Generally considered to be an Anglo-American phenomenon, Pop Art is most closely associated with artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whose work offered a colourful and unconflicted commentary on modern commercial culture in screen prints of Campbell’s soup cans and oversized comic strips.
This major new exhibition at Tate Modern, London reveals the alternative story of Pop Art, as told through contemporaries of Warhol and Lichtenstein who used the genre as a subversive language for criticism, dissent and public protest around the world. This exhibition highlights how Pop art arose in many countries and communities as a means of commenting on issues beyond consumerism, such as social imbalances, the role and rights of women, sexual liberation, tradition, war and civil rights. These artists used the familiar visual tropes of Pop art – images drawn from every day life combined with graphic design, photo-montage, graffiti, collage, bright colours – to create images of sedition and protest, often disturbing and overtly political.
The exhibition brings together over 160 works, including sculpture and film, the great majority of which have never been seen before in the UK, and is organized thematically, with special rooms devoted to individual artists such as Joe Tilson, Cornel Brudascu, whose ideologically off-message work reflects on the gradually opening up of Romania during the 1970s, and Jana Zelibska, a female Czech artist who created immersive environments featuring fragmented female bodies. Here, the viewer is surrounded by images of female bodily imagery, which use non-art materials such as mirrors (used to represented pubic hair), plastic and neon.
Some of the most arresting works are by Brazilian, Argentinian and Spanish artists working under repressive regimes who used their art to comment on contemporary culture and, in the case of Spanish artists, the role and the rights of women. The colours of protest and communism – red and black – are combined with the bubblegum pinks, electric blues and acid yellows of Pop to create images which are witty and humorous, yet also sharply observed and deadly serious.
The final room reminds us of the relationship between art and the consumer society which runs throughout Pop art, and deals with the lure of consumption and global capitalism. Here there are some clever nods to the most famous pop artist of them all, Andy Warhol, in the work of Boris Bucan, whose series of brand logos are transformed into ‘art’ to reflect the former Yugoslovia’s transition to consumerist culture after the fall of Communism.
The message and intent of this exhibition is admirable; it’s just that many of the works on display appear dated and tawdry. The exhibition designers have done their best to enliven the experience for the visitor, with vivid colours on the walls of the exhibition space, but overall the show seems worthy rather than exciting.