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’.

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