Verner Panton Living Tower, 1968 Collection Vitra Design Museum © Panton Design, Basel.


From the Winter 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Journal

Pop Art Potency

Bold new Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition examines the influence of the Pop Art movement on virtually every facet of our society since its emergence in the 20th Century.

By Alex Keown

One of the most significant artistic movements to shape world culture will boldly be on display this winter in Pop Art Design, a new exhibition coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) on December 19.

Unlike other artistic movements over the centuries, the brash, colorful Pop Art movement is ubiquitous, known the world over thanks to the bold works of artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who focused on popular everyday imagery drawn from mass media and popular culture with the intent of elevating the mundane to fine art.

First seen in the 1950s, Pop Art shaped a new sense of cultural identity, with a focus on celebrity, mass consumer production and the expanding industries of advertising, television, radio and print media. But ultimately it helped to provide ways to interpret art and ideology of the period from which it sprang, which inevitably led back to the considerations of everyday life.

The MCA’s new exhibition will provide fresh insight into the impact and progressions of the Pop Art movement, including the migration of motifs between art and design, the relationship between everyday objects and images and how everyday life first came under the still-dominant influence of the style. Like the movement itself, the exhibition may come to shift perspectives on the design aesthetic conveyed in products and objects we encounter everyday.

Contrary to popular perception, in its beginnings Pop Art was not limited to painted reproductions of advertising labels, such as Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup cans, or Lichtenstein’s homages to the comic strip. Pop Art transcended the canvas to influence the world of commercial design with items like chairs, sofas, lamps and even architecture. It’s that multidisciplinary impact that is at the core of the MCA’s exhibition.

“(Pop Art Design) is a great fit for the MCA because of our long-standing interest in multidisciplinary arts and looking at artistic fields beyond the traditional visual arts,” noted Michael Darling, curator of the exhibition.

Visiting the exhibition, guests will gain a sense of just how Pop Art has shaped our culture today. “The exhibition shows the continuing impact on culture in all kinds of different ways.” Darling explained. “Visitors will be able to recognize how important brands, logos, and typography have (come to be), and the mass production of those images, also, the incredible impact that the mass media and celebrity culture has had on our lives.”

Pop Art’s great appeal spans well beyond the interests of the average art aficionado. As Darling points out, many of the images and aesthetics explored in the exhibition will feel quite familiar to the broadest range of visitors. And although there will be a strong sense of the familiar, Darling says there are still some surprises in store, particularly as the exhibition relates to design.

Those familiar with Pop Art, for instance, may be surprised to learn how deeply the movement impacted the direction of contemporary commercial design. The original exhibition, organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, focused much of its content on Pop Art’s pervasive influence on interior design.

The fact is that in a lot of ways many of Pop Art’s roots sprang from the economic boom that followed World War II. And as Darling points out, it was the rise of the car culture, the housing boom and the building of the 20th Century consumer class that inspired early pop artists to develop the new and innovative perspective in art and art creation. The movement gave way to a desire to focus an artistic eye toward easily identifiable imagery, removing as many of the previously established barriers to connecting directly with the audience or consumer as was possible.

Darling notes museum visitors who take in the exhibition will see just how Pop Art was not just about painting and sculpture, but how it crossed a plethora of different genres and mediums. He explains that the exhibition demonstrates keenly how the movement broke down previously established barriers, redefining the landscape of art and art appreciation. “The real highlight of this show is how furniture and graphic design and fine arts are all installed next to each other,” Darling noted. That juxtaposition, he told me, “flattens traditional hierarchies between media. I think those juxtapositions are the best (aspects) of the show.”

The new exhibition features more than 150 works, including George Nelson’s 1955 Marshmallow Sofa; Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans II; Studio 65’s Leonardo Sofa, which has rarely been exhibited since it was first produced in 1969, according to the MCA; Allen Jones’s provocative Chair, which features a chair cushion supported on the bottom and thighs of a reclining woman; Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II; and Claes Oldenburg’s Green Beans.

Darling points out that visitors will see a clear sign of the rise of consumer consumption in this exhibition, with a specific focus on the influence of alcohol and drugs and how that came to find integration into design. Visitors will also be able to get a sense of how folk art and kitsch were embraced by the pop artists of the late 1900s.

In addition to the main exhibition, the MCA will feature a companion show of classic pop works drawn from the museum’s extensive collection. The show, dubbed The Street, the Store, and the Silver Screen: Pop Art from the MCA Collection, explores Pop Art through three themes that help to provide an understanding of everyday life through the works of the artists. The companion show will feature the works of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, as well as the works of George Segal, Marcel Broodthaers, Ed Ruscha, Allan D’Arcangelo and Larry Rivers.

Darling hand-selected works for the companion exhibition based on their ability to artistically “dialogue and talk” to the works positioned next to them. Guests will also find some iconic works in the companion show, and there will be much to take in for those new to Pop Art and aficionados alike.

If you plan to take a trip down to the MCA this winter and soak in the new show, the next time you’re in a downtown office building sitting comfortably atop a marshmallow cushioned sofa, you just may begin to see it a bit differently.

Pop Art Design runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art from December 19 through March 27, 2016. And its companion exhibition, The Street, the Store, and the Silver Screen, runs concurrently with the show.