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Fine Arts in Focus: What Puts the Pop in Pop Art?

by Academy Contributor

You’ve probably seen Andy Warhol’s neon painting of Marilyn Monroe, called the Marilyn Diptych. While this artwork is considered a classic example of Pop Art, what makes it Pop Art?

Multiple images of Marilyn Monroe in a grid
Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol
Image courtesy of Apollo Magazine

For starters, Pop Art emerged simultaneously in the United States and the United Kingdom during the late 1950s. The Pop in Pop Art stands for popular, and that word was at the root of the fine arts movement.

The main goal of Pop Art was the representation of the everyday elements of mass culture. As a result, celebrities, cartoons, comic book characters, and bold primary colors all featured prominently in Pop Art.

Of course, it takes more than that to be Pop Art. Below are other essential elements of the genre, including:

Cultural Kitsch

Cultural kitsch is common, campy, and cute. “Kitsch” can be a little hard to define, but it generally describes things that are tacky and mass-produced.

Kitsch was well-represented throughout the Pop Art movement, but one of the best examples is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.

32 Campbell's soup cans in a 4x8 grid
Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol
Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Easily Recognizable Imagery

In a way, Pop Art was a reaction to its predecessor, Abstract Expressionism. Unlike Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art depicted people or objects that viewers instantly knew, like road signs or the above soup cans.

As a result, even at first glance, there was no question about what people were looking at in Pop Art pieces. In fact, this leads us to our next point: iconography.

Iconography

Common cultural icons taken from television, movies, advertisements, comic books, and magazines were a hallmark of Pop Art. For instance, Roy Lichtenstein’s Ohhh… Alright… uses comic book elements to convey its message.

A red-haired woman on the phone saying, "Oh... Alright..."
Ohhh… Alright… by Roy Lichtenstein
Image courtesy of NPR

Other than Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, vehicles such as the big-finned Cadillacs of the late 1950s and Volkswagen buses of the 1960s were also among the favorite subjects of Pop Art artists.

Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm refers to the destruction of established imagery used in social and political contexts.

Pop Art was a significant move away from “high art” and the implied superiority of Abstract Expressionism. Many artists in the Pop Art movement actually thought Abstract Expressionism was pretentious.

Therefore, they sought to smash popular icons by appropriating or repurposing them.

Inclusiveness

By drawing upon images from the cultural mainstream, Pop Art established itself as the art of the people. Its fans claimed that anyone could appreciate and understand Pop Art, regardless of whether they had a fine arts degree.

"Handle with care!" in green text in a neon orange circle
handle with care by Corita Kent
Image courtesy of Harvard Magazine

Irony

Lastly, the Pop Art movement was nothing if not ironic, a quality that many of its detractors didn’t understand. What made Pop Art ironic was how it transformed mundane, everyday items into fine art.

Who Put the Pop in Pop Art

Although many artists participated in the Pop Art movement, we’ve decided to highlight three special visionaries who went on to define the movement.

Andy Warhol

Naturally, Andy Warhol is a must-know. Warhol originally pursued a fine arts degree to work in commercial illustration, but moved on to painting later in life.

Eight images of the same Mercedez-Benz, tinted different colors
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe by Andy Warhol
Image courtesy of the Albertina Museum Vienna

Warhol’s Pop Art work spanned a variety of mediums, including silkscreening, painting, film, and multimedia. Shoes, Campbell’s soup, and Marilyn Monroe are among his common themes.

Roy Lichtenstein

On the other hand, Roy Lichtenstein was inspired by classic American comic strips. Like Warhol, once Lichtenstein earned his fine arts degree, he worked for several years before creating work that would spark the Pop Art movement.

Roy Lichtenstein sitting beside his painting called Masterpiece
Photo courtesy of Gagosian

Lichtenstein’s most expensive piece, Masterpiece, featured comic book staples such as speech balloons and sold for $165 million dollars in 2017.

Corita Kent

Finally, we can’t leave out Sister Mary Corita Kent.

Kent was a Roman Catholic nun and social activist who also favored silkscreen printing. Balancing her fine arts studies with her religious duties, Kent created art promoting peace and love while decrying acts of injustice.

Hands making the peace sign reach from the bottom of the page toward the top
a passion for the possible by Corita Kent
Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center

Her works include the 1985 ‘Love’ postage stamp, protest art of the 1960s, and over 800 individual silkscreen pieces of activist art.

Diving Deeper Into the World of Fine Arts

Though Pop Art has its roots in the ‘50s and ‘60s, its impact is still felt today.

If you’re curious about other Pop Art creators or the movements that Pop Art eventually inspired, pursuing a fine arts degree could help you grow your interest into something more.

To learn how Academy of Art University can support you on your journey, request information today.

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