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Gambit Weekly Popping the Question

By D. Eric Bookhardt

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  One of the strange things about growing up in America is the gap between our official and unofficial realities. In grade school, we learned to revere the legends of Washington, Lincoln, Plymouth Rock, the Constitution and the Statue of Liberty -- the bedrock symbols upon which our national identity was founded. And then, after school, we'd shift into an alternate reality of movies, rock 'n' roll, neon and noise.

The contrast between these equally American sensibilities couldn't be more striking. And if we still see ourselves in terms of our civics class notion of national identity, the rest of the world sees us as the Big Mall: the land of fast food, Microsoft, Disney, rap music and Madonna, a techno capitalist wonderland of mass media, mass production and conspicuous consumption.

This may indeed be the most visible side of our culture, but until the advent of Pop Art, we seemed almost blithely unaware of how we really looked. Our folklore taught us to see ourselves as extensions of a Wyeth or Benton landscape, but it took Warhol, Lichtenstein and the high princes of Pop to show us who -- and how -- we really are. This shock of recognition at the vital banality of American life was a watershed event for both the nation and the art world, and neither has been the same since.

The new Prophecy of Pop show at the Contemporary Arts Center offers an insightful look at this phenomenon and its impact. Curated by John Good, it is a very New York kind of show, because in the 1960s, New York was in many ways the capital of America (if not the universe). And if New York is no longer what it once was, the Wall Street/Madison Avenue strain of capitalism that it spawned went on to take the rest of the planet by storm. So Pop -- however we may feel about it -- was important, and in the pantheon of Pop, no one was more important than Andy Warhol.

We are greeted by Warhol's contented cows and a blue-toned litho, Jackie, 1964, his starkly elegiac icon of Jacqueline Kennedy as a grieving widow. And it is actually rather nostalgic -- Warhol had an odd knack for presenting his subjects as phenomena, filmic representations of certain people, places or things that, as media images, assumed a detached life of their own. Hence, they are disconnected icons of sensational ephemera, transient moments floating in space. Warhol took childlike pleasure in this process, in visions of fame and glamour that seemed somehow pervasive yet etheric, insubstantial. This mix of naive sentiment, sensationalism and acid-etched irony comprises the underlying essence of the Pop phenomenon.

Richard Phillips' figures, like Chrome, show allure to be a manufactured spectacle.
Of course, most people thought Pop was fun art with a sense of humor, but intellectuals -- especially European intellectuals -- saw it as a critique of contemporary superficiality. Warhol himself was deadpan as usual, making no claim to fine art status, asserting that whatever the public liked just had to be "really great." Meanwhile, Roy Lichtenstein exhibited his oversized paintings of comic strip heroes as the Vietnam War raged interminably on.

But that was then and this is now, and quite a lot happened in between. After Pop petered out in the early 1970s, a new wave of artists in the 1980s combined Pop and graffiti art with the resurgent expressionism of the time. Among them, Jean-Michel Basquiat assumed folkloric stature as a latter-day tragic hero, a rags-to-riches figure who ended up all too quickly in the morgue. But if his life ended prematurely, his work seems to have passed the test of time relatively unscathed.

As a New York artist of Haitian parentage, Basquiat was known for paintings that looked, at least initially, like a product of the streets. On closer inspection, his abrupt scrawls assume a more precise and poetic "rightness" without losing any of their manic vitality. It is, in fact, their streetwise aura that makes them seem as much a part of the Pop cultural landscape as any Warhol, Rosenquist, Oldenburg, Ruscha or Lichtenstein.

In fact, Warhol's final painting, Converse Special Value, 1986, fits neatly with Basquiat's street vision. (A double irony, in that Warhol's initial success in commercial art was based on shoe illustrations.) But then it all came full circle again in the 1990s, a new age of Pop without apologies. We see this in Petrick Thorne's wry Home Depot sculptures -- cheap paneling and tacky fixtures configured as Pop abstractions -- and in James Rosenquist's glossy, lurid depictions of menacing toy guns.

Related sensations are seen in Richard Phillips' fetishistic painted figures, which evoke glamour or "allure" as a manufactured spectacle. And so Pop remains a celebration and investigation of the contemporary world, of the glossy surfaces in which our own shimmering reflections are the most ephemeral images of all.

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