PHILADELPHIA — America haunts the “International Pop” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. American power, American culture, American consumerism, American speed, the big, white toothy American smile. The first work you encounter upon entering this ambitious and absorbing exhibition bears the stamp of American might: Antonio Henrique Amaral’s “XX/XXI (20th/21st-Century Tribute)” depicts four mouths with grotesque tongues, chattering against a background of stars and stripes.
The red, white and blue in Amaral’s 1967 painting aren’t meant as an affectionate tribute. Amaral was Brazilian, and in 1967 his country was under the thumb of an American-supported military dictatorship. Like many other artists in this wide-ranging show, he processed American imagery into a trenchant critique of the world’s reigning hegemon.
“International Pop,” first seen at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is an effort to rewrite the history of the Pop art movement, which has traditionally been studied as an American and British phenomenon, dominated by a few male artists with household name recognition: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. All of those artists are present, but they don’t hog the wall space. Instead, the exhibition focuses on Pop as it grew simultaneously in Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany and Japan. And it includes a refreshing body of work by women artists and artists who are not otherwise well known in the United States.
But while it aims at an account that doesn’t place America at the center of things, much of the art on display keeps returning to the Yankee idée fixe. If you were an artist working in the decades after the Second World War, and you were determined to appropriate visual ideas from popular culture, it wasn’t easy to avoid the obvious icons: Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe, hamburgers, rockets, cartoons and cars.
Merely invoking an iconic image, however, doesn’t always make your purpose, or your ideology, clear. And that remains the central problem and fascination with so much Pop art. Is it ironic, or celebratory, or some uncertain confusion of the two? In Amaral’s case, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. But when Pop artists take up subjects such as women and sex, it’s a lot more slippery.
Pin-ups, nudes and Hollywood bombshells abound in this exhibition, but when male artists pass them on under the guise of new work — in collages or carefully painted facsimiles — do they also pass on the misogyny lurking behind the original? And when artists take the capitalist market as their subject and create art objects that are meant to circulate like commodities, have they in fact stood back and commented on the market? Or did they just take advantage of it?
The lifecycle of Pop, unfortunately, was often a vicious circle: It began with critique, evolved into irony and ended as commodity. Which is to say, Pop largely created the art world we know today.
When Richard Hamilton, a seminal figure in early British Pop, defined the emerging phenomenon in 1957, he might have been describing the current moment: Pop, he said, was popular, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young and also “Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.”
Those same values make much of the contemporary scene entirely tedious and insipid, but when he celebrated them more than a half century ago, they were radical. Among the many things this exhibition does well is recapture the shock of that moment, the urgency of the change that so many Pop artists embraced. A few dates, taken from a comprehensive and fascinating chronology published in the exhibition catalog, set the stage: The Bretton Woods Conference, in 1944, laid the groundwork for a more cohesive international economy after the Second World War; in 1948, Coca-Cola started its aggressive campaign to dominate international markets; in 1950, CBS gave the first public display of color television, on eight sets in D.C.
There was an explosion of images, perhaps as shocking, thrilling and confusing to people then as the international adoption of the smartphone is to people today. There was also a burst of communication and travel that began to erase borders. And a proliferation of products and ideas that were more widely shared by disparate people around the planet than anything that had happened before. The sense that we all inhabit one small planet, and are one big unruly family, didn’t begin with the Internet.
You see the crazy, not-yet-fully processed chaos of these changes in scrapbook pages (made in the late ’40s and early ’50s) by the British Pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, full of magazine clippings and simple collaged juxtapositions of classic art and commercial trivia. By the late 1950s, Hamilton was working in a fascinating hybrid style that mixed the reticence of abstraction with clear reference to the contours of classic Pop fetish objects, like cars. By the mid-1960s, there was a full-on Pop sensibility percolating around the globe, even behind the Iron Curtain, where the commercial and political images of the West had special meaning.
And yet, even as Pop was flourishing, there were worries. In 1964, a major art dealer who had championed Pop was already fretting about how famous its artists were becoming, and how difficult it was to get good material: “Everybody is a star now and they seem to shine without our help,” Ileana Sonnabend said. “I think it’s safe to be pessimistic about getting anything at all.”
“International Pop” is focused on the 1960s and ’70s, and it doesn’t take up the aftermath of the movement, if one can even call it a movement. The curators have cast a wide net when it comes to what qualifies as Pop, and that’s smart. Inevitably, the very idea of a cohesive movement with a coherent ideology about art and the market falls apart. Early Pop was, by nature, anti-establishment and anarchic. As the definitions of what’s Pop and what’s not get looser, the range of material proliferates and you may feel as if you’re not looking at Pop art so much as a wild mashup of all the crazy antecedents of what is on view at contemporary galleries today.
But the curators won’t be disappointed if you’re overwhelmed and confused. “In the end, International Pop attempts not so much to rediscover Pip as to challenge the notion that Pop comprised any kind of unified purpose or style,” writes curator Darsie Alexander in the catalog introduction.
Mission accomplished, but with the happy side effect that the art is fascinating, provocative, often thrilling, and all those other things Hamilton said it should be, including Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky and Glamorous.
“International Pop” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 15. For more information, visit http://www.philamuseum.org.