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Springfield Art Museum Celebrates Pop Art with New Exhibit

Springfield Art Museum
Credit (Photo: Randy Stewart; image courtesy Springfield Art Museum)
Andy Warhol's 1986 John Wayne image, titled "Cowboys and Indians"

Through April 17, the Springfield Art Museum brings the culture of the 1960s to life with the exhibit The Electric Garden of Our Minds: British and American Pop Art.  Sarah Buhr, Curator of the Springfield Mart Museum, says Pop Art was actually born twice: first in England in the 1950s, and later, independently, in New York.  But, she says, in both cases it was directly tied to the rise in—and pervasiveness of—the mass media in the years following World War II.  When you mention Pop Art, says Sarah, “you’re basically talking about art that was created using popular imagery: imagery from the comics, or advertising, or television.”

The Art Museum’s show features works by nearly all the central figures in the movement.  Here in America, of course, we’re most familiar with Andy Warhol.  But as Sarah Buhr reminds us, the Pop Art movement first surfaced in Britain in the mid to late 1950s. “It was really a group of (British) artists, architects and art critics who got together and discussed popular culture, and American comics, and the things that they were seeing—and starting to consider them on the same level as “high art.”  And that was the key to the movement: presenting “low art” as “high art.”

“At the time that was sort of considered iconoclastic, because what was popular (in the art world) before was ‘abstract expressionism’—those majorly large paintings of just color, that were supposed to be about big emotions.  But these artists started looking at the world around them, and pulling imagery from their day-to-day lives.”

The British aesthetic was rather different from that of the American artists who took up the movement in this country, because they basically viewed the pop culture of the day from different perspectives, says Sarah Buhr.  While British Pop Artists were more concerned with making statements about high vs. low art, American artists like Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were more interested in the materials and process used to make the art.  “The American artists were used to living with the imagery” every day, whereas the British artists were using imagery from America and were basically viewing it as “outsiders, and sort of intellectually appraising it.  The American artists were just used to living with it.”

I asked Sarah to describe in more detail the differences between British and American ideas of Pop Art. “For the British artists, mixing and juxtaposing imagery was key. So just visually, their work was more chaotic—they were using collage, taking bits and pieces of everything and merging it together to make some sort of statement. The American artists were much more interested in ‘what can I do with screen printing?’ and ‘I’ll just take a soup can and re-present it.’ It was visually much more streamlined and clean.  And it’s singular images presented large-scale.  So a large foot, or a large Mickey Mouse, where the British artists had Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck and a soup can and a robot all together.”

The leaders of the original British Pop Art movement included Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi.  The Springfield Art Museum actually owns one of the largest portfolios of Paolozzi’s seminal work... and hardly anyone knew they had it.  According to Sarah Buhr, “we found the Paolozzi portfolio in our storage vaults.  It had been carefully preserved for years but had not been on exhibit.”

The Museum also owns the famous Andy Warhol soup screen print, and much more besides. “The Warhol prints were a gift—they were donated by a private donor, I believe. Some of them were purchased, some of them were gifts.  I know some of them were purchased the year they were made.  So the staff who was here was clearly paying attention, and getting those right on time—just knowing the right people and making sure they were placed here.”

Sarah Buhr says that while the “shock value” of some of these iconic images has faded since they were new forty to sixty years ago, most of the imagery remains just as relatable for audiences today as it was then.  “It still seems to really connect with most viewers,” says Sarah. “It was amazingly embraced by the general public when it was first brought out. The art ‘elite’ were sort of shocked at it—but your average American homeowner was super into it, because they could relate to the imagery that they were seeing. And I think that’s still true today, just judging by how popular this show has been, and how many people are so excited to see the (Warhol) soup cans. And I think people feel a comfort with things that they recognize, that they’re familiar with.”

In addition to the soup cans, you’ll be able to see Warhol’s huge Mickey Mouse screen print and his John Wayne print from the mid-1980s.  And not just Warhol and Paolozzi by any means: another American artist, Robert Indiana, created the famous “LOVE” poster.  And there Sister Crorita Kent’s “Things Go Better With” (1967), based on the famous Coca-Cola tag line.  It’s in such perfect, pristine condition Sarah believes it may never have been out of wraps before this exhibit.  Unlike some of the pieces, which almost smack of “product placement,” Kent’s print doesn’t actually show or even mention the soft-drink product that inspired it.

On the other hand, many of the pieces in the exhibit do not deal with advertising or commercial images, says Springfield Art Museum Curator Sarah Buhr. “People think of Pop Art as being slick and cool and removed. But actually a number of these artists felt that the works were much more personal to them.” Another Robert Indiana piece, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” utilizes some his familiar typographic style, but it developed simply because Indiana loved listening to the Mozart work of the same name.  Then there’s Tom Wesselmann, who “was just very interested in the (human) body in general, and he’s known for a lot of close-ups of the figure.” This Art Museum exhibit includes a depiction of Wesselmann’s own foot, that he created on a commission from the 1972 Munich Olympics. 

Asked what she hopes people will take away from this exhibit, Sarah Buhr quotes Andy Warhol: “Pop Art is for everyone.  And the Museum is for everyone.  It’s a fun show, you can come and just enjoy the imagery, you can come and read a little bit more and learn a little bit more about history.  And you can also participate.” There is a “selfie” station and a “post-it” wall, where you can tell the Museum—and the world at large—what you think about Pop Art.  “There’s a famous quote by Claes Oldenburg (another major American figure in the movement): ‘I am for an art that is....’, and he had various things that he says (to finish that sentence). So we thought it would be fun to see what everyone else thought, what type of art they’re for.  We’ve had a great reaction and there are some real fun things to read on the Post-It wall.”

You can see some representative images from the exhibit in the slide show that accompanies this article. And you’re invited to view the entire exhibit free of charge at the Springfield Art Museum, 1111 E. Brookside Drive just east of Phelps Grove Park, now through April 17.