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Andy Warhol Pre-Pop
by Gary Comenas (2006)

page ten

contents | footnotes

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COMIC STRIP IMAGERY

Artists who incorporated comic strip imagery into their paintings prior to 1960 included Kurt Schwitters, Öyvind Fahlström, Jess (Collins), Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson and Warhol's first roommate in New York, Philip Pearlstein. In 1947 the Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters, incorporated comic strips into his collage For Kate, a work often referred to as a precursor of Pop. Rauschenberg, who borrowed Schwitter's grid patterns for his Combine paintings, included comic strips in works such as Charlene (1954), Small Red Painting (1954) and Nebus (1955). Jasper Johns used over painted imagery from the comic strip Alley Oop for his painting of the same name in 1958. Öyvind Fahlström wrote the article, "The Comics as an Art" in 1954 and during 1957 - 1959 reshaped images from Mad magazine for his appropriately titled work, Feast on Mad.2 San Francisco based artist Jess (Collins) rearranged Dick Tracy comic strips for his eight part series Tricky Cad produced from 1954 - 1959. New York artist Ray Johnson incorporated images of Little Orphan Annie, The Little King and Dick Tracy into collages and mail art prior to 1960.3 Philip Pearlstein did expressionistic paintings of Superman in the early 1950s, although only one canvas, owned by George Klauber, survives from 1952.4

Comic strip imagery was also used by British Pop artists in the 1950s. John McHale included two comic book images in his 1953 Transistor collage series. In 1954 Peter Blake painted the first of two paintings with the same title, Children Reading Comics.

PETER BLAKE

The 1954 version of Peter Blake's Children Reading Comics reproduced a double page spread of Eagle comics5, while the second version, painted in 1956, featured two adult-looking children, one with an eye patch, peering out from behind a newspaper apparently turned to the comics section. Like Warhol, Blake would later do a series of gold paintings (in 1959) and would also incorporate images of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe into works such as Got a Girl (1960/61) and Girlie Door (1959)6 which pre-dated Warhol's usage of that imagery. Blake's well-known Self Portrait With Badges (1961) featured an image of Elvis on the cover of an album held by a denim-clad Blake wearing Converse trainers.

Peter Blake:

"I wanted to make an art that was the visual equivalent of pop music. When I made a portrait of Elvis I was hoping for an audience of 16 year-old girl Elvis fans, although that never really worked."6a

In approximately 1955 Warhol drew an image of of a tattooed woman holding a rose for a promotional flyer that featured his home phone number. The same year Peter Blake painted Louella, World's Most Tattooed Lady. Both tattooed ladies were covered with found imagery. The tattoos of Blake's lady appear to be segments of newspaper articles and headlines whereas the tattoos of Warhol's lady are company logos and products such as Hunt's Ketchup and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Although Blake's work would become widely known in the U.S. during the sixties, not least of all because he illustrated the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album in 1967, he was still a student at the Royal College of Art when he painted his tattooed lady. It is highly unlikely that Warhol would have been aware of Blake's work in the mid-1950s. An article on Blake did appear in issue no. 18 of the Royal College of Art's magazine, Ark, in November 1956, but it is doubtful that Warhol was aware of it, although the magazine was distributed internationally, with subscribers in 32 countries and was often referred to in articles that appeared in other art publications.7 Later, Blake's paintings would be included in the "International Exhibition of the New Realists" show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York at the end of 1962 but in the mid-1950s the American art world was still focused on non-representational abstraction. Jackson Pollock remained America's biggest art star at the time, at least in the general press. In 1956 Time magazine dubbed him "Jack the Dripper" and his untimely death in an automobile accident the same year only increased his fame. One of Pollock's paintings, Galaxy, had originally been named after the comic strip character, The Little King, but Pollock later over-painted it and gave it a new title.8

It is interesting to note that artists on different continents were using found imagery from popular culture at around the same time although there is no evidence that Andy Warhol was aware of Blake in the 1950s or that Blake was aware of Warhol. Blake, would later comment, "I'd already started by the time I came across him [Warhol]. I'd made this thing with Captain Webb matchboxes which he [Warhol] couldn't possibly have seen but it did anticipate his soup boxes. Things seemed to be happening at the same time although we wouldn't have known what the other was doing."8b Blake was, however, aware of the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg during the 1950s.

Peter Blake:

"... from about 1954 I realised that I could paint the subjects I liked such as wrestlers and strippers and the rest of it. I was also aware of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in America who anticipated Warhol and Lichtenstein and I definitely based some collages on their work."8c

LAWRENCE ALLOWAY AND THE FIRST USE OF THE TERM "POP ART" IN PRINT

The same issue of Ark magazine (November 1956) that included the article on Blake also included an article,"But Today We Collect Ads," by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in which they used the term "pop art" as an abbreviation for "popular art." It was the first time that the term appeared in print although Lawrence Alloway is sometimes incorrectly credited with first using the term in his essay The Arts and the Mass Media.

Lawrence Alloway was a British art writer who wrote reviews for the U.K. magazine, Art News and Reviews (now called Art Review). Although the Wikipedia entry for Alloway states that he starting writing reviews for the magazine in 1943, the first issue of the journal was actually published on February 12, 1949. Alloway also organized the the exhibition, Collages and Objects, at the I.C.A. in London during October and November 1954 which featured work by Eduardo Paolozzi, as well as the Dada artists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. Alloway first traveled to the U.S. in 1958 and met Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg during that visit.18 In 1961 he moved to New York to become the senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum where he would remain until 1966.19 In 1963 he curated the "Six Painters and the Object" exhibition at the Guggenheim, which ran from March 14 - June 12, and included Warhol's Silver Disaster No. 6 (1963), in addition to work by Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist.

Alloway's essay, "The Arts and the Mass Media" was published in Architectural Design magazine in February, 1958. For decades, art writers have been crediting Alloway with originating the term "pop art" in his essay, but the term never actually appeared in the essay. Alloway was partially responsible for the confusion. In an essay by him which first appeared in Auction magazine in February 1962 and was later reprinted in a collection of essays by Alloway titled Topics in American Art Since 1945 (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975) as the chapter "Pop Art: The Words," Alloway wrote, "The term [Pop Art], originated in England by me, was meant as a description of mass communications, especially, but not exclusively, visual ones. By the winter of 1957-58 the term was in use, either as Pop Culture or Pop Art." The latter sentence is footnoted, "The first published appearance of the terms that I know is: Lawrence Alloway. 'The Arts and the Mass Media.' Architectural Design, February, 1958." (TA119) Alloway may have confused his "Arts and the Mass Media" article with another article he wrote with a similar title, "Notes on Abstract Art and the Mass Media," which appeared in the February 27 - March 12, 1960 issue of the U.K. magazine, Art News and Review (now Art Review magazine), in which he did use the term "pop art" (in small letters) to refer to popular art such as Hollywood movies. It was not meant to designate an actual art movement. The article was a review of an exhibition by "The Cambridge Group" - Tim Wallis, James Meller, George Coral and Raymond Wilson. Alloway's claim that he originated the term "Pop Art" is curious because in an earlier article, "Development of British Pop" published in Lucy R. Lippard's 1966 book, Pop Art, he denied that he originated the term, writing "The term 'Pop Art' is credited to me, but I don't know precisely when it was first used... sometime between the winter of 1954-55 the phrase acquired currency in conversation, in connection with the shared work and discussion among members of the Independent Group." The Smithsons and Alloway were both part of the group. (LA27)

In the United States, the first official acceptance of the term "Pop Art" was during a symposium held on December 13, 1962 at the Museum of Modern Art, moderated by Peter Selz. Some of the terms previously applied to the new art but rejected by the symposium were "neo - Dada" and "New Realism."10

THE INDEPENDENT GROUP

The Independent Group was a group of British artists, architects and design theorists exploring the growth of the popular arts and their relation to the fine arts. Its members included Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and John McHale, all of whom used comic book imagery in their artwork. Beginning in 1946, Paolozzi produced a series of collages using found imagery that are often referred to as early examples of British Pop.11 However, The collages were meant for his own reference and not intended as finished artwork. What has since become known as I Was A Rich Man's Plaything, featured a comic book pin up girl, a Coca Cola advertisement and the word "Pop!" in a sound-effect balloon.

BUNK!
THE YOUNG GROUP

In April 1952, Paolozzi presented samples of his found imagery at the ICA in London. The collages were later exhibited in 1972 as his Bunk! series but at the time he showed them at the ICA they were meant as examples of popular art rather than as finished works. It is often incorrectly reported by art historians that Paolozzi's presentation was at the first meeting of the Independent Group. It was actually at the first meeting of the Young Group, founded by Dorothy Morland, the Assistant Director of the I.C.A.12 During the first meeting of the ICA's subcommittee on lecture policy on January 29, 1952, it was noted that a group of young members of the ICA had been formed who wished to organize lectures for themselves.13 It was referred to as the Young Group to distinguish it from two other groups that existed at the time - the Television Study Group and the Free Painters Group. Later in the year, after Paolozzi's "Bunk" presentation had already taken place, the Young Group evolved into the Independent Group. The name "Independent Group" was first used at a meeting of the ICA Managing Committee on November 12, 1952.14

THIS IS TOMORROW

A comic book and the word "Pop" (as part of the brand name, "Tootsie Pop") were also included in a 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? which was used to advertise the "This is Tomorrow" exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London from August 9 to September 9, 1956. The exhibition has been incorrectly characterized by some art historians as an Independent Group project. "This is Tomorrow" actually began as a proposal from the French "groupe espace" who wanted to organize an English exhibition to demonstrate the synthesis of art and architecture. After English artists declined to participate in the show, the British architect and designer Theo Crosby, was brought in to help produce what would be, presumably, a more home-grown exhibition.15 Only half of the artists who showed their work had been involved with the Independent Group.

POP

Four months after the exhibition, one of the artists involved with it, Richard Hamilton wrote a letter to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson who had also participated in "This is Tomorrow." In the letter he defined some of the attributes of what he called "Pop Art" which was meant as a term to describe the popular arts rather than fine art. However, some of the characteristics that Hamilton attributed to the popular arts in 1957 could also be applied to the American Pop Art movement of the 1960s.

Richard Hamilton (from a letter to the Smithsons dated January 16, 1957)

"Dear Peter and Alison,

I have been thinking about our conversation of the other evening... My view is that another show should be as highly disciplined and unified in conception as this one ['This is Tomorrow'] was chaotic... Suppose we were to start with the objective of providing a unique solution to the specific requirements of a domestic environment e.g. some kind of shelter, some kind of equipment, some kind of art. This solution could then be formulated and rated on the basis of compliance with a table of characteristics of Pop Art.

Pop Art is:

Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Expendable (easily forgotten)
Low Cost
Mass-Produced
Young (aimed at youth)
Witty
Sexy
Gimmicky
Glamorous
Big Business"16

Even earlier than Hamilton, another artist exhibiting at "This is Tomorrow," John McHale, had coined the term "Pop Art" in conversation with Lawrence Alloway circa 1954, according to an interview with McHale's son.

Warhol would not have known about McHale or Hamilton in the 1950s, however he was certainly aware of Hamilton by 1963 when he met the artist in Los Angeles at a party for Marcel Duchamp during Duchamp's retrospective at the Pasadena Museum, curated by Walter Hopps.17 One of Hamilton's students, Mark Lancaster would later appear in several of Warhol's early movies, including Batman Dracula and a Kiss film with Gerard Malanga, in addition to also helping Warhol stretch his early Flower series and the Most Wanted Men series.

Paolozzi had a much higher profile in the 1950s than Hamilton or McHale, although he was known mostly as a sculptor. His Bunk collages were reproduced in Horizon magazine and his work was shown at the Venice Biennales of 1952, 1954 and 1960. His first American solo exhibition was at the Betty Parson Gallery from March 14 - April 2, 1960 and his bronze sculptures had been exhibited in the group show "New Images of Man" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. Paolozzi was also mentioned in the American art magazine Art News as early as 1953.

Although Paolozzi exhibited in the U.S., there is no evidence that his work or the work of the other artists from the Independent Group, played a role in the beginnings of American Pop. Art news tended to travel from the U.S. to England, rather than vice-versa.

Lawrence Alloway:

"I'm not aware of an [influence], and equally, I don't think English Pop Art turned out to have much future, one of the reasons being the comparative weakness of the formal traditions of painting and collage in England. English art is frequently more graphic than painterly... Whereas, it is quite clear that even when the Pop artists, just as the Minimal artists, were rejecting Abstract Expressionism, they were benefiting from its formal performance and, so, you have got a high level of execution combined with this quoted subject matter. In England the quotidian subject matter was not reinforced by a similar pictorial sophistication so that it seems to me that American Pop artists went ahead and diversified, whereas the English equivalent - although early - had no future..."21

Although the British pop artists had used comic strip imagery in some of their works, none had done what Warhol would do - paint large individual canvases reproducing single comic book panels complete with speech bubbles. However, there was another American artist who was using similar cartoon imagery as Warhol around the same time as Warhol - Roy Lichtenstein. It would be as a result of seeing Lichtenstein's work that Warhol would stop painting comic strip characters and start painting soup cans.

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Andy Warhol