Pop Art Design @ Barbican

Pop goes pop

Pop Art. There’s so much to say about it – it is so involved in the massive social transformations that took place in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – that, paradoxically, there’s so little to say about it. This exhibition has an interesting idea, to put the design element back into Pop, to put the famous Pop paintings and screens and album covers into the broader context of the contemporary revolution in design and ideology. Trouble is it ends up being all about everything.

Peter Blake’s ‘iconic’ (i.e. tired) cover of Sergeant Pepper is defined as Pop, with it shiny plastic primary colours and cutouts of celebrities. Fine, but so, apparently, is the poster inside the White Album, which is drab and grey and fragmented and verité, pretty much the opposite in every way. Experiments with typography incorporating psychedelic swirls are part of the Pop revolution in design – but so are square typefaces reminiscent of the Russian Constructivists.

The opening title sequence of From Russia With Love is Pop –

… but so is an experimental home-made movie by Andy Warhol of balloons jostling against the ceiling of a small room.

Tupperware is Pop, Las Vegas is Pop, plastic chairs are Pop – basically everything fun and youthful from the 60s is Pop.

Maybe. In which case, isn’t the word in danger of losing its usefulness as an adjective?

Origins of Pop

The 1950s in America – then the 1960s everywhere – were about the rise of mass market consumer culture. Everything became cheaper. A wide range of consumer durables were brought to perfection at prices lots of people could afford – washing machines, spin dryers, dishwashers, toasters, televisions which were the conduit via which a tsunami of advertising invaded our lives. Cars were cheaper for cruising the newly opened freeways and motorways, as were a new host of lifestyle accessories including radios blaring out the new jangly pop music, which started with Elvis in 1956 and has never stopped since. Youth culture – teenagers – pop music – the mini skirt – the Beatles – the pill and sex for everyone!

Plastic played a key role, a new lightweight, durable, flexible material which could be made into chairs and tables, tupperware containers and boxes, even into clothes. And the futuristic feel and look of plastic encouraged the use of bright primary colours.

Buried in some of the later rooms are small cases of work by various (often Italian) designers, who worked on products for consumer brands like Braun and Olivetti. In my opinion it would have been better to have featured these brilliant industrial designers at the start, along with technological explanations of the invention and introduction of these new materials, notably plastic and all its offshoots.

Building on this technological understanding, the show could then have explained how all the rest was a kind of logical consequence of new materials which allowed for new ways of designing products – leading to sophisticated design becoming widespread in the 1950s and ’60s as the Western world underwent a boom, bringing life-changing white goods, creative gadgets and devices, as well as the celebrity lifestyles of movie stars and pop stars, exotic foods and drinks etc within range of vast numbers of consumers.

And then, and only then, the sow should have explained how it was from the turmoil of these social, economic and technological innovations, that Pop art emerged.

This exhibition certainly goes to a lot of trouble to emphasise the design credentials of many of the artists of the 1960s. Warhol is the most famous example of this crossover, a man who made his reputation with stylish window sets in the early ’60s before going on to apply a thorough-going understanding of the new super-commercial, media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed, superficial, 2-D culture which surrounded him.

But, in my opinion, the exhibition does not provide this kind of linear explanation. Instead it is vitiated by a) the unchronological display of a ragbag of random striking but irrelevant exhibits and b) by a compulsion to include everything it can, which obscures the potentially very interesting story that it sets out to tell.

Some works

  • Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? by Richard Hamilton (1956). Allegedly a lot of Pop art satirises the superficiality and crassness of the new consumer culture. Maybe that was the intention of people like Hamilton, but whatever satire there is in his amusing collages is swamped in the exhibition by the far more obvious and far more powerful worship of new icons like the Coke bottle or Marilyn. (Later we have Hamilton’s treated photo of Mick Jagger with handcuffs on in a police car – you feel this is legally required to be included in any exhibition about the 1960s.)
  • I love you with my Ford by James Rosenquist (1961) Another satire of an advertising slogan and Heinz spaghetti, which in fact creates a neutral, non-critical image. An object which has become a valuable and uncriticisable artefact in its own right. (The tinned spaghetti in Rosequist’s works are presumably a satirical dig at new mass-produced food, but it always makes me feel peckish.)
  • Variable Sheets No.2 by Stephen Willats (1965). Triumph of plastic, a shiny plastic dress made of squares which can be unzipped and rearranged at will. As long as the zips last. Fascinating insight into the brave new world of plastics.
  • Monica Vitti with heart by Pauline Boty (1963) (as it happens, there’s an exhibition of Pauline Boty’s work in Chichester at the moment). The commentary pointed out that Pauline was a rare female artist among the Pop dudes, and claims for her work a specially ‘deconstructive’ approach to the female iconography which went hand in hand with mass media, celebrity culture etc. Really? Just looks like another pretty young woman among a welter of pretty young women depicted in Pop. Boty’s style is distinctive with its amateurish hand-made finish (cf the slick finishing of Warhol, Lichtenstein etc) but her subject matter comes across as just as woman-obsessed, youth-obsessed and garishly primary-coloured as everyone else’s.
  • Cowboy by Jann Hawarth (1964). Lifesize mannekin painted white. Charming.
  • Marshmallow sofa by George Nelson Associates (1956) One of the numerous designs in the 50s, 60s, 70s which threw off traditional materials and designs to create furniture which was meant to be as visually fun and bright as it was comfortable. A few other sofas were on display, including Leonardo sofa (1969) by Studio 65, the Italian ensemble, and their Lip sofa.
  • Drag by Jim Dine (1967) Yep, I’ll admit this is satire, and it works pretty well, reminiscent of the nihilist satire of Weimar Germany, based as it is on newspaper photos of political leaders. But much of the other artefacts don’t satirise anything, instead celebrating the power of good design. Hence:
  • Moloch by Gaetano Pesce (1970) The point of this is that the lamp is huge, as big as a man. Funny, right? Except we in our time have the Pixar lamp preceding umpteen kids movies, and the idea of immaculate consumer artefacts becoming animated and talking etc seems very old. The cleanness of the original design is the beautiful thing.

Lots of Andy Warhol, for me, simply celebrates beautiful design. He had a fantastic eye and made a name by treating poster images, photos and everyday commercial products with the same reverence as ‘High Art’. Or just picking wonderful images and producing them in ‘arty’ media. Hence his innumerable silk screens or prints of Marilyn or of Elvis firing a revolver, lovingly selected from the vast sea of celebrity images which began to swamp the world in the 1960s.

But also hence Brillo Soap Pads Box (1968) and the Campbell soup tins, perfect examples of consumer design. Yonal Levovicci’s Plug socket doesn’t really satirise anything; it simply pays a debt to the skill of the plug designers and the beauty of so many of the artefacts which surround us everywhere.

  • Allen Jones’s fetish chair (1969) is included to outrage feminists everywhere and remind us why feminism was necessary. Or just to titillate us.

There is then a fine selection of poster for rock bands of the 1960s, for Dylan, Cream, Soft Machine, the Beatles and the Stones – which were among the things which began to make me think that, for the curators, anything from the 1960s was Pop. It would have been good to have it really properly explained why they were Pop. What – if anything – about the swirly, psychedelic typography and layout of these posters connected them with the hard lines of Warhol’s Brillo pads or the cut-up effect of Hamilton’s collages or the sculpture of a mansize Coke bottle? Otherwise, they seemed to have nothing at all in common except they all come from the same exuberant decade.

Postscript

In 1968, American architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour took photos of the ‘strip’ in La Vegas from a moving car. According to a recent exhibition about the project,

‘Their fresh way of looking at the city: the influence of popular culture, advertising, film and the experience of the built environment from a moving automobile extended the categories of the ordinary, the ugly, and the social into architecture.’

Maybe. Without doubt the photos convey the excitement and fun of kitsch oversize models of doughnuts, ducks, drink cans and the 24/7 world of brightly-lit shopping malls when it was all relatively new.

But it was only 14 years later that director Godfrey Reggio used the same scenes and locations to convey the sense of a world out of control, hurtling towards destruction, a world of anomie, despair, urban failure, presaging the collapse of our civilisation, in the film Koyaanisqatsi or Life out of balance.

Many people, hundreds of millions of people, continue to live in the pop-celebrity-nifty-gadget world which was established in the 1960s, and all of us can relate to the bright shiny imagery and objects on display at the Barbican. But hundreds of millions more are uneasily aware that a consumer culture can’t go on consuming indefinitely, and that sooner or later there will be a price to pay.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

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