From Splatters to Soup Cans: How Abstract Expressionism Paved the Way for Pop Art

April 4, 2022

 As the hallmark of an era, Pop Art permeated all aspects of 1960s art and culture. People were stunned and confused by the movement, and ultimately it gained mass appeal in much of the western art world. It was fun, new, and completely deviated from the art movements that preceded it. By using recognizable, common imagery, pop art made high art more accessible to the everyday viewer after abstract expressionism alienated many with interpretive and intellectual connotations.

To fully understand the Pop Art movement, it is important to acknowledge what came before it and led to its rise. Before Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism dominated much of the modern art world. After World War II, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York City, where Abstract Expressionism originated. Many artists were saddened and alienated by the war and destruction that had just occurred, and so they turned to a new medium to express these sentiments. They took advantage of their situation to create a movement that was highly exciting and unique; the ostensibly effortless inception of the movement translated to their works as well. Many facets of Abstract Expressionism can be characterized by large-scale paintings, emotive content, and seemingly spontaneous or unplanned use of color and line. The Abstract Expressionists used color and line to communicate an intensity of feeling in their paintings; the dynamic structure of the works evoked an immediate emotional response from their viewers. The sense of energy garnered from the way each painting was created drew people to connect with it, providing a highly personal experience. 

As a key painter in the Abstract Expressionist movement, Mark Rothko championed the method of color field painting. The term was coined by art critic Clement Greenberg and was used to describe Rothko’s expansive rendering of space and wide swaths of pure color on his canvases. Rothko’s color field paintings served to depict raw emotion; he would often layer colors and paints to create his unparalleled paintings, using blocks of color to appeal to different sensory experiences. Standing in front of his paintings, which were often over seven feet tall, the viewer is completely consumed by color. His ambiguous separation of color and blended use of line created forms that seemed to bleed into one another, combined at times, yet still quite distinct. While wholly unique and intriguing, Rothko’s works were not representational, and the meaning behind each was often very different and personal depending on the viewer. This made them quite difficult to interpret, and often confused and alienated those unfamiliar with his painting style.

Another pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist Movement was Jackson Pollock, whose preferred method of painting involved splattering pigment onto paper or canvas. Inspired by European Modernism, and Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Pollock began painting in accordance with the school of Abstract Expressionism. He conceived his first drip painting, for which he is so famous, in the mid-1940s. This body of work was highly original and unique and represented true artistic genius. Pollock painted these already unconventional pieces in an untraditional manner; instead of placing his canvases on an easel, he lay them on the floor or put them up against a wall, and dripped paint on them from above. He also often used atypical tools for dripping the paint, such as a knife or a stick. While controversial at first, these paintings quickly became a hallmark of the Abstract expressionist movement. Many people, upon first glance, saw his works as childish and talentless and dismissed them because of this. They thought to themselves “I could do that!” and rendered it meritless. With closer inspection, one can derive the deep complexities that each Pollock painting holds and the careful planning and choice that went into each stroke. 

For Rothko and his contemporaries, Abstract Expressionism was highly personal and highly intellectual, thus making those not established in the art world feel far removed from it. Each work can be interpreted differently depending on the viewer; someone looking at a red Rothko painting might see it to be representing anger, while another views it as showing love. The abstract forms so fundamental to these works made interpretations inherently ambiguous. This left many viewers perplexed about the intentions and meaning behind each piece. The Abstract Expressionist movement was the launch of the American avant-garde art scene which excluded many people from participation in the movement, whether that be through viewing, purchasing, or even creating the works themselves. Those who were not already established members of the art world found it difficult to engage with Abstract Expressionist works. Without proper knowledge or guidance, the paintings became daunting to everyday viewers. The creation and observation of Abstract Expressionist works were so deeply personal that it was often cumbersome to understand. The significance and sentiment behind the paintings were often quite abstract, further alienating viewers from a comprehensive understanding of both the art and the movement. For the common onlooker, Abstract Expressionism looked like a series of random, unintelligible lines and colors. Unable to discern one thing from another, many people avoided Abstract Expressionism and consequently avoided much of the art world. 

After Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art rose to prominence. Taking their ideas from the world around them, Pop Artists based their art on advertising, materialism, and consumerism. Pop artists looked to the world around them for the subject matter—their inspiration came from Realism, a 19th-century style intended to make subjects look as photographic and detailed as possible. They took the things they saw as being the most culturally relevant— for example— comic books, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley, and made them into real works of art. To create these works artists used commons commercial methods like silk screening or producing multiples, giving the illusion of mass production. They made their artistic practice simple yet detailed, common, yet exact. Pop Artists took what was most readily available to them and used that to fuel their artistic expression, which as a result created one of the most significant art movements of the 20th Century.

Perhaps the leader and most central artist of the Pop Art movement was Andy Warhol. Branded by his unique style and personality, Warhol created hundreds of prints, paintings, and lithographs in his lower east side studio, colloquially known as “The Factory.” Warhol strove to create objects that would outlast him. He began his gallery career with ink drawings of shoes in the 1950s in New York but had his first exhibition in Los Angeles in 1961 with his presentation of  Soup Cans (1961). This exhibition entailed a series of 32 paintings of different flavors of Campbell’s Soup. Warhol said that the soup cans came from his daily lunch— the artist would often have a can of Campbell’s for his midway meal. He took inspiration from his daily routine as well as the objects he saw and used that to create content for his art. After the Soups, Warhol made paintings and prints of other familiar objects and people such as dollar bills, Coca Cola, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe. These ordinary-depictions-turned-high-art catalyzed for other future pop artists to create works that were inspired by the objects that surrounded them. 

After Warhol, another prominent artist of the Pop Art era was Roy Lichtenstein, whose works resembled the art of comic books. Before he found this comic book style, though, Lichtenstein went through many different phases and characteristics with his works, with the heart of his inspiration remaining to be low art and unpopular imagery. In 1957 he began experimenting with cartoon characters in his paintings while his son was young, and then later returned to that style in 1961, when he began teaching at Douglass College in New Jersey. The second time Lichtenstein implemented the use of comic book visuals, he did so with Benday dots, which were a series of small dots that he used to make up a larger image. These dots quickly became a hallmark of, and synonymous with Lichtenstein’s painting style. His works usually depicted a person painted in comic book format and a speech bubble stating something dramatic like, “I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!” or “Oh Jeff…I love you, too…But…” As he gained critical acclaim, Lichtenstein began to experiment with different mediums such as prints and sculptures. He especially enjoyed using what he called “non-art materials,” or industrial and unconventional objects to create his works.  In 1964, Lichtenstein, along with several other artists exhibited at the Paul Bianchini Gallery for a show entitled “American Supermarket”. For this particular exhibition, the artists involved were asked to create foods or other supermarket items in their signature artistic style. These items were then curated in a supermarket style; the door to the exhibition was a turnstile, the depictions of dry goods were placed on shelves, and the meats were in glass cases. For his contribution, Lichtenstein created supermarket bags with a comic book-style turkey on them. These bags were sold for two dollars, which would be about fifteen dollars, adjusted for today’s inflation. This made his works completely affordable to the public, who would otherwise probably be unable to afford a five hundred dollar print or a thousand dollar painting. 

As Pop Art began to gain more respect and prominence within the art world, it began to change the ways that people viewed and interacted with Modern Art. Before the Pop Art movement, galleries and museums were mainly sterile environments reserved only for those already active and involved in the art world. Museums and galleries were generally very quiet and were almost exclusively used for viewing art. Pop Art completely turned that dynamic on its head and flipped it upside down. Pop Art de-intellectualized these spaces and made them more inviting and welcoming to people. Gallery space was no longer used solely for hanging art on the walls, it became a catalyst for discussion, experimentation, and performance. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the museum began to be a community space and a resource for public programs and events, rather than just an art house. 

In the Pop Art movement, a museum or gallery was not always the only way to view Pop Artworks. Artists often collaborated with companies on advertising, meaning that people began to view pop art as part of their everyday life, on a TV screen, magazine or billboard. Andy Warhol often partnered with companies such as Coca Cola, Lifesavers, and even the prolific fashion house, Chanel, to create advertising for their products. .  He saw these simple products as the great equalizer between people; no matter who you were or what you did, you were still drinking the same coke, eating the same candy or wearing the same perfume as anyone else. This philosophy can also be seen in Warhol’s art, and not just in his advertising. His art was a great equalizer among people. It was a middle ground for the upper and lower classes to come together and enjoy something that is avant-garde, yet recognizable, simple, yet unique. He made his works popular yet affordable and his movement was exclusive yet inviting. 

Pop Art also granted accessibility in the realm of art collection or art dealing. These popular pieces were priced much lower than the conventional paintings or sculptures of previous art movements. A major facet of Pop Art was mass-producing images or making multiples, which resulted in the creation of prints and lithographs more than ever before. Printmaking was already much less inexpensive to produce, but lithographs came into play during this time because they were now being made much cheaper with aluminum, rather than limestone which was much more rare and expensive. Prints and lithographs were cheaper to produce, resulting in a much lower price point on the art market. These prints and even paintings were sold rather inexpensively in galleries and auction houses. In 1961, Warhol’s collection of 32 hand-painted soup cans sold for $1,000 to Irving Blum, which would be approximately $8,000 today. His prints, comparatively, such as his Brillo Soap Boxes sold in 1964 for $300, which today would be about $2,000. There were also several opportunities for even cheaper consumption and purchase of these works; at the American Supermarket show at Bianchini Gallery in 1964, people could purchase an Andy Warhol soup can for a mere $6. While these soup cans were just actual cans of Campbell’s soup that had been signed by Warhol, they were still considered to be Warhol’s works at an almost unfathomably low price point. Pop artworks cost significantly less than the paintings of the Abstract Expressionist era. For example, at one of Rotko’s shows in 1951, prices ranged from $500 to $3,000, which would be about $4,000 to $28,000 in today’s money. This high price usually reserved the purchase of abstract expressionist paintings for the upper classes; comparatively, the purchase of Pop Art could be open to anyone. 

Later on, as the Pop Art movement grew, artists such as Keith Haring started making their art more accessible to the public by selling it on different merchandise. As a supplement to his popular street art, in 1986, Keith Haring opened the “Pop Shop” in downtown manhattan. Here he sold t-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, and a plethora of other merchandise with his art on it. His reasoning behind opening the Pop Shop was simple,  his whole initiative behind Pop Shop was to make his art accessible. He wanted to be able to share his works with people from all walks of life, from elite collectors to teens in the Bronx. He wanted to include as many people as possible in experiencing his art and found a way to appeal to people of all ages. 

Since its inception in the 1960s, Pop Art has changed the way people view, interact with, and create art. Pop art shifted the focus from the individual onto the collective and emphasized making art available to everyone, no matter their knowledge or background. From the bum on the street to the richest man in Manhattan, Pop Art took them all as equals. This philosophy has stayed on and influenced the art world up until the modern-day. Popular artists today such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Mike Kelley take obvious influence from the pop art movement in their works. Similarly, museums and galleries are using their space and autonomy to invite the community in, and especially attract those who wouldn’t necessarily know to come to an art museum. Programs engaging children, teens, adults, and seniors are popping up at museums around the world, and there is much more of an emphasis on making these spaces accessible for everyone, and not just a select few. Pop Art has made high art accessible for people of all ages, from all walks of life, and will continue to do so for generations to come. 

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