P ost-World War II, artists on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the aesthetics of American mass culture through magazines, advertisements and Hollywood film; however, it was in Britain that Pop Art officially began, and several pioneering works are offered in Sotheby's Prints and Multiples sale in London on 19 March. The term ‘Pop’ first appeared in Eduardo Paolozzi's 1947 collage I Was a Rich Man's Plaything, emphasised in red letters within a cloud of smoke emanating from the barrel of a gun.
"Pop Art Is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at the youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business."
A few years later, The Independent Group formed in London in 1952. Led by Paolozzi, the group included British Pop pioneers Richard Hamilton, William Turnbull and the art critic Lawrence Alloway amongst others. Their seminal and iconic This is Tomorrow, considered the first Pop Art exhibition, took place shortly afterwards. The show opened in Whitechapel and embraced collaborative art practices, with a focus on the ‘modern’ way of life. There were 12 teams divided into groups of three members – an architect, a sculptor and a painter. Each group was allocated a space and they were free to use it as they wished. Hamilton’s work TiT, which is included in this sale is an acronym for This is Tomorrow. The image illustrated derives from a photograph of Hamilton’s group's installation; their main theme was ‘Perception and Imagery’. In the upper left corner, in red, there is an enlargement of Rotorelief by Marcel Duchamp. On the floor in the middle ground, paint is dribbled in the style of Jackson Pollock.
On 16 January 1957, Hamilton wrote the now iconic letter to his friends Peter and Alison Smithson, comprising a list of 11 qualities of what 'Pop Art Is’. He went on to deliberate the characteristics further:
As expressed in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s Among Americans: Richard Hamilton, the ‘sincerity’ of Pop Art has been (or remains) subject to critical debate. Early Pop Art in Britain was fuelled by American popular culture viewed from a distance. It is important to note that Hamilton had not yet visited America but took a ‘subversive opposition' from afar. With wit and deadpan detachment, the Pop artist held a mirror to contemporary America.
"I find I am not yet sure about the 'sincerity' of Pop Art. It is not characteristic of all but it is of some – at least, pseudo sincerity is."
It wasn’t until 1963 that the leading British Pop artist met “Duchamp’s children”; the recently formed American Pop artists. It was in Los Angeles, at Marcel Duchamp’s first retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, that Richard Hamilton, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and Claes Oldenburg, amongst others, met the godfather of conceptual art. When Hamilton returned to London, via New York, he also encountered Lichtenstein, and possibly Jasper Johns.
‘First of all, the initially rigorously anti-iconographic concept of Duchamp’s ready-made had perhaps, even unknowingly, acquired an additional dimension of historical representation in American hands. In other words, what had once been a mere declaratory nominalist principle had now gained a potentially affirmative of critical dimension’
Taking Duchamp’s lead, promoting the banal and everyday, the Pop Artists brought a radical sociocultural shift. Imagine when Andy Warhol's Campbell’s Soup paintings were first exhibited by the visionary art dealer Irving Blum at Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1962. This was the artist’s first solo exhibition and consisted of 32 works – a quantity prescribed by the company’s current product line – displayed in a single line on the gallery walls along grocery store shelving. Warhol was completely unknown before the show, but caused an immediate uproar in the local art scene, becoming the Prince of Pop overnight. The public could not believe he had the audacity to paint a soup can. Neighbouring gallery owner, David Stuart, for instance, reacted by buying and displaying actual cans of Campbell’s Soup, accompanied by an invitation to purchase them for less. His plan backfired, in a sense, as his reaction only generated more interest in Warhol’s project, and is still viewed as a pivotal moment in the development of Pop Art today.
Warhol reinterpreted the soup cans in a portfolio of ten screenprints in 1968 and again in 1969. This format and method of production served to refine and emphasise the key objectives behind the 1962 works: to create a seemingly impersonal and mechanised aesthetic in order to question artistic subjectivity; and to use repetition and slight variation to highlight qualities of ubiquity, monotony and abundance in everyday visual culture. Old Fashioned Vegetable, included in the sale, is one work from the Campbell's Soup II series.
Similarly, the repetition and the mechanised aesthetic can also be seen in Hamilton's The Solomon R Guggenheim, La Scala Milano and Bathers (A). Hamilton was interested in the information that could potentially be discovered by replicating and enlarging an image or a postcard.
Warhol’s Flowers, in the same vein, originated from a photograph of hibiscus blossoms published in the 1964 issue of Modern Photography. With amazing colours of electric green and four large nonspecific flowers in bright and synthetic Pop colours, it mocks the splashes of abstract expressionist painting and romanticism. The photographer Patricia Caulfield, upon discovering this unauthorised use of her image, sued Warhol in 1966. Warhol must have been delighted by the concept.
In his late essay titled Romanticism, written in 1972, during the height of Pop Art, Hamilton perfectly summarises the Pop theme: "I have, on occasions, tried to put into words that peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism that ‘Pop’ culture induces in me and that I try to paint. I suppose that a balancing of these reactions is what I used to call non-Aristotelian, or, alternatively, cool."
The diverse range of screenprints and lithographs offered in this sale surveys the development of Pop Art in the US and the UK whilst demonstrating the participants’ inventiveness as printmakers. Ranging from the mid-1960’s to early 1990’s, this section of the auction celebrates the best of the Pop pioneers, from Hamilton and Warhol to Lichtenstein and Haring, each of whom left their technicolour stamp on the art world.