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Mention Pop Art, and Andy Warhol usually springs to mind. Warhol brought glitz and glamour to an early-1960s New York art world tired of Abstract Expressionism’s dour vibes, but he didn’t invent Pop Art; in fact, his first works in that vein came after Roy Lichtenstein’s. Even then, neither artist could lay claim to the genre; it had originated not in NYC but in postwar London, where a group of artists considered the possibilities of using pop-cultural references in art. One of their number, Richard Hamilton, produced what’s arguably the first example of the style in 1956: a collage of images from advertising centered on a bodybuilder holding a Tootsie Pop. But Hamilton’s piece also pointed to Pop Art’s deeper roots in the early 20th century, when Picasso and Braque devised papier collé and Duchamp took the technique to its logical conclusion with his Readymades. Ultimately, Pop Art, as we think of it, came out of the Cold War competition between communism and capitalism, and the consumer culture the latter disseminated throughout the West—a development mirrored by Pop Art as it, too, spread around the world. You’ll find that history, and more, in our list of the best books on Pop Art. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)
1. Lawrence Alloway, American Pop Art
Published in 1974 to accompany a group exhibition at the Whitney Museum featuring Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, and Andy Warhol, this book by the British author Lawrence Alloway is one of the seminal evaluations of Pop Art, a label that he claimed credit for coining. Indeed, he was instrumental in shaping the genre in more ways than one. He was involved, for example, with organizing the ur-Pop Art exhibition titled “This Is Tomorrow” at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, which argued that in the age of information, contemporary art would inevitably draw on popular culture for inspiration. Thanks to Pop Art’s emergence in America, this proposition came to fruition in work that transformed the signs and symbols of consumer society—the brands, film icons, and comics that defined what Alloway describes as “the twentieth-century communications network of which we are all a part”—into fine art.
Purchase: American Pop Art from $5.95 (used) on abebooks.com
2. Lucy R. Lippard, Pop Art
Because it was as visually seductive as the mass culture it borrowed from, Pop Art attracted enormous attention from the media while propelling the New York art market to dizzying heights. This prompted a backlash—in the form of Minimalism and Conceptual Art—from a downtown art scene that still believed in the corrupting influence of commerce on art (which seems quaint today). Against this backdrop, Lucy R. Lippard published her history of Pop Art in 1966. Featuring contributions from the aforementioned Alloway, as well as critics Nancy Marmer and Nicolas Calas, the book recounts the Pop Art’s twin births in the United Kingdom and the United States and its later penetration into Canada and Europe. Writing that “Pop Art itself was not a product of [the] discotheque era, but its reception was,” Lippard notes how the movement’s broad appeal to people both inside and outside the art world reflected the mid-century zeitgeist.
Purchase: Pop Art from $12.40 (used) on abebooks.com
3. Hal Foster, The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha
How big was the impact of Pop Art on society? Enormous, according to critic and historian Hal Foster, who contends that the “first Pop Age,” as he calls it, transformed the human condition and the nature of subjectivity. By Foster’s reckoning, Pop Art heralded the beginning of an era in which everything and everyone would be subsumed by the operations of late capitalism, an outcome we can see today in social media’s all-encompassing fugue. Foster divides his book into chapters devoted to five key figures in the development of Pop Art—Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha—offering insights on each. Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dot paintings, for example, represent a “critical redoubling of lived conditions in consumer capitalism,” while Warhol’s work reflects his preoccupation with death and the manufacturing of self-image as a way to postpone it. Richter, meanwhile, pursues beauty and moral clarity while acknowledging that both are impossible to achieve. Overall, Foster’s book makes a persuasive case that Pop Art is more relevant than ever.
Purchase: The First Pop Age $30.95 (new) on Amazon
4. Darsie Alexander et al., International Pop
Over the years, the history of Pop Art has evolved to take a less New York–centric view, allowing, for instance, that England birthed the movement, which then took hold in America and on the Continent. Less well known is that Pop Art was also adopted by artists more broadly around the world, a phenomenon finally given its due in International Pop. Spanning the 1950s to the 1970s, the book includes names—Raymundo Colares, Keiichi Tanaami, Nelson Leirner—unfamiliar to American audiences along with others—Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol—that are widely recognized. The book demonstrates how Pop Art was assimilated according to the specific cultural, historical, economic, and political conditions of a given country. In Brazil, for example, it manifested as a form of political protest against the military junta that took power in 1964. By recounting the movement’s global reach, International Pop reveals that there’s still much to learn about it.
Purchase: International Pop from $106.30 (used) on Amazon
5. Mark Godfrey et al., Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism
Despite its name, Capitalist Realism wasn’t a movement so much as it was a collaborative art project that encompassed several exhibition-slash-performances in West Germany during the early to mid 1960s. Of its principals—Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter—two became hugely famous, which is why this art-historical epiphenomenon has garnered so much interest. This book originally accompanied an exhibition of the same name, which opened at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 2013 before traveling to New York City’s nonprofit Artists Space the following year. The book delves into Capitalist Realism’s origins as a tongue-in-cheek riposte to both American Pop Art and the self-mythologizing, art-bleeding-into-life tendencies of the Fluxus aesthetic associated with Joseph Beuys. But for all of its ironies, Capitalist Realism was deadly serious in its critique of American soft power and postwar Germany’s attempt to flee its Nazi past through the numbing comforts of consumerism. All in all, this is an essential recap of a fascinating chapter in postmodernism.
Purchase: Living with Pop $45.00 (new) on artbook.com
6. Kaira M. Cabañas, The Myth of Nouveau Réalisme: Art and the Performative in Postwar France
Nouveau Réalisme is often called France’s Pop Art, a comparison that doesn’t really track given how far it departed from the corporate cool of Warhol, Lichtenstein, et al. American Pop Art’s slickness corresponded to the fortunes of a country whose infrastructure was left intact after World War II, while the comparatively rough qualities of Nouveau Réalisme evoked a Europe that wasn’t so lucky. But according to Kaira M. Cabañas’s revisionist history, Nouveau Réalisme wasn’t a movement so much as it was a heterogeneous gang of artists—Yves Klein, Jacques Villeglé, Jean Tinguely—lumped under that rubric by the critic Pierre Restany. For Restany, Nouveau Réalisme was defined by ready-made appropriations of consumer and technological culture. But Cabañas argues that its disparate strains actually shared a tendency toward “performative realism,” in which actions (Klein’s Leap into the Void; Tinguely’s self-immolating, kinetic sculptures) are as important as objects. Her book offers a fresh take on a frequently misunderstood movement.
Purchase: The Myth of Nouveau Réalisme $31.99 (new) on Amazon
7. Sid Sachs, Kalliopi Minioudaki, Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958–1968
Female artists have been ignored throughout art history, and that’s certainly true of the women associated with Pop Art during the 1960s. They and their considerable accomplishments were revisited in the traveling 2011 exhibition “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958–1968,” organized by Sid Sachs, a curator and writer with a reputation for resuscitating neglected careers. The show catalog, which Sachs coedited with Kalliopi Minioudaki, is no less thorough in reevaluating women Pop artists who were completely overlooked or who gained some measure of fame before they were forgotten. Some of them were dismissed because the artists themselves were deemed too beautiful (astonishing when you consider that it’s practically a prerequisite today); others had their ideas ripped off by male colleagues. The list of artists covered range from those who are now household names (Yayoi Kusama) to solid midcareer figures (Faith Ringgold, Martha Rosler) to artists who, until this show, had been lost to time (Rosalyn Drexler, Patty Mucha).
Purchase: Seductive Subversion from $135.21 (used) on Amazon