MINNEAPOLIS — We do not know what we do not know. That is precisely what the Walker Art Center’s exhibition International Pop makes clear — how much, heretofore, we did not know about the scope and practice of Pop art. International Pop makes clear, with a stern wag of the finger, that Pop art is not only about artists working in New York City and London, whose source material included objects of consumerist popular culture, images gleaned from print media, television, and the world of fashion, usually gussied up in high-keyed, polychromed presentations. Rather, International Pop reveals with a deft voice that Pop was a global affair, as much culture as art, with active participants in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and elsewhere. With nearly synchronous timing, these artists shrugged off the authority of abstraction and ushered in the resurgence of the figure, the force of recognizable objects, the camera as a recording device, and the far reaches of performance and happenings as viable art making strategies.
International Pop challenges the notion that Pop was a singular movement at all, suggesting instead that the term and practice did not mean the same thing everywhere and that it is more germane to think of Pop as a global cultural phenomena, one that was heterogeneous and open-ended. For artists outside of New York and London, Pop art was a political vehicle or a response to their specific environment, and they criticized American Pop art for its thin focus on consumerist culture and its lack of political weight. The one constant is the movement’s timeline — Pop emerged in the mid 1950s, took hold in the ’60s as it rode the wave of the immense cultural and generational shifts of that decade, only to retreat by the early ’70s with the rise of conceptual art.
The Walker’s exhibition is expansive, featuring some 140 pieces by over 100 artists from 14 countries, and it requires stamina to understand the relationships between the Pop artists’ motivations and the resultant works. It is a resonant mix of ideas, images, messages, and materials that collectively demonstrate how provocative the artists were in their determination and message.
The show is punctuated by well-known examples of US Pop art such as Jasper Johns’s “Painted Bronze (Ale Cans)” (1960/64), Roy Lichtenstein’s “Look Mickey” (1961), Marisol’s “Dinner Date” (1963), Ed Ruscha’s “Standard Station, Amarillo Texas” (1963), and Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair (Red)” (1964), to name a few. But understanding these works in the context of so many rarely exhibited international works gives the show its intellectual heft. Similarities and differences are magnified as seminal Pop favorites are seen alongside works by artists aligned with Nouveau Réalisme (France), Concretism and Neo-Concretism (Brazil), the Art of Things (Argentina), Anti-Art (Japan), Capitalist Realism (Germany), Happenings, and Neo-Dada. Widely held definitions of and assumptions about Pop art shift, sometimes dramatically.
Other rewards include seeing how the 1966 painting “Sorry About That” by the US Rosalyn Drexler, with its black-suited figures tumbling in empty space, presages the work of Robert Longo in the 1980s — and Don Draper in Mad Men. Or how Warhol’s “Sixteen Jackies” (1964) broadens the narrative of the black-on-white silhouette painting “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” (1962–63) by the Italian Sergio Lobardo. Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s “War is Over!” (1969), represented here as a small work on paper, was conceived as a billboard that held forth in ten cities across eight countries, and plays nicely with other works featuring political and military themes such as the Brazilian Claudio Tozzi’s panel painting “Usa e Abusa” (“Uses and Abuses”) (1966) or the Argentine León Ferrari’s suspended sculpture of Christ crucified onto the bottom of a US Air Force jet replete with bombs, “La civilization occidental y Cristiana” (“The Western, Christian Civilization”) (1965).
International Pop also features numerous sexual and erotic works, some of which seem heavy-handed by 21st-century standards, like the American Marjorie Strider’s relief panel painting, “Triptych II, Beach Girl” (1963). It depicts a bikini-clad femme fatale in 3–D voluptuousness that alternately seems tasteless or silly — in spite of its scale or possible social commentary — and adds little value to the exhibition. More provocative is David Hockney’s painting “The Room, Tarzana” (1967). Here a man lies face down on a bed wearing only a shirt and socks as sunlight streams through an open window. The Belgian Evelyne Axell’s painting “Ice Crème” (1964) is perhaps the iconic Pop image — a close-up of a girl licking an ice cream cone, rendered in a rainbow of bold colors. Two paintings by the Brazilian Wanda Pimental from her Untitled — Série Envolvimento (“Untitled — Involvement Series”) (1968) are not only provocative but mysteriously sensual. We peer into spatially abstract and flattened interiors, executed in saturated hues of crimson and green — the palette is critical to the reading of these paintings, because their surfaces are so flat and so intensely colored that it heightens the works’ sexual tension — to spy the legs of someone who might be speaking on the telephone or chatting through a partially closed door. (Two other brilliantly hued, flat, and graphic works are a pair of watercolors on canvas by Okamoto Shinjrō titled “One Little Indian” and “Two Little Indians” from his 1964 series Ten Little Indian, which look like they could be from a Simpsons cartoon — albeit a very controversial one.)
The Walker has gathered an array of Pop-related and contemporaneous ephemera including photographs and media clippings, from the 1969 Moon landing to Abbie Hoffman protesting the Vietnam War, and small works on paper and videos. One highlight is a black-and-white photo from 1965 of the Velvet Underground with Nico, Lou Reed, John Cale, and others, including their manager (Warhol). One especially relevant part of Pop history highlighted here is the role the museum played, under the directorship of Martin Friedman, chronicling the movement on an international level with the 1964 show New Art of Argentina, 1965’s London: The New Scene, and the 1966 exhibition Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, all documented in photographs in International Pop.
The show’s installation is not only shrewd but provocative, and was no doubt a logistical nightmare. Covering every available inch of three galleries, it never seems crowed and continually pushes works by one group of artists into dialog with others. The hefty, well-illustrated catalogue, with its mint-green edged pages, is an important resource on Pop and its time period. The first 63 pages consist of “A Visual Chronology,” which fleshes out the era from a global perspective, beginning in 1944, through extensive but concise entries of texts and images covering global events and key personalities. Space limitations aside, having such a chronology in the galleries would have been very useful.
Organized by the Walker’s chief curator Darsie Alexander, in partnership with curatorial assistant Bartholomew Ryan — both of whom have since left the museum — International Pop exemplifies what the museum does best. As an institution, it takes an unknown or an under-recognized thesis, or one not yet registering on the art world radar, and drills deep to create a full-blown, intellectually grounded, and visually stimulating exhibition. An added treat is International Pop Cinema, a schedule of five one-hour film programs screening daily and including works by Nam June Paik, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Manfred Kuttner, George Kuchar, Derek Boshier, Warhol, and others.
It’s hard to find fault with International Pop. It is a stellar show that is required viewing for anyone interested in Pop art and culture, or who remembers the 1960s, from the Vietnam war and the Moon landing to Sgt. Pepper’s, and hopes to understand how complex, layered, and global Pop was.
International Pop continues at the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota) through August 29. It will then travel to the Dallas Museum of Art (October 11, 2015–January 17, 2016) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (February 18–May 15, 2016).