DURHAM, North Carolina — Long associated with the transatlantic axis of cultural production between the United Kingdom and the United States, Pop Art’s genealogy has seldom been considered a hemispheric enterprise. Pop América 1965-1975, currently at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, between runs at the McNay Museum in San Antonio, Texas, and the Block Museum in Evanston, Illinois, seeks to revise this narrow perception. Featuring nearly 100 works of art from artists and creators in Latin America and its diasporas, the exhibition builds on the Tate Modern’s 2015-16 The World Goes Pop as it intervenes in long-held conceptions of Pop Art’s geographic consolidations. Coupling iconic mainstays of Pop, like Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, with the vanguard prints of Peruvian Emilio Hernández Saavedra, the ravaged sculpture of Argentine Marta Minujín, and the apopolyptic mixed-media paintings of Cuban Luis Cruz Azaceta, the exhibition elucidates mass media’s transcultural referents and generates an amplified understanding of the onomatopoeic pop(ular).
Pop América’s centerpiece is the side-by-side display of Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 “Explosion” and Hugo Rivera Scott’s 1968 “Pop América.” Lichtenstein’s signature comic book blast rendered with bold lines and Benday dots emblematizes obliteration. It’s his rumination on the knock-out punch Pop was serving up to Abstract Expressionism and a very real meditation on the near-miss of nuclear annihilation intimated by the Crisis de Octubre/Cuban Missile Crisis of the same year. Scott’s Lichtenstein-conversant work appears more whimsical. Originally intended as the cover of Eduardo Parra’s unpublished book of poems by the same name, the cardboard collage is more splat than boom, more whimper than bang. The word “Pop” in blue and white, 3-D font hovers atop a burst of red and seems only a centrally situated backdrop to the negative cloud-shaped relief that hosts the ironically plucky cursive “américa” overlaid in the foreground. The difference between the two works is tonal, both in hue and timbre. The shared shapes, revolutionary impulse, and transnational transit between the two works (both traveled internationally), however, set a tone for what permeates seemingly isolated frames.
If Pop Art’s standard characteristics reside in commercial precision — all isotopic lines and Campbell’s soup cans, Benday dots and discrete parts — then Pop América’s intervention is a messy one. At every level, the exhibition draws our attention to what cannot be contained, what ebbs and flows, what seeps through.
At times, this intercession is leveled at the human body, as in Nova Figuração artist Antonio Dias’s Super 8 meta 1973 film Tbe Illustration of Art, which superimposes a typographical white X over a deteriorating wound bandaged with gauze and adhesive medical tape stuck in the same X shape. Through a series of waning focuses, the grainy footage, interspersed with blurry fades and cross cuts, culls a graphic hapticity by alternating between the illustration of the “X” and the increasingly bloodied bandage — a gesture to the subcutaneous, and a kind of filmic thaumatrope.
A purveyor of Brazil’s Tropicalismo movement, Antônio Henrique Amaral alludes to the modernist notion of the “anthropophagic cannibalism,” in which Brazil would dismember and regurgitate its settler-colonial culture for its would-be truest essence. In a 1967 portfolio of multicolored woodcut prints, O meu e o seu: impressões de nosso temo (Mine and Yours: Impressions of Our Time), a madonna portends both religious iconocity and the seriality of Brazil’s literatura de cordel (string literature): slim, cheap woodcut quartos of poetry, news, and folk histories hawked from a clothesline-like display. In one print, a woman sits at a bistro table, brown, bare-breasted, and rife for extraction. From either side of the frame, two disembodied white hands — bearing a woman’s bracelets and manicured nails from left; a man’s shirt sleeve and suit coat cuff from right — palpitate her chest. The madonna clutches a pilsner glass in prayer, a presumed receptacle for her pink outpourings — neither the color of blood nor breastmilk. She wears a triple-decker, angular virgin’s veil. St. Paul wrote that a woman ought to have “authority over her own head, because of the angels.” Here that symbol of present power is the myriad open mouths that bedeck the angled mantle. Camouflaged to look like lace toile, they are thick-lipped, with teeth bared, tongues protruding, keen. Our weeping woman is wide-eyed, intensely gendered, and ripe for popular consumption.
In other works, the contamination is ecological or economic. A sampling of Nicolás García Uriburu’s print series Colorations reiterates his 1968 action on the eve of the Venice Biennale when he dyed the city’s canals green with a non-toxic tracer. This was, according to Uriburu, “Art on a Latin American scale,” meant to draw attention to the interconnected ravages of water pollution. In the accompanying prints the Kelly green pollutes everything from Iguazú Falls to a man’s denuded member. Then there’s Cildo Miereles’s 1970 Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project in which he silkscreened recipes for Molotov cocktails and slogans like “Yankee go home” camaflouged almost imperceptibly onto glass Coke bottles and recirculated them through the routes of insidious neocolonial consumption.
Artists from the infrastructurally rich art scenes of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil hold major real estate in the museum’s galleries. Cuba, Mexico, and the riches of the California-landed diaspora also make good showings. Absent are artists from Ecuador and Bolivia, and much of the Central American scene. In the age of repressive military coups in Argentina and the ill-fated junta in Brazil, Pinochet’s power grab in Chile and Castro’s queer concentration camps in Cuba, perhaps these countries represent prescient political landscapes.
At its best Pop América, however, verges on disrupting borders. From Third World Liberation movements and interracial intimacies to lived and aestheticized experiences of exile and diaspora, the exhibition showcases what remnants and resonances — improbably, imperceptibly, spectrally, or spectacularly — gets through.
Pop América continues at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina) through July 21. The exhibition is curated by Esther Gabara.