Pop art is a movement so ingrained in our cultural lexicon that it’s easy to feel that anything that’s been said about it or shown around it has been done before. The Year 7 art classes, the Andy Warhol handbags, the joylessly reproduced Lichtenstein-adorned kitchenware. For all their once-revolutionary aims, the movement had become if not boring, then so familiar that it feels unworthy of another glance. What a joy, then, to see that in fact we (or at least most of us) know nothing but the Marylin-faced tip of the pop art iceberg.
The Tate’s new bright, bold blockbuster of a show The World Goes Pop presents around 160 1960s and 1970s works from pop artists outside of the samey UK/US scenes we know so well. Pieces hail from Latin America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and show that the speech bubbles and consumerism we’re so well versed in has been translated into just as fascinating ends the world over, and by artists we’ve never encountered. It’s superb to discover them, and to shake us into a new and a far more respectful way of viewing the movement.
As we enter the show a huge lolling fabric tongue, hanging helplessly from its painted canvas face greets us. The work – Without Rebellion (1970) by Jerzy Ryszard “Jurry” Zieliński – is an apt hint at what awaits in the rest of the show. We get the pop art tropes we know, the strange sexualised-not-sexualised portraiture and bright colours, but in a way that feels totally new.
What really struck me about the show as a whole was its decidedly feminist angle. Perhaps this was because one of the largest rooms is painted a sickly sweet shade of bubblegum pink; but more likely it’s because the work on show refuses to tread the same frequently misogynist angles we’re used to in the pop art movement. These are cast aside, and instead we’re presented with a huge number of pieces either by women or with explicitly feminist concerns. That’s not to say there’s nothing of other more political bents; much of the work examines the unsettled political systems or conflicts of the artists’ homes, including the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Brazilian military dictatorship. Often the works merge these more serious reference points, such as in Colin Self’s Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber No. 2 (1963), a phallic bomb-like sculpture dressed up to the nines in Pat Butcher-esque leopard print. It’s a simple piece but an utterly brilliant one, succinctly commenting on that holy trinity of sex, war/death and consumerism.
Elsewhere, for us the political comments aren’t so effective (Icelandic artist Erró’s American Interior series for instance, or Equipo Realidad’s Vitruvian Man reworked into a US soldier, 1967’s Divine Proportion). But while war is ever-present, the feminist narrative is even more so. In contrast to the man’s world we thought we knew of the pop art we thought we knew, a huge amount of work selected by the curators was created by powerful women, and not just in the cut-and-pasted boobs-and-hoovers way of the more obvious pieces of the show. Works like Nicola L’s Woman Sofa (1968) and Ruth Francken’s Man Chair are such a welcome relief from the recently ubiquitous pouts of Allen Jones’ work it’s tempting to jump onto the platform and snuggle right into them. Our woman here is utterly desexualised, flat and hilarious; not something for men or indeed anyone to sit atop, gently titillated.
Another surprise, not just for its feminist content, but for its form, was Cornel Brudascu’s installation. Taking over one entire room, the work by the Slovakian artist is as welcoming as it is superb and baffling: a huge pinkish light settles over enormous female silhouettes, and holds a delicious tactility. Entitled Kandarya-Mahadeva, the work refers to a temple in India, and sucks up the tantra and Hinduism associated with it and spits it out with a bright, clean-lined pop art petulance.
The exhibition presents pop art less as the predominantly wall-hung work we’re used to and more as a series of shared ideas and explorations. Animations, canvas works, mixed media, found object work and installations in often huge form make the show feel big and overwhelming. It’s exciting being presented with all these new, unfamiliar names and modes of working: it feels raw and bold. The work is at times scrappily constructed to render it almost like a pantomime prop (Fly Swatter, for example) but this isn’t such a bad thing. In many instances it feels utterly appropriate for the movement the exhibition celebrates, mixing high and low culture, the pedestrian world of domesticity and the flashiness of the movies, sex and death and vacuum cleaners. What the show achieves above all else is to make us excited about pop art again. Now where do I get a Kiki Kogelnik iPhone case printed?
The World Goes Pop runs from 17 September – 24 January 2016
Tate asked us to add our favourite pop art-inspired contemporary works to a dedicated Pinterest board. Have a look here
Kiki Kogelnik: Bombs in Love, 1962
: Valentine, 1966
Photo: Paul Louis
© Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.