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Tate Modern’s Absorbing but Haphazard Look at Global Pop Art

Joan Rabascall, "Atomic Kiss "(1968)
Joan Rabascall, “Atomic Kiss” (1968) (all images courtesy of Tate Modern unless noted)

LONDON — Tate Modern mounted its last Pop art show, Pop Life: Art in a Material World, in 2010. So why is it now showing The World Goes Pop, another survey of this genre? First, the gallery has recently found success in a string of immensely popular exhibitions that are both curatorially sound and family friendly: 2011’s Juan Miró, 2013’s Roy Lichtenstein and Paul Klee, and Matisse’s Cut-Outs and Malevich from 2014 presented collections of work that were characteristically large-scale and brightly colorful, which all went down extremely well with the ticket-buying public. Pop art by nature is bold, easily and instantly received, and, well, popular. In The World Goes Pop, the importance attached to color on a large scale even extends to the gallery walls, which are painted bright red, yellow, and purple.

But what of the content? While the 2010 show had Jeff Koons’s steel rabbit sculpture on its publicity material, basing its survey firmly within America and less in the UK, The World Goes Pop instead seeks to examine how this Western art brand — both stylistically and literally the brands it featured — was absorbed and utilized by artists in other countries as a language of protest specific to their own interests. Like the eye-wateringly punchy wall colors, here is a collection of bold, immediate works from artists you’ve probably never heard of in an absorbing, if haphazard, presentation. Unlike the sleek creations of the US, which veered dangerously close to becoming the capitalism-worshipping commodities they originally lampooned, these global efforts express a political urgency that the methods and style of Pop art facilitated very well.

The opening room sets out the show’s cause with a microcosm of what is to come, including pieces from Spain, Poland, Japan, Brazil, and some wider globally relevant examples. This grouping alone pretty much fulfills the brief that the Tate has set itself, with each work demonstrating a staggeringly potent statement of political stance. Polish artist Jerzy Zielinski’s “Without Rebellion” (1970) is a giant face with 3D tongue lolling onto the floor, shot through with a stake, its eyes made from the national symbol of the eagle, composed simply from a cropped close-up of contrasting green and red eyes in flat block color, tongue and nostrils bright against pale pink skin. The piece is a clear and effective commentary on the cessation of freedom of speech under Poland’s communist regime, and Pop Art proves a most efficient and stark method for communicating this idea.

Ushio Shinohara, "Doll Festival" (1966) (image courtesy of Tate Modern)
Ushio Shinohara, “Doll Festival” (1966)

Elsewhere, Ushio Shinohara’s collage “Doll Festival” (1966) updates a traditional Japanese festival which encouraged young girls’ growth and development into a glowing cartoon sequence featuring cut plastics and a plethora of Western motifs, with cowboy hats appearing amid the geisha hair. There is a rough-and-ready quality, with jagged edges of the plastic and imperfect black cartoon lines — it’s a meeting between the industrial cartoon process and the error of manual intervention.

The Spanish collective Equipo Cronica’s 1969 commentary on the Franco regime, “El Realismo Socialista y el Pop Art en el Campo de Batalla,” features a speech bubble emerging from El Greco filled with a wide array of cultural references interspersed with imagery of the Red Army guards and direct quotes from American Pop Art: Lichtenstein-style VOOMP! explosions and Warhol’s Campbell soup can among them. Even Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino’s “Glu Glu Glu” (1966) comments on the subjectivity of women in the age of mass culture using three-dimensional soft, glossy, floppy protrusions characteristic of Claes Oldenburg. It’s clear from these examples how Pop Art was seized as an instant facilitator of quick construction and reception for getting the point heard loudly, while simultaneously referencing so many diverse cultural motifs as to reflect an increasing global, chaotic, and overpowering visual language. Contrary to the optimism — or faux-optimism, depending on the artwork — of much Western Pop Art, what comes across here is a terrifyingly bleak summary of the international state of things in the 1960s and 1970s.

Evelyne Axell, "Valentine" (1966)
Evelyne Axell, “Valentine” (1966) (click to enlarge)

That Tate has set has itself such a wide scope for analysis — several decades across several countries and several political viewpoints — that it negates any possibility of a cohesive thread or theme running through the show. Efforts to create groupings are defied by the range of highly individual causes being addressed and are at times clunky: a section labeled “Folk Pop” examines “the mass-produced versus the local and homespun,” including Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli’s mashups of everyday functionality with the idea of high art in his traditional woven carpets. The meeting of high and low art forms here arguably defines Pop art itself — including American Pop art — and applies to every other artwork in the exhibition; to then add a further category of “Folk Art” is superfluous. In addition, the section is there by definition to show global examples distinct from American ones, so it seems a bit misjudged for it to contain pieces by American feminist Judy Chicago. Although perhaps the Tate is making up for her glaring omission in its 2010 survey.

Surely Chicago would have fit better in the excellent feminism section of the exhibition, which explores artists such as the German Ulrike Ottiger, represented by her cutting “Female Mannequin – Legs Under Water” (1966), which fragments the feminine body into parts, or the Austrian Renate Bertlmann’s railings against a male-dominated society in the 1970s. Feminist pieces also pop up (no pun intended) in areas far from their allocated section. This happens repeatedly throughout the exhibit, with a great number of works that could fit into several category areas. Perhaps this is a result not only of the curatorial problems caused by such broad geographical and historical scope, but additionally of the nature of Pop Art itself: Its very method is to reuse cultural references from a wide range of sources, causing innumerable crossovers with one thing relating to many others. Pop art really is a global language, and as such it defies further categorization.

Kiki Kogelnik, "Bombs in Love" (1962) (click to enlarge)
Kiki Kogelnik, “Bombs in Love” (1962) (click to enlarge)

Some critics have argued that the works in this survey are lacking in quality. Compare Josef Jancovic’s “Private Manifestation” (1968), a rough-and-ready placard literally used at demonstrations in 1968 against the communist regime in Bratislava, to Koons’s sleek, shiny bunny from 2010: it is clear that quality is not one of Jancovic’s key aims, while Koons’s aesthetic signature is his hyper-seductive surfaces and sheen. Yet this is to miss the point being made by the exhibition that Pop art is a global language: Jancovic’s placard was meant for use at a rally where its aesthetics had the greatest charge, whereas Koons’s more traditional gallery settings are comparatively inert. This point is demonstrated by each work in its own powerfully individual way.

Pop art methods facilitate immediate communication of potent ideas with a visual style and content that can be received and understood by the masses. The World Goes Pop is thus an exhilarating collection filled with fizzing energy, and for this I can forgive its curatorial messiness. Pop art, by its nature, is deliberately unruly.

The World Goes Pop continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London) through January 24, 2016.

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