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Jim Nutt, “She’s Hit” (1967). Enamel on wood and plexiglass, with wood frame, 36 x 24 inches. (all images courtesy

Maybe the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Sinister Pop should be titled Discarding Pop. And by that I mean Pop as a label that implies a common mindset rather than a common set of tools.

We create narratives in order to codify and comprehend a disparate and often random series of events. The narrative of the art of the 1960s is that Pop came about in reaction to the self-aggrandizing drama of postwar abstraction. The paintings that ensued were light, ironic and fun, relying upon the techniques of graphic design and the mass media to get their point across.

It was never so simple, of course. The sinister side of Pop has been on the radar from the start, and a quick perusal of any survey of the movement — Lucy Lippard’s Pop Art (Praeger, 1966), Barbara Haskell’s Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance 1958-1964 (the catalogue of a 1984 Whitney exhibition) or Hal Foster’s Pop (Phaidon, 2005) — will yield a sizable harvest of dark, even gruesome imagery.

The conventional opposition of abstraction and Pop has revolved around what Guy Debord termed “detournement,” or “the re-use of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble,” in his essay “Detournement as Negation and Prelude,” which opens the book Post-Pop Art (MIT, 1989), edited by Paul Taylor.

Abstraction, the story goes, has forged ahead with the creation of new forms (be it Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism) while Pop was content with reusing old ones.

Debord acknowledges detournement’s “negligible effort” even as he commends the “peculiar power” that it derives from investing new meanings into previously established forms. Still, there is an air of resignation to the proceedings:

At this point in the world’s development, all forms of expression are losing all grip on reality and being reduced to self-parody.

The “parodic-serious,” as Debord calls it, “expresses the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of bringing together and carrying out a totally innovative collective action”:

An era in which the greatest seriousness advances masked in the ambiguous interplay between art and its necessary negation; in which the essential voyages of discovery have been undertaken by such astonishingly incapable people.

The Whitney show is an immensely enjoyable affair that adds little to what we already know about the art of the 1960s, but by highlighting the sinister, it also underscores the despair, even nihilism, of the period and elucidates Debord’s “ambiguous interplay between art and its necessary negation.”

Jim Nutt’s profoundly insane “She’s Hit,” Judith Bernstein’s scabrous “L.B.J.” and “Vietnam Garden,” Peter Saul’s lurid “Saigon” and Karl Wirsum’s multi-paneled grotesquerie, “Untitled (Study for The Hairy Who Sideshow comic book page)” — all from 1967, the year preceding the Tet Offensive — might be viewed by Debord as examples of “self-parody” with no appreciable real-world effect.

Judith Bernstein, “L.B.J.” (1967). Newspaper, fabric, found paper, charcoal, oil stick, steel wool, and tape on paper, 26 5/8 × 40 inches, irregular.

This assessment, though harsh, is hard to argue with. The visual art of the 1960s may have added a bit of verve to the antiwar protests, but it was a vast social and political movement that brought American involvement in Vietnam to an end.

As the Pop era recedes in memory, the aesthetic terrain staked out by its images takes increasing precedence over the once contentious debate over their mass-market sources (comics, advertising, and illustration). And with this shift we can see more clearly that Pop is a link in a chain that stretches from the interwar years, primarily the prints of Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, to the artists who persisted in societal and political critique in the decades that followed the end of the Vietnam War.

For the artists along this chain (and the list is endless), the reuse of pre-existing forms is an anchor to history (contradicting Debord’s assertion that “all forms of expression are losing all grip on reality”) as well as a means of presenting the familiar while taking a sledgehammer to it.

If the artists of the 1960s — in addition to those already mentioned, the exhibition’s standouts include Lee Lozano, Lee Bontecou, Paul Thek, Richard Lindner, William Eggleston, Roslyn Drexler, Nancy Grossman, Joel Meyerwitz, Bill Owens, Christina Ramberg, Christo, Billy Al Bengston, May Stevens and Jasper Johns — were raging against the status quo (both sociopolitical and aesthetic), they also seem to be quaking at the realization of their own impotence.

By recognizing “the near impossibility of bringing together and carrying out a totally innovative collective action” as citizens of the world, they nevertheless persevered in a futility of their own creation. In other words, in a political system that continually undermined their usefulness and marginalized their production, they were making art for the sheer hell of it. And that’s the heat they pack today.

Sinister Pop continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 31, 2013.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.

One reply on “Art for the Hell of It: The Sinister Side of Pop”

  1. When one engages in the kind of self-parody that these pop artists were, do they excuse themselves and their work from even trying to have a real world impact, such as “ending the war?”

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