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Pop Art
A Continuing History by Marco Livingstone

Paperback, Thames & Hudson, November 2000, 272 p. Get it from,, or

Article added in December 2000

A decade after its original release, Pop Art by Marco Livingstone is now available in paperback. It illustrates the work of more than 130 artists, much of which was unpublished before the hardcover edition. Pop Art offers a great overview from the precursors of Pop Art to contemporary artists.
Among the American forerunners, Livingstone forgot to mention the 19th-century trompe-l'oeil painters such as John Haberle (see one of his Dollar Bill paintings on the left) and William Michael Harnett who clearly belong in the context of Livingstone's Pop Art study. But for the rest, the author offers a very complete picture.
"Pop, like most art historical labels, is a convenience for critics and historians but an irrelevance and an irritant for most of the artists to whom it has been applied", Livingstone writes in his introduction. Although, as the author clearly states, artists do not work very programmatically, he gives a series of elements of a theoretical definition. Pop generally involves the use of existing imagery from mass culture already processed into two dimensions, preferably borrowed from advertising, photography, comic strips and other mass media sources. Pop emphasizes flatness and frontal presentation. Pop artists, especially in America, have a preference for centralized composition and for flat areas of unmodulated and unmixed color bound by hard edges. They use mechanical and other deliberately inexpressive techniques that imply the removal of the artist's hand and suggest the depersonalized processes of mass production. Pop Art is characterized by an unapologetic decorativeness. It delves into areas of popular taste and kitsch previously considered outside the limits of fine art. Pop concentrates on the contemporary subject-matter integral to the ready-made sources the artists have used.
Among the Pop Art precursors mentioned by Livingstone are Dadaists like the French artist Marcel Duchamp and the German Kurt Schwitters. Duchamp became famous with his "ready-mades," everyday objects torn from their usual contexts and exhibited as art. The most shocking piece was Fountain (1917), the urinal that Duchamp had dared to declare art. Two years before, he had already "created" In Advance of the Broken Arm, a snow shovel. Duchamp took an object, "retitled it to declare its change of function from a utilitarian purpose to an aesthetic or conceptual one". It is no accident that, e.g. in 1961, the beginning of the high times of Pop, Duchamp delivered his most often quoted remarks on his ready-mades. He did not chose them for esthetic reasons. His choices were based on "visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste ..." Pop Art definitively eliminated the dichotomies between high and low art, but also between representation and abstraction. It confronted art lovers as well as "ordinary" people with everyday objects which gained, displayed as art, a new quality.
Livingstone also presents lesser known and almost unknown artists. At the end of the 1940s and in the 1950s in Los Angeles, Wallace Berman worked with collage and assemblage. Larry Rivers, Ray Johnson and Richard Lindner are some other names. But Pop was not restricted to the United States. In England, the Independent Group at the Institute of Arts in London was an essentially private association of artists, architects, historians and critics who met intermittently between 1952 and 1955. Among them were Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi who later became leading figures of British Pop. The British critic Lawrence Alloway was also part of the group. He was the man who first used the notion of "Pop Art" in 1958..The art itself emerged gradually in the mid-1950s. Pop Art established itself as a serious, recognized form of art only after the exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1962. This exhibition of "new realists", as the artist's were then known, featured Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake and others.
Peter Blake was a young British painter who, in 1954, was producing innocent and straightforward celebrations of signs and symbols of youth culture, including comic books, printed ephemera and imagery drawn from funfairs, the circus and wrestling. All this happened concurrently with the Independent Group's informed investigation into popular culture. In 1959, Blake emerged as a "fully-fledged Pop artist" with his group of collage-based paintings of pop musicians, film stars and pin-up images.
Among the prototypes of American Pop Livingstone cites Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. John's paintings of the mid-1950s, especially his images of targets and flags, were first shown in a one-man exhibition at the Castelli Gallery in New York in January 1958. They had a profound impact on the art scene because they were commonplace objects flatly applied on canvas, rejecting the attributes associated with art as an expression of personality. They were close enough to reality to make the viewers question whether it was art or an ordinary target or flag, but at the same time it was clear that they were no ready-mades but artificial re-creations of real things.
Rauschenberg and Johns elaborated their ideas about the junction between art and life through their contact with the American composer John Cage who Rauschenberg had met in 1948 while studying at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. "Cage thought of music as encompassing not only invented and structured sounds but also those made by the audience or audible within the environment at large. His insistence that everything was worthy of attention profoundly influenced both these painters and other artists associated with Happenings and early Pop in the late 1950s."
Livingstone's study also analyzes the Nouveau Réalisme with Arman and his Cachets from 1955, his Déchets bourgeois (Bourgeois Trash) from 1959 and his subsequent Accumulations. César, Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri and Christo are other representatives of Europe's pre-Pop.
In 1964, Robert Rauschenberg won the International Grand Prize in the XXXII Venice Biennale which became known as "the Biennale of Pop Art". It was the first time since the inception of the Biennale in 1895 that an American artist was awarded the prize. According to a series of critics, Pop Art marked the end of modernism and the beginning of the postmodern era.
These are just a few elements of this remarkable book by Livingstone. Of course, he also analyzes American Pop of 1960-62, the high times of American Pop from 1962 to 1964 with Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol as its quintessential hero, as well as Continental European, British and American Pop after its climax. The chapter on American Pop after 1965 bears the evocative title "Extinguished Match". The neo-Pop of the 1980s marks the end of Livingstone's study which is a very recommendable key-work in understanding the basics of Pop Art, its precursors, currents, famous and unknown artists. The select biography allows the reader to dig even deeper.
Marco Livingstone has organized touring retrospective exhibitions of e.g. Jim Dine, R. B. Kitaj, Tom Wesselmann and David Hockney. Other books by Marco Livingstone include, among many others, Kitaj and Jim Dine: Flowers and Plants.

John Haberle, One Dollar Bill, 1890. Oil on canvas. Photograph: exhibition catalogue (America. Die Neue Welt in Bildern des 19. Jahrhunderts. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Wien, 17.3.-20.6.2000. Prestel, 2000).