Antonion Caro, Columbia, Coca Cola (photo courtesy of the Block Museum of Art)

​​​​​From the Autumn 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

​​When one thinks of Pop Art, artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtensetin often come to mind. A responsive movement springing out of a need to challenge the traditions of fine art by focusing on images from popular and mass culture, Pop Art embraced subjects from the banal to the sublime, like advertising and comic strips and common, kitschy cultural objects presented often in an ironic context. The purpose: well, that's up for debate, but many see the genre as a distinct stab at the elitist culture formerly surrounding fine art. Images of Campbell’s Soup cans and Marylin Monroe vibrantly colored with varying negative and photographic treatments tend to shape the signature defining styles of Pop Art as served by artists from Britain and the U.S. But the lines of demarcation set forth by those artists do not entirely define the Pop movement, nor do they adequately define the true impulses behind Pup Art from the Mid-1960s through the 1970s.

Pop Art spanned far beyond the borders of the U.S. and the U.K. Its bold and colorful imagery, references to mass culture and representations of everyday objects were embraced by talented artists working across the Western Hemisphere. Their input expanded what is typically  understood as the focus of Pop Art and engaged symbolism and meaning not readily associated with the style.

This fall, at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Pop América: Contesting Freedom, 1965 – 1975  explores the many works of Pop artists from Latin America, surveying the subjects and creative techniques of artists working in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the U.S.

​Co-organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, Pop América  re-examines debates over Pop's perceived political detachment and aesthetic innovations. The exhibition also expands ideas of Pop well beyond the U.S. and Britain, where the genre was most commonly popularized.

Pop América received the inaugural Sotheby’s Prize, which recognizes curatorial excellence in exploration of overlooked or underrepresented areas of art history. And it is an understatement to say that Pop Art trends and artists from Latin America are overlooked and underrepresented areas of art history.

Pop América features nearly 100 artworks by artists working throughout Latin America and the United States. The artists in this exhibition include Antonio Dias, Rubens Gerchman, Cildo Mereiles, Anna Maria Maiolino, Marta Minujín, Hugo Rivera-Scott and Andy Warhol. All create vital dialogues that cross national borders. United by an overwhelming use of Pop’s visual strategies, these artists have made bold contributions to conceptualism, performance and new-media art, as well as social protest, justice movements and debates about freedom—subjects Pop Art in the U.S. and U.K. seemingly avoided.

​Organizing the Block presentation of this exhibition, Corinne Granof, curator of academic programs, and Evelyn Kreutzer, interdisciplinary graduate fellow, both saw the value in exposing Pop Arts’ augmented footprint to audiences in Chicago, a city in which Pop has always reigned supreme (both among appreciators and collectors). Said Granof, “Pop América expands our understanding of Pop, shifting the focus away from what was happening in London and New York, to include expressions of Pop sensibilities from artists working across Central and South America, the Caribbean and the United States, creating a pan-American history of Pop…While the exhibition will appeal to anyone interested in Pop Art in general, and the late 1960s in the U.S. and Latin America, it will be meaningful for Chicago’s Latino/a/x communities. We are excited about opportunities the project has opened, such as partnering with the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen on some of our programming.”

Granof also pointed out that exploring art in connection with broader ideas and histories is part and parcel of what a university museum should do, engaging through visual culture with scholars working in history, art history, and in this case, Spanish and Portuguese literature.

Furthermore, the exhibit’s focus fits neatly into the framework of The Block’s 2019-2020 commitment to examining global modernisms and the museum’s broader, ongoing commitment to global art in general. Pop América is one of several exhibitions that explore new ways of looking at modernist approaches that were thriving beyond Europe and the United States to include aesthetic innovation throughout the Arab World and the Middle East, Turkey, India and—with Pop América—Latin America. The Block Museum stresses a commitment to look at art across time, culture and place, and the 2019–2020 schedule promotes this focus across a broad swath of modernist movements.

​Granof points out that, while it is not exactly accurate to discuss Pop Art as a movement, in the exhibition guests will see artists working in ways not dissimilar in approach to Pop in other parts of the world, seen especially in stylistic features of bright, flat colors, representation of objects, signs and symbols, iconography from consumerism and an emphasis on surface and appearance. Though not necessarily a unified approach, there is definitely a shared sensibility that emerged from the times covered in the exhibition.

Highlights in the exhibition include works by Felipe Ehrenberg, an artist whose playful collages uses simplified forms and color along with ambiguous symbols and numbers; Antonio Dias’s The Illustration of Art/Un-Covering the Cover Up, which critiques the role of media in American culture; Rupert Garcia’s Unfinished Man (simplified in its forms and colors, the work represents a powerful statement on race and class disparities in the U.S.); and Marisol’s Mi mamá y yo (My Mother and I) a colorful, bright and monumental, but simultaneously confrontational work.

Pop América also presents guests an opportunity to see works by lesser-known artists, such as Juan José Gurrola, whose Familia Kool Aid (Kool Aid Family) serves as a humorous commentary on consumerism and conformity.

There are over 40 artists represented in this exhibit, all varying in their approach to their work. Some works mirror techniques of popular examples of Pop Art, yet their ultimate foci diverge widely from their popular comparisons. The point of the exhibition is not to show how alike output from Latin American artists are in comparison to the broader community of Pop Art but to show how these techniques were employed to filter shared and common experiences and issues often set apart from the broader Pop Art community by culture and geography.

​Granof explained, “The works in the exhibition are informed by specific conditions and milieus of their time and place, including political unrest and coups in Argentina, Brazi and Chile and military dictatorships, student protests in Mexico City and the social unrest throughout the region. In the exhibition, visitors will see artworks that emerged out of these various contexts, and using different visual strategies, such as conceptualism and minimalism, along with Pop motifs and styles.”

Pop América is a broad survey of various forms of Pop, but overall includes artists working in an exuberant and playful—and at the same time serious—spirit that provides a broader perspective that what is commonly understood about the style.

Anthony Caro’s Colombia Coca-Cola, for example, employs iconography similar to that used by Andy Warhol, but the meaning and intent strays from the familiar and ironic to become a stronger political  critique. The work takes two familiar, recognizable icons, the Coca Cola logo and the color of the Columbian flag, making a clear statement about the reach of U.S. capitalism in South America. The approach inspires a second look, says Granof, at more familiar Pop images, such as Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can, shedding light on possible political meaning behind the otherwise benign subject.

​Hugo Rivera-Scott's work is another example. Viewing  Roy Lichtenstein’s Explosion in proximity to Rivera-Scott’s Pop América, for which the exhibition is titled, we begin to see Lichtenstein’s work through a more politicized lens. While the text on Rivera-Scott’s work can be thought of as a verb meaning to pop, or to explode, the word "America" is expanded to a hemispheric notion of the Americas. In this light, Lichtenstein’s work (Pop America), perhaps, then addresses, on some level, the impact and fears during the Cold War and the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

​These examples help to sharpen our perception of what is really at work in the Pop Art we have come to know and therefore help to reshape the debate over the genre's broader political and aesthetic implications.We often paint artistic or cultural movements with a narrow brush. But stepping back and taking a deeper look at expressions of any form is bound to provide a broader picture of that movement's true scope and intent. Pop América, at the Block this fall, gives us a chance to re-visit a familiar form of artistic expression and see its possibilities across cultures, geographies and political ideologies, and it is clear from this intriguing examination, there's more to Pop Art thank meets the eye.

POP ART RE-EXAMINED

A new exhibition looks at Pop Art beyond the U.S. and U.K., where it has been popularized, to unveil Latin American and Latinx expressions of the genre that challenge and reframe what we have come to know about what it is and what it truly represents.

By Isaac Jacobs

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