If you thought you knew pop art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery wants you to think again.
Its new exhibition “Sweet Dreams, Baby! Life of Pop, London to Warhol,” the largest pop art show drawn from the gallery’s collection in its history, aims to deepen our understanding of the important movement that preoccupied the American and British art world from the 1950s to the ’70s and beyond. The show opens Friday and runs through Sept. 8.
Frequent gallery visitors won’t be greeted by Andy Warhol’s iconic 1962 painting “100 Cans,” Jasper Johns’ “Numbers in Color” or Robert Rauschenberg’s “ACE” – three of the more famous pop art works in the gallery’s collection. Instead, they’ll encounter John McHale’s dark 1958 painting “First Contact,” among other work by Britain’s Independent Group, a network of painters, sculptors and thinkers whose radical approaches to art started the rumblings that would eventually be felt as the American pop art explosion.
The gallery’s more instantly recognizable pieces of pop art are included in the exhibition, but curator Holly E. Hughes has spread them across five galleries in the Albright-Knox’s original building. On your way to see those familiar Warhols and Lichtensteins, you’ll walk past rarely seen pieces by McHale and other members of the Independent Group, Rauschenberg’s lesser-known 1957 piece “Painting With Red Letter S” and Marisol’s sculpture “The Generals” set to militaristic music by David Amram.
In an attempt to expand the definition of pop art, Hughes dug deep into the gallery’s extensive holdings in the movement to present a darker and more complex vision of the era than most casual art fans have.
“This idea of pop being a complete rejection of abstract expressionism just isn’t true,” Hughes said last week as gallery staff installed the exhibition. Rauschenberg’s 1962 “ACE,” a fusion of painterly gestures and identifiable objects borrowed from pop culture, was propped against a long wall in the large east gallery, while works by Johns, Marisol, Jim Dine and others were scattered around the gallery waiting to be hung.
“I think what pop was doing was not snubbing its nose at abstraction,” Hughes said. “I think it was kind of taking the door that abstraction opened to explore different avenues of what art-making could be.”
Hughes’ show, which takes its title from a 1965 Lichtenstein print, doesn’t subscribe to any single definition of pop art. Rather, it embraces the idea that the movement contained permutations of any number of social and political issues: from the darker subject matter roiling beneath Lichtenstein’s later work to the loneliness and searching quality of Claes Oldenburg’s collected cigarette butts and other pieces of forgotten detritus transformed by his touch into the stuff of sculpture.
Contrary to the popular view of pop art as slick or somehow pristine, Hughes’ exhibition also focuses on the human touch in a movement most associated with mechanical reproduction, thanks to Warhol’s commercial success. The paintings of James Rosenquist look slick from afar, Hughes said, but on closer inspection it’s obvious that the hand of the artist is meant to be seen and appreciated.
Hughes has also paid particular attention to the role of often-forgotten female artists in the movement by highlighting works by Marisol and Anne Arnold.
The entire movement, she suggested, is much darker and more complex than the popular perception of it as merely “an image-consuming, image-generating machine.”
“Even Warhol was dark,” Hughes said. “Of course he did Campbell’s Soup cans and he did these pop celebrities, but he was also looking at the darker, murkier. You know, he did electric chairs, he did the race riots. Consumerism is such a small part of what pop was.”