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In 1963 the young art critic G. R. Swenson set out to define Pop art through two series of interviews with eight leading artists associated with the new movement. Under the heading “What is Pop Art?” ARTnews asked the artists to talk about their work, their peers, their critics, and about being labeled Pop artists
Swenson, a Pop proponent, spoke with Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol for the first article, published in November 1963, and with Stephen Durkee, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and Tom Wesselmann for the second, which appeared in February 1964. The introduction to the interviews identified Johns as a precursor of Pop and the now-obscure Durkee as a legatee.
Swenson posed the big title question as well as some less-obvious ones, asking Indiana, for example, “Is Pop esthetic suicide?” and Lichtenstein, “Are you anti-experimental?”
While there was no ultimate consensus among this notoriously cool and laconic bunch of artists, there was some agreement.
Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, and Wesselmann all considered the use of commercial art as subject matter to be a defining characteristic of Pop, at least for their own work. For Lichtenstein, commercial art was attractive because it was something everyone hated—but then, he observed, it wasn’t hated enough after all and quickly became accepted. Pop, as Lichtenstein saw it, was an “anti” movement, opposing “all of those brilliant ideas” of the past.
Indiana offered the most generous, coherent, and poetic assessment of the movement: Pop, he said, was a “U-turn back to a representational visual communication,” a break from Abstract Expressionist introspection and a reengagement with the world. It was easy, unself-conscious, blunt, and matter-of-fact. Further, he said, “it is libertine, free and easy with the old forms.” And it is also love, as it accepts everything.
Wesselmann’s way of accepting was to combine different realities through collage. He explained that instead of placing a painted pack of cigarettes next to a painted apple, he would paint a pack of cigarettes from a cigarette ad next to a picture of an apple. For Wesselmann, all the elements—from the real world, art history, and advertising—competed with and traded on one another. Esthetics was beside the point.
Rosenquist considered his images—many taken from old magazines—“no-images.” They are not intended to have associations. “If it were abstract,” he said, “people might make it into something. If you paint Franco-American spaghetti, they won’t make a crucifixion out of it.”
Facts, for Dine, were the facts of his life, portrayed through his objects and surroundings—a personal objective view. It was the opposite with Warhol, who said, “I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machinelike is what I want to do.” He noted that even commercial art had emotion. He wanted to strip his own work of it.
As for Johns, he insisted he was not a Pop artist. One way of painting was as good as any other. He was more concerned with intention and meaning in art, with meaning determined by how an audience uses a painting. “My paintings are not simply expressive gestures,” he said. “Some of them I have thought of as facts.”
Of course, much and little have changed since those interviews. Just as Rosenquist spoke of the way the onslaught of media and advertising images made painting seem very old-fashioned, so digital art and technology have today rendered all traditional art forms questionable.
Yet Pop remains.
November 1963What is Pop Art?
Answers From 8 Painters, Part I
Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol
Pop Art painters recently have received massive publicity. Their work has been praised and explained by a small army of curators, promoters, and critics, but the artists themselves have stayed cool and tight-lipped. This is especially surprising as most American painters are characteristically voluble. For example, anybody who wanted to know what Franz Kline was up to in 1950, or Willem de Kooning or Barnett Newman, could drop by the “Artists’ Club” or the favored bars and cafeterias to hear painters define their positions with vivid recklessness. To keep the record straight and to balance the often inaccurate claims from the partisans and enemies of Pop Art, ARTnews has elicited comment from eight leading “members” of this new “school.” Four appear in these pages; interviews with the other artists—Jasper Johns, Oldenburg, Rosenquist, and Wesselmann, will appear in a forthcoming issue.
What is Pop Art?
I don’t know—the use of commercial art as subject matter in painting, I suppose. It was hard to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one would hang it—everybody was hanging everything. It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag, everybody was accustomed to this. The one thing everyone hated was commercial art; apparently they didn’t hate that enough either.
Is Pop Art despicable?
That doesn’t sound so good, does it? Well, it is an involvement with what I think to be the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things we hate, but which are also powerful in their impingement on us. I think art since Cézanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art; it is utopian. It has had less and less to do with the world, it looks inward—neo-Zen and all that. This is not so much a criticism as an obvious observation. Outside is the world; it’s there. Pop Art looks out into the world, it appears to accept its environment, which is not good or bad, but different—another state of mind.
‘How can you like exploitation?’ ‘How can you like the complete mechanization of work? How can you like bad art?’ I have to answer that I accept it as being there, in the world.
Are you anti-experimental?
I think so, and anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement-and-light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen, and anti all of those brilliant ideas of preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly.
We like to think of industrialization as being despicable. I don’t really know what to make of it. There’s something terribly brittle about it. I suppose I would still prefer to sit under a tree with a picnic basket rather than under a gas pump, but signs and comic strips are interesting as subject matter. There are certain things that are usable, forceful and vital about commercial art. We’re using those things—but we’re not really advocating stupidity, international teenagerism and terrorism.
Where did your ideas about art begin?
The ideas of Prof. Hoyt Sherman [at Ohio State University] on perception were my earliest important influence and still affect my ideas of visual unity.
Yes. Organized perception is what art is all about.
He taught you “how to look?”
Yes. He taught me how to go about learning how to look.
At what, doesn’t have anything to do with it. It is a process. It has nothing to do with any external form the painting takes, it has to do with a way of
building a unified pattern of seeing… In Abstract-Expressionism the paintings symbolize the idea of ground-directedness as opposed to object-directedness. You put something down, react to it, put something else down, and the paint itself becomes a symbol of this. The difference is that rather than symbolize this ground-directedness I do an object-directed appearing thing. There is humor here. The work is still ground-directed; the fact that it’s an eyebrow or an almost direct copy of something, is unimportant. The ground-directedness is in the painter’s mind and not immediately apparent in the painting. Pop Art makes the statement that ground-directedness is not a quality that the painting has because of what it looks like… This tension between apparent object-directed products and actual ground-directed processes is an important strength of Pop Art.
Antagonistic critics say that Pop Art does not transform its model. Does it?
Transformation is a strange word to use. It implies that art transforms. It doesn’t, it just plain forms. Artists have never worked with the model—just with the painting. What you’re really saying is that an artist like Cézanne transforms what we think the painting ought to look like into something he thinks it ought to look like. He’s working with paint, not nature; he’s making a painting, he’s forming. I think my work is different from comic strips—but I wouldn’t call it transformation; I don’t think that whatever is meant by it is important to art. What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes, but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified. The purpose is different, one intends to depict and I intend to unify. And my work is actually different from comic strips in that every mark is really in a different place, however slight the difference seems to some. The difference is often not great, but it is crucial. People also consider my work to be anti-art in the same way they consider it pure depiction, “not transformed.” I don’t feel it is anti-art.
There is no neat way of telling whether a work of art is composed or not; we’re too comfortable with ideas that art is the battleground for interaction, that with more and more experience you become more able to compose. It’s true, everybody accepts that; it’s just that the idea no longer has any power.
Abstract-Expressionism has had an almost universal influence on the arts. Will Pop Art?
I don’t know. I doubt it. It seems too particular—too much the expression of a few personalities. Pop might be a difficult starting point for a painter. He would have great difficulty in making these brittle images yield to compositional purposes… Interaction between painter and painting is not the total commitment of Pop, but it is still a major concern—though concealed and strained.
Do you think that an idea in painting—whether it be ‘interaction’ or the use of commercial art—gets progressively less powerful with time?
It seems to work that way. Cubist and Action Painting ideas, although originally formidable and still an influence, are less crucial to us now. Some individual artists, though—Stuart Davis, for example—seem to get better and better.
A curator at the Modern Museum has called Pop Art fascistic and militaristic.
The heroes depicted in comic books are fascist types, but I don’t take them seriously in these paintings—maybe there is a point in not taking them seriously, a political point. I use them for purely formal reasons, and that’s not what those heroes were invented for… Pop Art has very immediate and of-the-moment meanings which will vanish—that kind of thing is ephemeral—and Pop takes advantage of this “meaning,” which is not supposed to last, to divert you from its formal content. I think the formal statement in my work will become clearer in time. Superficially, Pop seems to be all subject matter, whereas Abstract-Expressionism, for example, seems to be all esthetic…
I paint directly—then it’s said to be an exact copy, and not art, probably because there’s no perspective or shading. It doesn’t look like a painting of something, it looks like the thing itself. Instead of looking like a painting of a billboard—the way a Reginald Marsh would look—Pop Art seems to be the actual thing. It is an intensification, a stylistic intensification of the excitement which the subject matter has for me; but the style is, as you said, cool. One of the things a cartoon does is to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style. To express this thing in a painterly style would dilute it; the techniques I use are not commercial, they only appear to be commercial—and the ways of seeing and composing and unifying are different and have different ends.
Is Pop Art American?
Everybody has called Pop Art “American” painting, but it’s actually industrial painting. America was hit by industrialism and capitalism harder and sooner and its values seem more askew… I think the meaning of my work is that it’s industrial, it’s what all the world will soon become. Europe will be the same way, soon, so it won’t be American; it will be universal.
What is your attitude to Pop Art?
I don’t feel very pure in that respect. I don’t deal exclusively with the popular image. I’m more concerned with it as a part of my landscape. I’m sure everyone has always been aware of that landscape, the artistic landscape, the artist’s vocabulary, the artist’s dictionary.
Does that apply to the Abstract-Expressionists?
I would think so—they have eyes, don’t they? I think it’s the same landscape only interpreted through another generation’s eyes. I don’t believe there was sharp break and this is replacing Abstract-Expressionism. I believe this is the natural course of things. I don’t think it is exclusive or that the best painting is being done as a movement… Pop Art is only one facet of my work. More than popular images I’m interested in personal images, in making paintings about my studio, my experience as a painter, about painting itself, about color charts, the palette, about elements of the realistic landscape—but used differently.
The content of a Pollock or a de Kooning is concerned with paint, paint quality, color. Does this tie you to them in theory?
I tie myself to Abstract-Expressionism like fathers and sons. As for your question, no. No, I’m talking about paint, paint quality, color charts and those things objectively, as objects. I work with the vocabulary that I’ve picked up along the way, the vocabulary of paint application, but also the vocabulary of images. One doesn’t have to be so strict—to say, “Let’s make it like a palette,” and that’s it… It always felt right to use objects, to talk about that familiarity in the paintings, even before I started painting them, to recognize billboards, the beauty of that stuff. It’s not a unique idea—Walker Evans photographed them in 1929. It’s just that the landscape around you starts closing in and you’ve got to stand up to it.
You’re paintings look out and still make a statement about art?
Yes, but a statement about art the way someone else talks about new Detroit cars, objectively, as another kind of thing, a subject.
Not as both subject matter and content?
Abstract-Expressionism tended to look in?
Is this the difference between your work an
I don’t know what the difference is. Certainly Abstract-Expressionism influenced me, particularly Motherwell. I think he’s continually growing and making problems. His paintings meant a lot to me, especially Pancho Villa Dead or Alive and the Je t’aie paintings, although it now seems a bit strange to write it in French. Still, the climate Motherwell has to live in is rarer and he has to do that for his style, the idea of style, this hothouse flower—but really that’s all frivolities compared to the real structures he sets up.
Style as a conscious striving for individuality?
I suppose so. I’m only interested in style, as content at least, if it makes the picture work. That’s a terrible trap—for people to want to have style. If you’ve got style, that means you’ve only got one way to go, I figure; but if you’ve got art, if you’ve got it in your hands going for you, style is only an element you need to use every once in a while. The thing that really pulls a painting out is you, if you are strong, if it’s your idea you’re wanting to say—then there’s no need to worry about style.
Do you feel related to Dada?
Not so much, although I never saw any reason to laugh at that stuff. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to have that fur-lined teacup.
It wasn’t anti-art?
No, not at all. I thought it was just a beautiful object; it wasn’t anti-art at all. Some of my friends used to say I was square because I was interested in art. Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden are great favorites of mine. I’m interested in the particular way they manipulate space. With Northern painting there’s more than just seeing it… And I love the eccentricity of Edward Hopper, the way he puts skies in. For me he’s more exciting than Magritte as a Surrealist. He is also like a Pop artist—gas stations and Sunday mornings and rundown streets, without making it Social Realism… It seems to me that those who like Hopper would be involved with Pop somehow. Or those who like Arthur Dove—those paintings of sound, fog horns, the circle ideas that were meant to be other things. There’s a real awareness of things, an outward awareness…
Actually I’m interested in the problem and not in solutions. I think there are certain Pop artists who are interested mainly in solutions. I paint about the problems of how to make a picture work, the problems of seeing, of making people aware without handing it to them on a silver platter. The viewer goes to it and is held back slightly from being able to get the whole picture; he has to work a little to deal with the problem—old artistic problems, that particular mystery that goes on in painting.
You once said that your audience tends to concentrate too much on the subject matter in your work.
They can’t get past it? Well, that’s their tough luck. I was talking about the big audience. The smaller audience gets through it and lives with it and deals with it, just like things coming up all day—in a shooting gallery, you know, things keep popping up to shoot at. And some guys can’t shoot, that’s all; they can only stand there with a gun in their hands. I’m interested in shooting and knocking them all down—seeing everything… But the statement about bridging the gap between art and life is, I think, a very nice metaphor image, if that’s what you’d call it, but I don’t believe it. Everybody’s using it now. I think it misleads. It’s like the magic step like—“Oh, that’s beautiful, it bridges art and life.” Well, that’s not so. If you can make it in life—and I don’t say that’s easy to do—then you can make it with art; but even then that’s just like saying if you make it with life then you can make it as a race-car driver. That’s assuming art and life can be the same thing, those two poles. I make art. Other people make other things. There’s art and there’s life. I think life comes to art but if the object is used, then people say the object is used to bridge that gap—it’s crazy. The object is used to make art, just like paint is used to make art.
Does Pop Art serve a social function? Is it a comment?
There are only a handful of people who seem to understand what I’m doing, so I’m certainly not changing the world. People confuse this social business with Pop Art—that it’s a comment. Well, if it’s art, who cares if it’s a comment? If you write some fantastically obscene thing on a wall, that may be an even better comment, but I’m not sure that’s art. I’m involved with formal elements. You’ve got to be; I can’t help it. But any work of art, if it’s successful, is also going to be a comment on what it’s about. I’m working on a series of palettes right now. I put down the palette first, then within the palette I can do anything—clouds can roll through it, people can walk over it, I can put a hammer in the middle of it… Every time I do something, the whole thing becomes richer; it is another thing added to the landscape. But once I’ve done something, I’m no longer interested in it as a problem. It just becomes another facet of my work, I’m interested in striving to do something tougher.
Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it’s working without trying, why can’t it work without being Communist? Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way.
I think everybody should be a machine.
I think everybody should like everybody.
Is that what Pop Art is all about?
Yes. It’s liking things.
And liking things is like being a machine?
Yes, because you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over again.
And you approve of that?
Yes, because it’s all fantasy. It’s hard to be creative and it’s also hard not to think what you do is creative or hard not be called creative because everybody is always talking about that and individuality. Everybody’s always being creative. And it’s so funny when you say things aren’t, like the shoe I would draw for an advertisement was called a “creation” but the drawing of it was not. But I guess I believe in both ways. All these people who aren’t very good should be really good. Everybody is too good now, really. Like, how many actors are there? There are millions of actors. They’re all pretty good. And how many painters are there? Millions of painters and all pretty good. How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract-Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something. I think the artists who aren’t very good should become like everybody else so that people would like things that aren’t very good. It’s already happening. All you have to do is read the magazines and the catalogues. It’s this style or that style, this or that image of man—but that really doesn’t make any difference. Some artists get left out that way, and why should they?
Is Pop Art a fad?
Yes, it’s a fad, but I don’t see what difference it makes. I just heard a rumor that G. quit working, that she’s given up art altogether. And everyone is saying how awful it is that A. gave up his style and is doing it in a different way. I don’t think so at all. If an artist can’t do any more, then he should just quit; and an artist ought to be able to change his style without feeling bad. I heard that Lichtenstein said he might not be painting comic strips a year or two from now—I think that would be so great, to be able to change styles. And I think that’s what’s going to happen, that’s going to be the whole new scene. That’s probably one reason I’m using silk screens now. I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me. I haven’t been able to make every image clear and simple and the same as the first one. I think it would be so great if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.
It would turn art history upside down?
Is that your aim?
No. The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.
Was commercial art more machine-like?
No, it wasn’t. I was getting paid for it, and did anything they told me to do. If they told me to draw a shoe, I’d do it, and if they told me to correct it, I would—I’d do anything they told me to do, correct it and do it right. I’d have to invent and now I don’t; after all that “correction,” those commercial drawings would have feelings, they would have a style. The attitude of those who hired me had feeling or something to it; they knew what they wanted, they insisted; sometimes they got very emotional. The process of doing work in commercial art was machine-like, but the attitude had feeling to it.
Why did you start painting soup cans?
Because I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years, I guess, the same thing over and over again. Someone said my life has dominated me; I liked that idea. I used to want to live at the Waldorf Towers and have soup and a sandwich, like that scene in the restaurant in Naked Lunch…
We went to see Dr. No at Forty-second Street. It’s a fantastic movie, so cool. We walked outside and somebody threw a cherry bomb right in front of us, in this big crowd. And there was blood, I saw blood on people and all over. I felt like I was bleeding all over. I saw in the paper last week that there are more people throwing them—it’s just part of the scene—and hurting people. My show in Paris is going to be called “Death in America.” I’ll show the electric-chair pictures and the dogs in Birmingham and car wrecks and some suicide pictures.
Why did you start these “Death” pictures?
I believe in it. Did you see the Enquirer this week? It had “The Wreck that Made Cops Cry”—a head cut in half, the arms and hands just lying there. It’s sick, but I’m sure it happens all the time. I’ve met a lot of cops recently. They take pictures of everything, only it’s almost impossible to get pictures from them.
When did you start with the “Death” series?
I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like, “4 million are going to die.” That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.
But you’re still doing “Elizabeth Taylor” pictures.
I started those a long time ago, when she was so sick and everybody said she was going to die. Now I’m doing them all over, putting bright colors on her lips and eyes.
My next series will be pornographic pictures. They will look blank; when you turn on the black lights, then you see them—big breasts and… If a cop came in, you could just flick out the lights or turn on the regular lights—how could you say that was pornography? But I’m still just practicing with these yet. Segal did a sculpture of two people making love, but he cut it all up, I guess because he thought it was too pornographic to be art. Actually it was very beautiful, perhaps a little too good, or he may feel a little protective about art. When you read Geníªt you get all hot, and that makes some people say this is not art. The thing I like about it is that it makes you forget about style and that sort of thing; style isn’t really important.
Is “Pop” a bad name?
The name sounds so awful. Dada must have something to do with Pop—it’s so funny, the names are really synonyms. Does anyone know what they’re supposed to mean or have to do with, those names? Johns and Rauschenberg—Neo-Dada for all these years, and everyone calling them derivative and unable to transform the things they use—are now called progenitors of Pop. It’s funny the way things change. I think John Cage has been very influential, and Merce Cunningham, too, maybe. Did you see that article in the Hudson Review [The End of the Renaissance?, Summer, 1963]? It was about Cage and that whole crowd, but with a lot of big words like radical empiricism and teleology. Who knows? Maybe Jap and Bob were Neo-Dada and aren’t any more. History books are being rewritten all the time. It doesn’t matter what you do. Everybody just goes on thinking the same thing, and every year it gets more and more alike. Those who talk about individuality the most are the ones who most object to deviation, and in a few years it may be the other way around. Some day everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening.
What is Pop?
Pop is everything art hasn’t been for the last two decades. It is basically a U-turn back to a representational visual communication, moving at a break-away speed in several sharp late models. It is an abrupt return to Father after an abstract 15-year exploration of the Womb. Pop is a re-enlistment in the world. It is shuck the Bomb. It is the American Dream, optimistic, generous and naí¯ve…
It springs newborn out of a boredom with the finality and over-saturation of Abstract-Expressionism which, by its own esthetic logic, is the END of art, the glorious pinnacle of the long pyramidal creative process. Stifled by this rarefied atmosphere, some young painters turn back to some less exalted things like Coca-Cola, ice-cream sodas, big hamburgers, super-markets and “EAT” signs. They are eye-hungry; they pop…
Pure Pop culls its techniques from all the present-day communicative processes: it is Wesselman’s TV set and food ad, Warhol’s newspaper and silkscreen, Lichtenstein’s comics and Ben Day, it is my road signs. It is straight-to-the-point, severely blunt, with as little “artistic” transformation and delectation as possible. The self-conscious brush stroke and the even more self-conscious drip are not central to its generation. Impasto is visual indigestion.
Are you Pop?
Pop is either hard-core or hard-edge. I’m hard-edge Pop.
Will Pop bury Abstract-Expressionism?
No. If A-E dies, the abstractionists will bury themselves under the weight of their own success and acceptance; they are battlers and the battle is won; they are theoreticians and their theories are respected in the staidest institutions; they seem by nature to be teachers and inseminators and their students are followers are legion around the world; they are inundated by their own fecundity. They need birth control.
Will Pop replace Abstract-Expressionism?
In the eternal What-Is-New-in-American-Painting shows, yes; in the latest acquisitions of the avant-garde collectors, yes; in the American Home, no. Once the hurdle of its non-objectivity is overcome, A-E is prone to be as decorative as French Impressionism. There is a harshness and matter-of-factness to Pop that doesn’t exactly make it the interior decorator’s Indispensable Right
Is Pop here to stay?
Give it ten years perhaps; if it matches A-E’s 15 or 20, it will be doing well in these accelerated days of mass-medium circulation. In twenty years it must face 1984.
Is Pop esthet