Pratone seats. Image by Andrea Pavanello used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Wikepedia.

There was energy, vitality about the show, attracting all ages including those who actually remember the era, which probably means that they weren’t really there. It was a show for conversation, chatter, discourse and nobody asked you to keep the noise down. There was an assault on all your senses. The downside, as is often the case was that touching was prohibited, with the presence of the ever-vigilant stewards gliding from room to room, just in case.  Pop Art cries out “come and touch me”. “I’m really just very ordinary”.  But when the value on most of the objects there defied what for some commentators would be their trashy, cheap appearance, looking was all that you were allowed. I was left wondering how many of the now departed leading players would view their lofty positions in the annals of art / design history.

Plastic was pervasive, finding its natural home in the Pop Art époque and hurtled into the homes of the ordinary consumer as well as those of the collectors such as the almost now forgotten Leon Kraushar, who avariciously filled his homes with some of the best examples of the time.  

There was plastic everywhere and there were chairs, chairs that went beyond function and embraced the artistic statement. They had become the artist’s canvas.  There was an Allen Jones stool, part of his provocative Women as Furniture series (1969) with its strong sadomasochistic and fetishist overtones which parents were finding difficult to explain to their children; Charles and Ray Eames iconic chair, in bright red for maximum impact (1950); Gunnar Aagaard Andersen’s Portrait of My Mothers Chesterfield (1964) with its gothic grotesqueness but clearly showing Andersen’s embrace of new materials and new forms. 

Of course, I had to buy the book to accompany the exhibition/show. It wasn’t cheap but it was different. It blended art and design, it was brash, irresistible, colourful, eye-catching and the cover was made with plastic.  

Have I just summed-up the show? 
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