Tomorrow is here again

Anne Wagner

  • The First Pop Age by Hal Foster
    Princeton, 338 pp, £20.95, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 15138 0

When Hal Foster uses the word ‘first’ in the title of his confidently focused study, he means to start us thinking about Pop now and then. It is a reference to Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), which argued that modernism’s prewar optimism was over and done. ‘We have already entered the Second Machine Age,’ Banham declared, ‘and can look back on the First … as a period of the past.’ Pop artists thought the same: like Banham, who was to become one of Pop’s champions, most were between thirty and forty when Theory and Design was published; the Second World War was behind them; economies were at last expanding; non-stop shopping was the engine of the new prosperity, and Pop artists were determined to keep up. For them, tomorrow had arrived; for Foster, it is here again.

Like Banham, Foster writes with the conviction that he ‘can look back’. Pop’s irrevocable pastness, he suggests, lies in the fact that something decisive has changed since its salad days in the 1950s and 1960s, something ‘concerning the look and feel of screened and scanned images, the capacity of consumerist and technological worlds to be represented, and the formation of subjects in a media environment’. We can now see, he argues, that Pop was not merely an inventory of the promises of postwar plenty, or a survey of the spanking new products available for consumption. It also managed, against all the odds, to establish these new commodities as icons of desire. Movie stars are one thing, but it cannot have been easy to fashion a fetish from a can of soup – or from car tyres, vacuum cleaners and golf balls. Roy Lichtenstein even reworked the iconic potential of a standing rib of beef: he painted it raw.

Foster’s book offers the most sustained demonstration to date of the once contested belief that, far from merely reproducing their source materials, Pop paintings reinvent them. They assume a complex visual presence as immediate as that of the Byzantine icons often cited as their prototypes, and, paradoxically, as distant. But if these effects are not the result of mimicry alone, how do they come about? For Foster, this question can be answered only by attending to Pop as painting, with visual operations all its own. The result is an inquiry into Pop aesthetics, rather than the anaesthetics it was initially thought to bring about. ‘Pop Art,’ the critic Hilton Kramer complained in 1962, ‘does not tell us what it feels like to be living through the present moment of civilisation – it is merely part of the evidence of that civilisation.’

‘What is Pop art?’ G.R. Swenson asked in 1963. He pressed Andy Warhol on why he painted soup cans (‘Because I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day’), asked Robert Indiana if Pop was ‘easy art’ (‘Yes’), and sought Jim Dine’s views on whether Pop offers social commentary (‘I’m certainly not changing the world … if it’s art, who cares if it’s a comment?’). He also asked Lichtenstein: ‘Is Pop art despicable?’ Briefly dispensing with the tough-guy deadpan of his fellow painters, Lichtenstein answered with a justification of Pop’s tactics: in engaging commercial imagery, it was taking up ‘the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things we hate’; taking them up, and accepting them, as ‘being there, in the world’.

Today, as we stand knee-deep in Pop’s sequel – its Second Age – the difficulty lies instead in the fact that the present-day media explosion invites amnesia where media themselves are concerned. Today we communicate through means whose speed, disposability and sheer pervasiveness seem to matter less for the images they generate than for their celebration of ‘communication’ itself. It is beginning to seem that iconic images are something we can do without. This was not always the case. It is sometimes hard for art historians to remember that in the 1960s ambitious art could still justify its reliance on painting (rather than light works or earthworks or sheer emptiness) precisely because it was the medium most able to concretise the contemporary image world: Foster does not make this mistake. Nor does he fail to see that the 1960s painters were well aware of the way their pictorial practice (as they probably would not have called it) engaged the ordinariness, the everydayness, of the image world – a world which, despite its immateriality, was by then insistently ‘there’. The majority of the names that stand out in Pop painting – among them not only Lichtenstein and Warhol, but also Richard Hamilton, Gerhard Richter and Ed Ruscha, each the subject of one of Foster’s five chapters – were collectors, even connoisseurs, of the omnipresent image: they assembled examples of its endlessly mundane oddity in files and scrapbooks; they deployed those motifs on large-scale canvases, effecting the transfer with opaque projectors, slides and silk screens, sometimes dissecting then reassembling the salient parts. The result in the eyes of doubters, the poet Stanley Kunitz for example, was an art ‘not of transformation but of transposition’, when transformation is art’s proper aim.

Transposition of what? Foster begins his book with the pronouncement of the architects Alison and Peter Smithson: ‘Today we collect ads.’ For the first Pop artists this was an article of faith. Avid bottom-feeders, they scraped up regular doses of tabloid violence and pulp pornography, raiding the corner shop for its comic books and scouring flea markets for amateur snapshots capturing the shapelessness of life. So eager were they for raw material that even the bland pages of their own family albums weren’t safe from their ravages; the most out-of-focus snapshot of a long-dead relative (including, notoriously, Richter’s smiling Nazi uncle, Rudi) was subject to cropping, masking, dodging and burning. Such tricks, which professional designers and photographers routinely used to manipulate their source images efficiently (Warhol picked them up during his years as an adman on Madison Avenue), made for consistently high productivity (Warhol is again the outstanding example: he seems to have averaged a bit more than a painting a day, which says nothing about the prints and multiples the Factory turned out). The most significant predecessor and rival to Foster’s Pop painters in using such tactics was John Heartfield, whose near-weekly montages in aid of European communism in the 1930s came from his own mastery of the image world, a pictorial literacy otherwise unmatched, at least until the First Age of Pop.

This is one reason Foster speaks as much to Pop ‘images’ as to Pop paintings. In his eyes, the very idea of the image has a double valence: on the one hand, ‘image’ refers to the works the artists produce; on the other, to a larger phenomenon: the unprecedented – and still growing – saturation of contemporary visual experience by mechanically produced and reproduced emblems, tokens or signs. A horseman on the mesa or a glamour girl in a convertible: these too are images; they say ‘logo’ or ‘lifestyle’, ‘beauty’ or ‘travel’, often standing in for language while dispensing with words. Image, then, as in ‘image world’, the title of a 1989 exhibition at the Whitney. Foster embeds the concept ever more firmly in an understanding of the recent practice of art.

Foster’s choice of terminology here contrasts with his work in the 1980s, when the bases were covered by ‘picture’ instead. In those days, he wrote as a partisan of the Pictures Generation, the group of mostly New York-based artists (Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler among them), so-called postmodernists who made their own uses of found or borrowed imagery. Their preferred medium was photography, which they used to secure the effects that gave ‘pictures’ their pictorial look. Sometimes these pictures resembled movie stills, sometimes old masters or centrefolds, modernist icons or museum interiors. The choices always mattered, but the most important thing was that it remain clear to which category or genre the ‘source’ picture (or pictorial type) belonged. A Pictures picture must be both formally and conceptually governed by identifiable conventions; these make it a whole, which an image by one of Foster’s Pop artists need not be.

Instead, Pop pictures assemble motifs and fragments selected from several sources, as in Hamilton’s images; their composition can be incomplete and episodic, as when Lichtenstein extracts motifs from classic cartoons and canonical paintings, Monet and Cézanne among them, and ‘redevelops’ them as signs; they can stutter under an overload of repetition, as Warhol so insistently showed us; they can lose their focus, devolving into a distancing blur, as in Richter’s woozily photographic illusions. And as Ruscha demonstrates in his landscapes, Pop pictures can be so insistently mundane that ‘place’ fails to figure as anything more than a cipher, a sign – which, when that sign reads ‘Hollywood’, is precisely the point. All this goes to say that the Pop image may seem all too recognisable, yet it still manages to operate as a visual and interpretative construction, a critical artefact.

Image and picture, and ultimately for Foster, the academic tradition of the tableau: historians of 20th-century art deploy this terminology so as to locate their objects of study in terms of high art – the ‘ancient purpose’ of the artist, in Hamilton’s phrase – and the compositional unities that governed it. There is little doubt that this tradition did bear down on Foster’s artists, with Warhol the possible exception, though here there is room for debate. Certainly he seems to have been well aware that he was engaging, and sometimes countering, art’s dearest traditions point by point. He was, after all, a producer of portraits, still lifes, landscapes and even history paintings; he knew what an icon was and how it functions; and he was entirely capable of producing allegories of artistic convention. In his hands, studio became ‘factory’, motifs were always borrowed, brushes yielded to squeegees, and the artist’s role was merely to choreograph the spectacle and make sure the goods got made. No matter how coyly he played the part of onlooker, nothing could conceal that he was really the star. No wonder that in Richter’s view Warhol was in essence a cultural symptom, a proxy or ‘substitute for an artist’ who blessedly ‘made no “art”’. Yet Warhol also ‘legitimised the mechanical’, as Richter put it: Warhol showed him ‘how it is done … this modern way of letting details disappear’ into erasure and blur.

‘$he’ by Richard Hamilton (1958-61)

The pages devoted to Warhol are the conceptual heart of Foster’s book, yet the most engrossing chapter may be the first, about Richard Hamilton, who insisted that the contemporary artist cannot help but turn to mass culture, ‘to plunder the popular arts to recover the imagery which is his rightful inheritance’ – the imagery of modern life. Hamilton was a finicky thief – ‘as particular’, Foster says, ‘about terms as … about images’ – and concerned to unite the visual and the verbal in his signature tabular pictures. Foster shines here too. His great pages on $he (1958-61, pictured) are unmatched in their grasp of tabular painting as an accumulative strategy, an ‘overlapping of presentation styles and methods’, as the ever-meticulous Hamilton put it, all inscribed on the blank ‘tablet’, the ‘table’, that is the picture at its start (Hamilton often chose to paint on panels rather than canvas). More than this, Foster lays hold of the erotic excesses these accumulative strategies wrest from the figure of the woman, whose ‘body is cut back, only to reappear, associatively, in the pinks and reds that wash down the fridge door onto the table top’, and whose plastic lenticular eye (a last-minute addition) ‘opens and closes, as a fridge does’. The picture both disperses and reifies the female body, presenting it as both painterly performance and mechanical thing.

What Hamilton means by ‘presentation styles and methods’ we would call ‘media’: the same image can be ‘processed’ through photography, printing and finally painting. Put another way, the images in a tabular picture can be developed through processes that are serial and exchangeable, and which accumulate to give it what Foster sees as its interpretive depth. ‘Above all,’ he writes, ‘Hamilton holds on to depth – depth that is at once pictorial, psychological, hermeneutic and historical – whereas his American colleagues tend to dissolve it.’ Foster does not mean to suggest that American Pop paintings are inferior to British Pop, but Hamilton’s conviction that, in Foster’s words, ‘painting remains the best way to reflect on new media as they emerge,’ does make his work and thinking a dominant presence in the book.

Foster too is determined to hold on to depth, and that effort ultimately results in what we might call the book’s ‘recessive’ trait – or, if not recessive, less than fully expressed. This is the question of Pop’s politics. For although Foster begins by puzzling over the political valence of Pop art, he ends up not quite sure where he stands on this issue. What gets in the way? The problem may be the artists themselves. Ultimately, Foster does not seem to trust how they feel – or perhaps better, trust everything they feel – about contemporary life. On the one hand, he sees their works as offering ‘moments of criticality’ – he means something like ‘fleeting political insights’ – and he is well aware of having privileged those moments at the expense of Pop’s ‘sheer delight in popular culture’. But should we discount the political possibilities of that delight? These, after all, are the artists who at last were able to bring ‘the image world’ into aesthetic view. What they saw there transfixed them: sex and death, of course, but also everything high art seemed to lack – boundless energy, absurdity, familiarity and the canned comforts of shop-bought soup. What they saw, in other words, was the horrifying marvel of a society saturated in everyday violence and routine seduction, oblivious to waste, yet irresistible all the same. No wonder they want to stop and look. Perhaps at their peril: think of Lot’s wife. In any event, for Foster, Pop’s delight in its parent culture should only ever be ‘intermittent’. Fair enough: I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I am less certain that such ‘delight’ as seems possible cannot play a role in politics, whereas for Foster, it leads to politics ‘lite’.

Yet Pop, Warhol said to Swenson, is ‘liking things’. And in an ideal society ‘everybody should like everybody.’ The remark does not appear to make for a trenchant critical or political moment, but it does dovetail with Foster’s concluding view on where Pop’s politics can be found. It is lodged in the image world itself. ‘The politics in Pop,’ Foster writes, ‘is pitched differently, centred on its commitment to what is held in common, including our shared image world understood (perhaps perversely) as a newfangled commons.’ Newfangled, perhaps, but already threatened, like the commons of old, with enclosure. A politics of sharing need not be one of liking, but surely keeping it available begins with a notion of likeness within difference, even of ‘delight’ in the common good. To live in the Second Pop Age is to acknowledge one’s own position in that commonality; neither the distance of connoisseurship nor the thrill of bottom-feeding will do. We will need a common idea of the commons if we are to find a way towards a political realism capable of facing up to the range of emotions consumer culture inspires. Love and hate are the closest of neighbours, as are high and low.