Pop to popism: The language of pop

The largest survey of pop art to be shown in Australia, Pop to Popism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales highlights how the movement continues to influence contemporary art today

Pop art created some of the most recognisable works of art in the world, from Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey. Yet many aspects of the pop movement have gone under the radar, such as the Australian artists who worked in bold ways ahead of their time, and the female artists whose work had to dramatically push boundaries to compete with the men. By looking beyond the iconic works and allowing these lesser known elements to come forward, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ latest exhibition Pop to Popism, part of Destination NSW’s Sydney International Art Series, tells the story of a language ¬– not just an art movement – that is still widely used today.
When pop art emerged in the early 1960s it transformed how audiences understood art. As a reaction to the gestural and painterly styles of abstract expressionism, and with the introduction of mass media, artists wanted to create more accessible work relevant to everyday life. They turned towards communications, advertising, television, film and comic books as materials to reflect these changes and the impact of technology in a rapidly evolving world.
“Pop artists were saying – actually, let’s look at real life. Let’s look at how people are actually living, let’s look at the popular culture that’s all around us, and bring that into the art gallery”, describes Wayne Tunnicliffe, curator of Pop to Popism.
The exhibition begins with the vibrant emergence of pop art in the early sixties and continues geographically and chronologically. Swinging London looks at artist groups such as The Independent Group that included Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, and aimed to revitalise art in the postwar era. Classic American pop art features the famous works of Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg, and the European movement presents works by Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Australian pop is a significant part of the exhibition, with artists including Richard Larter and Robert Boynes. Late pop art includes work made in the early to mid seventies, like Duane Hanson’s Woman with Laundry Basket, which begin to reflexively look back at the pop culture as defining a lifestyle.
The exhibition finishes on Popism, a term which reflects the values of pop art that have continued to influence contemporary art, particularly the methods of mechanical reproduction, the un-expressionist style, and the emergence of art that combines media. The merging of art forms, with an emphasis on appropriation and remix, brings into focus the idea of pop as a language, with its trademark values of borrowing material from modern everyday life.
Throughout the exhibition there is a particular focus on demonstrating the strength of female artists at the time with works by artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Rosalyn Drexler, Martha Rosler and Vivienne Binns. “Any female artist in the 1960s had to be pretty tough to compete with the men, so they often did quite tough work as well”, Tunnicliffe points out.
Tunnicliffe believes now is the perfect moment to look back at where pop art came from. “To think what relevance it has now and to put Australian artists into that context, because there’s never been a pop survey to show Australian artists with their international peers before.”
The Australian pop artists reacted to many of the same things as their international counterparts, but were much bolder when it came to pushing social boundaries.
“Australian pop is often quite erotic, there’s quite a strong hedonistic sexual element” says Tunnicliffe. Pop artists such as Martin Sharp and Mike Brown were among those charged with obscenity over references in their works: Sharp’s involvement in the cover art of underground OZ magazine in 1964, and Brown’s Paintin’ a-go-go exhibition in 1965, were both anti-establishment reactions against the art market.
“Australia was intensely socially conservative during that period and the artists were amongst those pushing against it, trying to bring about greater liberalization.”
While the retrospective gives context, a significant part of the exhibition is also a reminder of how the language of pop art is used today. Tunnicliffe points to the work of many contemporary Aboriginal artists such as Richard Bell, Tracey Moffatt and Tony Albert, who explore race in similar ways to how Australian artists from the sixties, such as Sharp and Brown, were using pop art to oppose conservative social issues.
“I think the language of pop has stayed with us. It seems to have another zeitgeist moment, there’s pop material turning up all over the place.”
So while the soup cans and comic books may be what get people into the gallery this summer, there’s another narrative to explore – one that’s more gritty, unexpected, and closer to home.

Pop to Popism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is part of Destination NSW’s Sydney International Art Series.