Sub Pop 

Despite its candy-coated allure, SLAM's Pop Impressions illustrates a movement gone sour

When Pop Impressions Europe/USA: Prints and Multiples from the Museum of Modern Art was exhibited in 1999 in New York, it barely registered on the art world's radar screen. Now it's at the St. Louis Art Museum, accompanied by three mini-exhibitions of pop works from the Museum's collections. "SLAM goes POP!" the exhibition materials scream in the familiar pop-art cartoon exploding imagery on a sassy silver background. Unfortunately, the exhibition itself doesn't live up to the excitement of the ads, and it appears that the show is destined to go out with the same kind of fizzle here that it generated in New York.

And why is that? How could an exhibition of pop art, one of the most appealing and accessible movements in recent art history, possibly be dull? It turns out that the reasons for Pop Impressions' flaccid effects are the most interesting part of the whole exhibition.

Pop Impressions is a collection of prints and other multiple productions by artists associated with the pop-art movement, from the late 1950s-early 1970s. Because mass production -- of images, of information, of commodities -- characterized both pop art's subject matter and its techniques, it seems logical and natural to want to focus on the role of printmaking and multiples within the practice. The visual result of this gesture, however, is disappointing.

The exhibition comes off as remarkably dull. Most of the prints are roughly the same size -- medium in scale -- and they're hung at eye level on the wall, framed behind glass. In some cases. the colors appear to have faded and the paper has begun to yellow. The sculptural multiples, by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and Jim Dine, are contained in glass cases and are quite small. In short, the exhibition is not exactly eye-popping.

Ironically, pop art itself is mostly to blame for our desire to be wowed visually. Pop artists were the first to be ironic, to make it OK to wallow in popular art, advertising, noisy colors and cheap-but-plentiful eye candy. But today, the only original pop art that manages to generate that original buzz is not the aging prints but the BIG, SHINY, OVERBLOWN stuff: big Andy Warhol paintings, oversized and overstuffed Oldenburg food sculptures, enormous James Rosenquist billboard-style imagery, and anything else with the cheap thrills of glitter and Mylar.

These are the aspects of pop art that still carry visual interest. And they're the ones that have proved to have the greatest influence on the postmodern progeny of the pop artists. Look at contemporary artists today to see pop's real legacy: It's in the impossibly seductive pink plastic shopping bags and fashion magazine takeoffs of Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury; it's in the oversized Day-Glo fantastic sculptures of Keith Edmeier; it's in the hypnotic paintings of artists such as Gary Hume; it's even in the brilliance of Madonna's decision to wrap her famous Sex book in shiny Mylar (Madonna knows, as Christo did, that items in wrappers invite you to unwrap them or just enjoy guessing what's underneath -- either way, it's a good time).

A purist might insist, however, that Pop Impressions represents the truth of pop art and, so, remains a worthwhile effort. Prints and multiples are, indeed, the crux of the matter for pop art: They're cheap and mass-producible, and they could be completed by someone other than the artist (the famous depersonalization achieved by Warhol et al). And historically, it is true, more artists turned to printmaking in the 1960s than in almost any era before or since. New print studios opened up; gallery owners decided to commission editions, which sold out almost immediately; and the sculptural versions of prints, the serial or multiple works, started to take off.

In describing the theory behind pop art and its relationship to mass production, many people who did their college homework appeal to Walter Benjamin's seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Though most readers admittedly can't make it through the whole thing (it does take a pretty good knowledge of Frankfurt School Marxism to keep up with Benjamin), they can usually glean one of the essay's major points: that in an age when art can be mechanically reproduced -- indeed, when some artworks exist in no other form than a reproducible one -- these works will be marked by a distinct lack of aura. The aura is the mark of the original, the unique, the iconic. The new art, according to Benjamin (he was mainly thinking of photography and cinema), will be liberated from that overwhelming sense of aura. It will be accessible, available and potentially revolutionary.

It would be easy to close the topic here, to point to the prints and multiples of pop artists and claim that they finally realized Benjamin's call to arms. But we all know that there was no such revolution. And the prints of the pop artists, now 30-plus years later, have taken on a new aura -- an aura of age, authority and fragility. They may have been reproducibles originally, but in this exhibition, they come off like unique objets d'art, set behind glass and hung sparingly about the galleries. In short, they make pop look passé.

In 1957, Richard Hamilton produced a proto-pop description of the emerging style: "Pop Art is Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low cost, Mass produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business." This litany just doesn't seem to describe the works in Pop Impressions. Interestingly enough, however, it does describe the reproductions of the works as they appear in the exhibition catalog, where they look brighter and saucier than the "originals," featured as they are in snazzy page layouts and sandwiched between seductive covers. It seems that the pop insistence on mass production has come full circle, and now the works can be properly experienced only in catalog reproductions.

But in addition to all of this, what else can we learn from Pop Impressions Europe/USA? A couple of points are worth mentioning. The exhibition is instructive as to the role Europeans played in the formation of the pop-art canon. In this country, the pop-art genealogy usually goes something like this: Marcel Duchamp to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Warhol and Lichtenstein and Oldenburg. This exhibition features the oft-overlooked works of the German capitalist realism group, which included Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Wolf Vostell. And we are reminded of just how British pop art actually is, with representative pieces by Hamilton, Peter Blake, Richard Smith, Allen Jones and Gerald Laing.

A few of the pieces tell us something of the new relationships forged between artists and publishers, and emerging distribution practices, during this period. Andy Warhol's book "Flash -- November 22, 1963" (1968) was commissioned by Racolin Press, for example -- an extremely unusual occurrence for Warhol. And Gerhard Richter's "Airplane I" (1966) was published by Edition Rottloff and distributed by Kaufhof, the German department store -- an interesting point when one remembers that the first capitalist realist actions were also held in department-store windows.

All this history is important, no doubt. But Pop Impressions Europe/USA feels too much like history, and -- lamentably -- not enough like pop.

SLAM has developed three accompanying exhibitions of pop art from its own collection, and they are mounted in the main (read "free") galleries. Many of SLAM's works are every bit as interesting as the things in Pop Impressions. And if you can find it, don't miss the minuscule exhibition POP! Design from the Collection, ghettoized (as all the design pieces are) in the bowels of the basement in Gallery 130. Seeing the red 1969 Olivetti Valentine Portable Typewriter with carrying case alone will be worth the trip.

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