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PARIS — Pop Art: Icons that Matter is a geezer wasteland that reprehensibly reinforces many Ugly American stereotypes that fuel the anti-Americanism being reinvigorated in France. This sentiment is being revived by a loud, arrogant, white, sexist, racist American president who reportedly never reads or works on a computer, but watches hours of television a day, drinks around 12 Diet Cokes and chows down Big Mac cheeseburgers for dinner while endlessly talking on the telephone with friends — how Andy of him! This exhibition, culled from the collection of the Whitney Museum, of post-war American Pop Art from the ‘60s to the ‘70s, and then later, the 1980s Neo-Pop art of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, et al, greased the chute for the price-porn piggies and their abuse of art as a luxury/lifestyle/investment device that has been lately deforming culture as never before.
The usual white male suspects are present, including Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, Alex Katz, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, John Wesley, and Jasper Johns (the latter, the most elegant artist among them). Their rise in the 1960s perfectly echoed the banal consumer society that exploded as the post-war economy prospered. They, as all Pop artists, typically represented everyday objects and the signs of popular mass culture through representational techniques used by advertisers and comic strip commercial artists. Pop Art — like Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude #57” (1964) and Mel Ramos’s lithograph “Tobacco Rhoda” (1965), both obvious sexist commodifications of women as objects of consumption — is known for its supposed easy accessibility and ease of reproduction. So it is more than ironic that no photographs of them, or any of the art in this show, are permitted.
If compared to pop music of the same two decades, Pop Art lacks much in terms of diversity, even after the promising curator of the show, David Breslin, inserted interesting but minor female Pop artists May Stevens, Chicago Imagist painter Christina Ramberg, and artist and writer Rosalyn Drexler. By contrast, consider the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It gave a major platform for six women (Grace Slick, Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips, Laura Nyro, Beverley Martyn, and Janis Joplin) and had far more racial diversity than that on view at this show, with appearances by Otis Redding (backed by Booker T. & the M.G.’s), The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hugh Masekela, and Ravi Shankar. It also staged The Who, who effectively mocked pop culture that same year. Also, pop music was immensely more counter-cultural and important in terms of supporting anti-prejudice positions and taking an urgent anti-Vietnam War stance.
By contrast, Pop Art did not then, and does not now, matter — because it has never been a site of cultural resistance. (Being ironic does not make a difference.) Rather, American Pop Art has been a scene of authoritarianism rooted in an affirmation of top-down corporate affluence. As such, it is zombie representational, and there is no need to imaginatively interact with most of it. There is nothing to stir our responsibility to look or help us to take back our minds from the pose of uninvolved spectator. Within Pop Art the passive viewer is not asked to re-appropriate her capacity to see on a personal basis. Indeed, in front of most Pop Art, one does not feel oneself in the state of first-person singular. Really, it is art directed against the sense of private self. The feeling here, for me, was that Pop Art’s corporate model was the art movement that started narrowing the noose of powerlessness for most intelligent and sensitive artists and art critics.
At Musée Maillol there were large, gawking crowds but no one seemed immersed in their own realm of reverie. This is because Pop Art is more like a visual imposition at this point. It is more discursive than affective, more dogmatic than enigmatic. Indeed, its lack of intricate mystery seems to limit the possibilities of interpretation, since there is little that is overlapping or interlaced that requires mental elasticity to disentangle. With the exception of the beautiful Andy Warhol “Electric Chair” silkscreen from 1971 (from his efficacious Electric Chair series) there are almost no vague forms that compete with the ground. When I noticed this, it occurred to me that this maintaining of the conventional figure/ground distinction was culturally clueless at the time from the point of view of counter-cultural calculations. According to the epoch-defining psychedelic experience and the Upanishads, a book that many culturally enlightened folks were reading, our universe is made up of consciousness playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek.
Both Dine’s “Black Shovel #2” (1962) and “Double Isometric Self Portrait (Serape)” (1964) are non-empathetic. Like much of ‘60s art beyond Pop, they do not offer much of a way for viewers to experience their own powers to imaginatively project feelings and perceptions onto the art object. There is nothing suggesting needing the viewer’s efforts to create a psychic engagement with the art outside of a relationship of passive consumption. This point may be best exemplified by Ed Ruscha’s painting “Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights” (1962) that reeks of the accustomed immediate and bright platitudes of the corporate logo. Warhol’s “Nine Jackies” (1964) is the best “painting” in the show with actual emotional depth, but his notorious vulgar provocation that “good business is the best art” plays right into the simulation conformity that is so culturally inert. Katz’s repulsive “Alex” (1968) perfectly focuses the mind on the investment mindset of collectors and the bullish trend in the contemporary art market that has changed the entire art world for the worse. Collectors who buy art because they like it are being crowded out by wealthy investment bankers who buy art to invest. Contemporary artists feel increasing pressure to play into the market in order to “succeed” so we have now a plethora of self-mythologizing artists who try to advance their careers by playing to the mass media and by creating corporate-like signature brands.
Only the darker, more indeterminate art of Robert Rauschenberg — here represented with merely one lithograph “Landmark” (1968) — challenges with some no-logo savoir-faire that pop regime of seeing. Actually, “Landmark” is not as good of an example of this as his “Surface Series from Currents” lithograph series (1970) not featured in this show, because those prints are somber and densely rhizomatic. They are concurrently layered images that suggest a connected (if ruined) communication system, rather than celebrating a fully functional one as most Pop Art does. In Rauschenberg’s rendering of our media society, one sees the “pop” where a bubble explodes into noise and where information and meaning implodes into pure effect losing original content or meaning. Rauschenberg’s prints demand a different kind of looking, akin to the aggregated viewpoints of Cubism or simultaneously watching many televisions tuned into different channels. With Rauschenberg, there is no obvious hierarchy of images to scan and unpack. There is no unpacking. Thus the trajectory of visual exploration is of our own choosing.
So his is an anti-pop visual pleasure where everything feels equally connected to the ground and to everything else. It invites the viewer into the position of an active visualizing participant and thus provides a legitimate metaphor for art as a form of Pop-shattering engagement. Very little else in Pop Art: Icons that Matter rewards the inner (private) human condition or resists the social/political/commercial spectacle that tries to consume it.