Although there was never an attempt on the part of Pop artists to form a movement (in fact in 1961 very few of these artists knew each other or were familiar with each other’s work), there does seem to have been some critical point demanding expression which brought us to depart from whatever directions we were pursuing and to move toward some comment involving the commercial aspect of our environment.
There are many ways of looking at a phenomenon, of course, particularly a phenomenon as amorphous as an art movement, and there are many levels on which it can be discussed. Fm not sure an artist would have any more insight, that he could express in words, than a critic or an historian. But let me discuss one aspect that comes to my mind.
Aside from all of the influences which one can think of, and I have in mind movements and actual art products such as the three-dimensional Absinthe-Glass of Picasso, the Purist painting of Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, the use of actual common objects in collage, the DADA movement, the paintings of Stuart Davis, the paintings of Leger, the beer cans, targets and flags of Jasper Johns, the collages of Rauschenberg, the use of American objects in the happenings of Kaprow, Oldenburg, Dine, Whitman, Samaras and others. Aside from all these decided influences, and influences they were – particularly the happenings and environments, since both Oldenburg and Dine proceeded directly from happenings to Pop Art – it is at another level that I wish to describe the emergence of Pop Art.
Pop may be seen as a product of two twentieth-century tendencies: one from the outside – the subject matter; and the other from within – an esthetic sensibility. The subject matter, of course, is commercialism and commercial art; but its contribution is the isolation and glorification of ‘Thing.’ Commercial art is not our art, it is our subject matter and in that sense it is nature; but it is considered completely at odds with the major direction of art during and since the Renaissance and particularly at odds with our directly preceding movement – Abstract Expressionism. Commercial art runs contrary to a major art current in the sense that it concentrates on thing rather than environment: on figure rather than ground.
The esthetic sensibility to which I refer is anti-sensibility – apparent anti-sensibility. Anti-sensibility obviously is at odds with such concurrent and friendlier attitudes as contemplation, nuance, mystery and Zen, etc. Historical examples of anti-sensibility art – even recent examples – are hard to point to. The anti-sensibility facade fades and the sensibilities prevail. But if we can remember our first confrontation with certain modern works, the newer work seems cheapened, insensitive, brash and barbarous. It is not the rougher paint handling I refer to, but apparent lack of nuance and adjustment: for instance, our first look at Les Demoiselles d*Avignon of Picasso, or our first look at Mondrian or Pollock, or if we compare a Cubist collage or a Franz Kline with almost any old master painting. Compare a Daumier with a Botticelli. Courbet’s audience saw him as brash and artless in the mid-nineteenth century and van Gogh and the Fauves of course were seen in this light. But the modern works referred to here are not primarily anti-sensibility art – they represent many other qualities; but they do contain a bit of this element which is more strongly represented in Pop Art.
But works of art cannot really be the product of blunted sensibilities – it is only a style or posture. It is, however, the real quality of our subject matter -the particular awkward, bizarre and expedient commercial art styles which Pop Art refers to and amplifies. Since works of art cannot really be the product of blunted sensibilities, what seems at first to be brash and barbarous turns in time to daring and strength, and the concealed subtleties soon become apparent.
Anti-sensibility is the stance most characteristic, I think, of recent art in the sense that it is most unlike the Renaissance tendencies of transition, logical unfolding, purposeful nuance, and elegance. Although the anti-sensibilities stance appears as mindless, mechanical, gross and abrupt or as directed by prior or non-art decisions, its real meaning, I feel, lies in the artist’s personal sensation of performing a difficult feat of bravado while really respecting all of the sensibilities. This is its meaning if it is successful – in Pop Art or any other style.
It may also have other meanings: Brassy courage, competition with the visual objects of modern life, naive American freshness, and so on.
In a strained analogous way perhaps we can see the twentieth-century tendency toward anti-sensibility in art joining the readymade real insensibility of our commercial environment to form Pop Art.
Originally delivered as a lecture to the College Art Association, Philadelphia, January 1964.