Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Andy Warhol at Ferus Gallery 1962

It was a hot LA day in July of 1962, when by chance I found myself at the Ferus Gallery and saw my first ever exhibition of POP Art, the Andy Warhol Soup Cans. It was a long time ago but my reaction was something along the lines of "wow these are cool." I took home the little letter-sized poster announcing the show.

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)
Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962
Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases,
Each canvas 20 x 16" (50.8 x 40.6 cm)
Collection: Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Gift of Irving Blum
© 2009 Andy Warhol Foundation / ARS
In the years that followed much has been written about Andy Warhol and his artworks. In this process, theory gets piled upon theory, stories become embellished, and eventually the history becomes a cultural myth that each era will interpret in their own way.

The other day, again by chance, I came across a copy of the Henry Hopkins review of the exhibition, as originally published in the September 1962 issue of Artforum.
Andy Warhol, Ferus Gallery: To those of us who grew up during the cream-colored thirties with “Big-Little Books,” “Comic Books,” and a “Johnson and Smith Catalogue” as constant companions; when “good, hot soup” sustained us between digging caves in the vacant lot and having “clod” fights without fear of being tabbed as juvenile delinquents; when the Campbell Soup Kids romped gaily in four colors on the overleaf from the Post Script page in The Saturday Evening Post, this show has peculiar significance.

Though, as many have said, it may make a neat, negative point about standardization it also has a positive point to make. To a tenderloin oriented society it is a nostalgic call for a return to nature.

Warhol obviously doesn’t want to give us much to cling to in the way of sweet handling, preferring instead the hard commercial surface of his philosophical cronies. But then house fetishes rarely compete with Rembrandt in esthetic significance. However, based on formal arrangements, intellectual and emotional response, one finds favorites. Mine is Onion.

--Henry T. Hopkins, © Artforum, September 1962, vol. 1, n. 4
As I read Mr. Hopkins rambling first sentence, it resurrected memories, from my childhood, which reveal something we generally forget when looking back on historical moments. It was a time before the JFK assassination when in spite of our nuclear fears most Americans were optimistic about the future. "Progress" still seemed like a real possibility along with owning your own home, a new car and a television set.

To me, digging caves in the vacant lot and having “clod” fights... is something right out of my childhood. In those years, there were "vacant lots," urban sprawl hadn't quite caught up to empty space. Comic Books, LIFE Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, black and white television with 'live' commercials, all were part of the cultural environment of this time. These were part of the visual culture of that era and in our fascination with the new medium of television and four color photographic printing, advertising and commercials were no where as nearly as intrusive as we find them today.

In the this context of postwar optimism, a decision by artists like Warhol or Lichtenstein to dip into the culture of commercial imagery was made because they liked the subjects, we thought they were "cool" (might have been "hip").

Whatever "irony" existed was taken with a humorous stance born out of appreciation of the subject matter. Somehow in the years that followed this viewpoint was lost as part of the critical community, fearing that "kitsch" would somehow debase "fine art," polarized the situation and the ironic stance lost its humor and became a cultural weapon of its own.

Regardless, it is apparent that despite the protestations to the contrary, that POP Art has entered into the culture in a significant way, influencing artists as much today as it did forty years ago. It is also no surprise that the wider public still views POP Art with interest. I think because it speaks with them in a familiar language.

Further reading: Henry T. Hopkins artical looking back on the early years.


Eric Gelber said...

I enjoyed reading this.

George said...

Thanks Eric. I had never read the Hopkins review until a few weeks ago. It's a bit humorous, almost like he didn't know what to say about the paintings.

But, I think he nailed something about tthe innocence of that moment in time between 1958 and 1961 before POP really became "visible."

Eric Gelber said...

I like the way you combine personal reminiscence with commentary on art history. Your pointing out how perceptions of art and artists change from one decade to another was convincing and solid.

George said...

I've been talking with another painter about a lot of this and started thinking about time spans. When I was in art school in the early 70's, Cubism was 50-60 years in the past. I can recall both how it was viewed in the art community at the time and how far back in history it seemed.

Today, looking back over the same span of years puts us in the late 50's, the middle of AE and the very early inklings of POP art (Johns, Rauschenberg, Rivers, Hamilton, Paolozzi) Move in a few years to 1963 or so and we find Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, etc.

Now, if I put myself in the shoes of a young artist today, POP Art is "in the book" the same way Cubism was for me and as a result the young artist today has a different view of the phenomena. This will always be the case, past movements are continually being reevaluated from the new perspectives of the present. While this is all well and good, sometimes it's interesting to go back to the roots, stripping away embellishments that followed and getting a reality check.