Hal Foster


On his book The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha

Cover Interview of November 20, 2011

The wide angle

Pop art puts painting under pressure—mostly in order to register the effects of consumer culture at large (glossy magazine ads, iconic movie images, blurry television screens, and so on)—but even as it does so it sometimes looks back to the grand tradition of easel painting (the tableau). And in this interplay of low and high, Pop art remains in touch with “the painting of modern life” defined a century before by Baudelaire as an art that strives “to distill the eternal from the transitory.”

Hamilton alludes to this notion in his early writings, and it motivates his signal question of 1962: Can popular culture “be assimilated into the fine art consciousness?” Richter and Ruscha also indicate its continued relevance when they move to square landscape painting with amateur photography and abstract art with graphic design respectively, and Lichtenstein does the same when he derives his play with pictorial clichés from Disney as much as from Picasso and Miró. Only with Warhol does the tableau tradition appear to be ruined, and there not in every instance, for some of his “Death and Disaster” images might qualify as history paintings, and no artist in the postwar period refashions the category of portraiture quite as he does.

If, for Baudelaire and followers, modernity was a wondrous fiction to celebrate, it was also a terrible myth to interrogate, and often the great painters of modern life—from Manet to my Pop five—are its great dialecticians, too: they are able to celebrate and to interrogate its effects in turn. In an ambiguous compliment Baudelaire once wrote to Manet that he, Manet, was the first in the “decrepitude” of his art; in my view these Pop painters are the last in this great line.

I grew up as a critic as part of the “Pictures” generation of artists (e.g., Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine). We lived and dreamed Pop, so it was too close to consider then. I now have the requisite distance to see it more objectively.