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Pop Art  

Pop Art is the school of painting and sculpture of the early 1960s that utilized the subjects, techniques, or stylistic conventions of the mass media and popular culture, either separately or in tandem with each other.

First appearing in England in the 1950s, it flourished in the United States during the early 1960s, the moment of Pop's greatest popularity. Although it was an international style--with practitioners in Asia and Latin America, as well as in the Soviet Union and Western Europe--its most famous manifestations were seen in the work of American artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Mel Ramos, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann.

These artists worked in a variety of styles. Lichtenstein enlarged and altered panels from romance and war comics, even copying the small dots that were a result of commercial color separation processes. Rosenquist, a former professional billboard painter, painted enormous canvases with a jarring array of images suggestively juxtaposed from various media sources, primarily advertising.

The most famous of the Pop artists proved to be Warhol. He successfully integrated commercial printing processes into his work, distancing himself from the tortured paint surfaces of the Abstract Expressionists who preceded him. His focus on celebrities and fame in his work proved prophetic, as he himself soon became a media celebrity and Pop Art became co-opted by the very mass media that it plundered for subjects.

The Turn to Popular Culture

Pop Art is among the most important visual arts movements of the twentieth century. The Pop artists turned to popular culture and advertising for sources to create representational works that defied the modernist hierarchy of avant-garde and kitsch, established decades earlier by the influential modernist critic Clement Greenberg.

Breaking with the modernist tradition of abstraction (which by the early 1960s had become institutionalized in the form of Abstract Expressionism), Pop Art seemed to some observers to be frivolous and reactionary. However, it actually represents a turning point in the history of twentieth-century art.

Modernism had long insisted upon a strict hierarchy of taste. Contemporary society's blurring of "high" and "low" culture began simultaneously with Pop's parallel blurring of artistic hierarchies. As one of the hallmarks of postmodernity, this erasure of qualitative distinctions suggests that Pop is among the earliest manifestations of the postmodern.

The Return to Representation

Pop Art's return to representation was made possible by the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1950s. In paintings such as Flag, from 1955, Johns explored the narrow ground between the real and the depicted. In so doing he re-introduced a conceptual component into art that had initially been explored by French artist Marcel Duchamp earlier in the century.

Rauschenberg's complex multimedia works, such as Bed of 1955, combined Abstract Expressionist brushwork with both real and depicted objects, pointing out the constructed nature of both. Significantly, Johns and Rauschenberg were partners both artistically and romantically in the late 1950s during this groundbreaking period.

Pop Art's similar but more radical use of images and techniques from mass media created great consternation in the art world.

Pop Art and Camp

Although only one of the most famous group of Pop artists was gay (Warhol), the new art's connection with the work of earlier gay artists such as Rauschenberg and Johns is clear.

Furthermore, during the early 1960s the straight world was beginning to discover the camp sensibility (exemplified by the 1964 publication of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp"). Because camp was seen as the triumph of style over substance, when the Pop artists elevated their reviled media images to the arena of "high art," they paralleled the camp celebration of and commitment to the marginal.

Pop's self-consciousness about style in both "low" and "high" art inextricably linked it to camp, and resulted in numerous attacks on Pop and its practitioners.

Pop's Success and Its Influence

This resistance by the art world establishment did not prevent the public from enjoying and collecting Pop Art. The Pop artists achieved quick financial success (much to the dismay of the staunchly heterosexual Abstract Expressionists) and soon assumed canonical status in art history.

Its affinities with the camp sensibility have always provided Pop with a substantial gay audience. Pop has subsequently had a significant influence on later art and artists, opening the doors for everything from Photorealism in the 1970s to the ironic examination of the mundane that has dominated much contemporary art.

Joe A. Thomas


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Andy Warhol (right), the avatar of Pop Art, with President Jimmy Carter at a reception for inaugural portfolio artists in 1977.
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  American Art: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Prior to Stonewall, most gay artists were closeted, but they were inventive in creating codes for those in the know; after 1945 some adventurous artists developed independent networks for the distribution of works of gay art.

literature >> Overview:  Camp

Combining elements of incongruity, theatricality, and exaggeration, camp is a form of humor that helps homosexuals cope with a hostile environment.

arts >> Duchamp, Marcel

One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp desired to break down all linguistic, sexual, and social restraints.

arts >> Indiana, Robert

Robert Indiana, best known as the creator of the LOVE series of paintings and sculptures, is an openly gay American artist who has incorporated autobiographical and gay themes within his work.

arts >> Johns, Jasper

Known for his iconic yet cryptic paintings, acclaimed American artist Jasper Johns is a key figure in the transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism.

arts >> Rauschenberg, Robert

One of the most prolific and innovative artists of the late twentieth century, Robert Rauschenberg was at the core of a group of interdisciplinary artists who revolutionized American art.

arts >> Rivers, Larry

One of the pioneers of Pop Art, Larry Rivers was a prolific artist, sculptor, and jazz musician; although he did not identify as a bisexual, the twice-married artist had significant same-sex sexual experience.

literature >> Schuyler, James

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Schuyler, a prominent member of the New York School of poets and painters, wrote openly about his homosexuality.

arts >> Sekula, Sonja

Swiss-born artist Sonja Sekula created small-scale abstract images with profound emotional power.

literature >> Sontag, Susan

Although she treated her own lesbianism as a strictly private matter, Susan Sontag wrote perceptively on gay male figures and issues.

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as artist)

The avatar of Pop Art, Andy Warhol expressed desire in his images of celebrities and flouted traditional notions of masculinity by embracing extravagance, effeminacy, and an obsession with surface appearances.


Ferguson, Russell, ed. Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1992.

Livingstone, Marco. Pop Art: A Continuing History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Stich, Sidra. Made in USA: An Americanization in Modern Art, The '50s and '60s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Thomas, Joe A. "Pop Art and the Forgotten Codes of Camp." Memory and Oblivion: Proceedings of the XXIXth International Congress of the History of Art. Russell Weinink and Jeroen Stumpel, eds. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999. 989-995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Thomas, Joe A.  
    Entry Title: Pop Art  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 14, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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