Hip Replacement: Pieces from the Pop Art movement of the ''60s have moved in to the National Steinbeck Center. Shown: Glazed Earthenware by British painter Patrick Caulfield and Karen Kain by Andy Warhol.
A credit to the Steinbeck Center''s vision to bring relevant art to the masses, the exhibition features images as glossy as magazine ads, bright colors, and humorous subjects from popular culture. It''s a time capsule from the era of the Twist, Project Mercury, the Hollywood Elvis, and Hula Hoops. The show is almost a feast for the eyes.
''Soup to Nuts: Pop Art and Its Legacy" has set itself up to do a very difficult job. The exhibition of prints currently on display at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas purports to provide an overview of the Pop Art movement of the early 1960s, as well as a modest selection of postmodern art work bearing the imprint of the movement''s glib impersonality.
But for all the fine prints and impressive roster, the show lacks comprehensiveness and definition--it''s a rack of lamb with only three ribs. Curated by the Exhibit Touring Service utilizing works culled from the University of Lethbridge Collections in Alberta, Canada and assorted private collections, the show doesn''t shed enough light on this movement, whose exponents were ironic, light-hearted and inventive in their appropriation of popular items. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the limitations of the source collection, but difficulty also lies in the diverse manifestations of the Pop Art sensibility. The movement was more an attitude than a style, better defined by what it was not than by what it was. There was no real unifying mode of expression. Each artist brought something different to the table with each effort.
In an effort to better represent the broad Pop Art scene, the Steinbeck Center staff has augmented the exhibition with additional prints from the Monterey Museum of Art''s permanent collection of modern and postmodern prints, and with work borrowed from the Hartnell College Collection. Viewers can see a maquette for Salinas'' favorite outdoor sculpture, Claes Oldenberg''s "Cowboy Hat in Three Stages of Landing," which hovers in its steel grandeur behind the Sherwood Gardens Community Center.
"Soup to Nuts" illustrates in the merest cursory fashion the artistic sensibility that emerged in the late 1950s in the United States, Canada and Britain as a reaction to the existential heroes of Abstract Expressionism who had put American painting on the map just after the second World War. The Pop artists rejected that inward-looking seriousness and preoccupation with the Self; instead, Pop artists disappeared behind the color and coolness of images found in movies, advertisements and comics. They offered up reproductions or derivations of mass-produced objects, often using the very mechanized processes and detachment inherent in such consumerist forms.
The relationship Pop artists had toward their borrowed subject matter ranged from ironic to satiric to deadpan. Works referencing low-culture--such as Andy Warhol''s Campbell Soup cans or Brillo boxes, or Roy Lichtenstein''s take-offs on comic strips--remain the stereotypical examples of Pop Art, but by no means define the movement''s sensibility. It''s a difficult phenomenon to nail down, as "Soup to Nuts" makes perfectly clear.
If the Abstract Expressionists were all about the lone hand gesturing on the large battlefield of a canvas, the better to define one''s hero-martyr existence, the Pop artists were about embracing mundane objects from everyday life and the transitory faces of mass entertainment. If the Abstract Expressionists labored under the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Pop artists wallowed in the materialism of a consumer- and celebrity-driven culture. While the one stood firmly on the soil of psychic truth, the other stood on the urban pavement, gazing at billboards and newspapers floating by in the exhaust fumes of cars with big fins.
The Pop movement was actually a modern installment of an old idea. Artists, and writers for that matter, have always incorporated vestiges of their own times into their work. Think of Shakespeare''s use of the vernacular, or the 17th-century Dutch genre painters celebrating their national prosperity--tidy streets, pastoral meadows and farms, cozy homes, all adding up to leisure.
With these and other exceptions, artists'' visions generally have been dominated by the ideals of valor, fidelity to church and state, and "beauty." There was a schism, then, between the Neoclassicists and Romanticists, between the perpetuation of antique forms and the drive to discover that personal and relevant expression, evocative of the inner life of the artist as well as the tenor of the times. By the late 19th century, as the second industrial revolution redefined social class and the urban cultural landscape, avant-garde artists, keenly aware of the revolutionary times they were living in, intensified their experimentation to, first, distance themselves from the worn-out forms of Neoclassicism, and second, represent the immediacy of the moment.
What better way to do this than to incorporate the very material one sees on the streets? Post-Impressionists, such as Seurat, borrowed compositions from advertising posters; Van Gogh emulated the colors and designs he saw in Japanese package-lining; Lautrec borrowed from commercial design. The Cubists, led by Picasso and Barque, continued this trend in earnest, grafting snippets of popular song lyrics, advertising signs, imitation wood-grain wallpapers and other non-traditional materials. They wished their works to be stamped with the substance of the everyday.
In the 1920s and 1930s, American artists such as Stuart Davis (represented in this exhibition by a work done the year of his death, 1964) developed stylized hybrids that acknowledged the formal freedom of Cubism, the flatness of modern painting, the object devotion of Dada and Surrealism. These artists worked in the shadows of European modernism, and the most inventive of them searched for a particularly American adaptation of all these stylistic sources.
"Soup to Nuts" contains several artists who seem out of place, as either Pop Art precursors or legatees. Adolph Gottlieb, for instance, was an Abstract Expressionist not the least interested in the surface flash and formal detachment of the Pop movement. His personal style of abstraction was tactile and gestural; the print here emasculates his vision sufficiently for inclusion, I suppose.
Omissions, such as Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and George Segal create holes; and the plethora of Canadians and Brits diffuses the effect of this quintessentially American movement.
And subjects, further blurs the curatorial focus, but that''s being picky. At "An Afternoon with William Wiley" on September 8, the artist himself can explain his relationship to popular culture, if not Pop Art.
In the meantime, the table is set in Oldtown Salinas with a smorgasbord of Pop and not-so Pop Art; and that''s a good thing.
Soup to Nuts shows at the National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main, Salinas, until Sept. 9. The Center is open 10am-5pm daily. $7.95/general-3.95/kids.