When you walk into Seattle Art Museum’s Pop Art exhibition, Pop Departures, artist Roy Lichtenstein’s red, yellow and blue paintings seem to explode off the walls.
There’s the fighter pilot, square jawed and helmeted; the weeping woman cradled in the arms of her he-man; a bright red depiction of the jet trail of an ascending rocket called “Vroom.”
Lichtenstein, who became a leading artist in the 1960s, was inspired by comic book art. But these large paintings are more powerful than a locomotive and hit your brain faster than a speeding bullet.
The term Pop Art is derived from what you would expect: popular art. Practitioners including Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol use everything from comics to celebrity photographs and discarded metal heating ducts to make their work.
“It’s very accessible,” says SAM’s Catharina Manchanda, curator of this new show.
“What people see are images, materials that everybody would know,” she says. “This was really meant to be an art that was about the here and now.”
Manchanda says Lichtenstein is one of the originators of the Pop Art movement, and she reminds audiences that while his images seem familiar today, in the 1960s they shocked an art world that was most interested in elevating itself above daily discourse.
“What happened with Pop was, people took a sharp left turn away from abstraction,” she explains. “They’re taking us into the mire not only of every day culture, but pretty crass, commercial culture.”
Although he didn’t originate Pop Art, Andy Warhol is arguably the movement’s poster boy, Manchanda says. She says his flamboyant parties at his downtown building, The Factory, coupled with his open homosexuality and ability to move freely between social strata, set him apart from New York’s mainstream art world.
Manchanda says Warhol ably marshalled his advertising and marketing background to the service of his art. Warhol repurposed photographs of celebrities, or mundane household objects, and transformed them through his choice of colors and settings into cultural observations.
Warhol’s large painting “Double Elvis” greets visitors when they walk into SAM's second gallery. The painting is based on a still publicity photograph from a movie Elvis starred in. Larger than life on a silver background, Elvis draws his six shooter from his holster as he stares the visitor in the eye.
“Warhol reinvented portraiture through the lens of celebrity,” Manchanda says. “That was one of his great contributions in the 1960s.”
SAM’s Pop Departures show includes other Warhol portraits: Mao Tse Tung, Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Richard Nixon.
“Pop Departures” also includes the works of mid-20th century art stars Claes Oldenburg, Jeff Koons and video pioneer Nam June Paik.
Seattleites may know the Oldenburg sculpture installed at SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park. It's a super-sized typewriter eraseR, clinging precariously to the side of a hill over the railroad tracks. Oldenburg’s kinetic yellow ice bag in the Pop Departures show is smaller, but interactive. It twists and rises when visitors walk by.
In Pop Departures, Manchanda traced the legacy of the mid-20th century Pop artists into the new millennium. “Looking back at the ’80s and ’90s is like looking at the last hurrah of an analog culture,” she says.
Artists working today don't think twice about appropriating consumer products or other commercial imagery. They blend commodities like lingerie, tee shirts and American flags with downloaded videos or music, to comment on commercial culture and other politically charged issues.
Mexican-born artist Margarita Cabrera addresses globalism in her life-size vinyl fabric recreation of a Volkswagen Beetle. Her sculpture was made after Volkswagen closed its last Mexican Beetle assembly plant.
Andy Warhol once famously declared that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” It wasn’t a prediction as much as a brash statement. But walking through the SAM exhibition, it seems Warhol's bluster was right on the mark.
Near the end of the Pop Departures show are two video monitors mounted to the wall, each with a set of headphones. They're montages of videos that artist Amy Siegel found on YouTube: Mashups of everyday people singing their own versions of the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way.”
Today people can engineer their own 15 minutes of fame, by videotaping themselves in performance, and posting those videos to social media.
“I asked myself while I was working on this show, if he were alive today, what would Andy Warhol have done,” Manchanda muses. “Because he would have loved the possibilities that the Internet provides for people today. I think he would have been front and center still.”
Seattle Art Museum’s “Pop Departures” exhibition is on view at the museum’s downtown Seattle location through Jan. 11, 2015.