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


Let me pick out just two implications of The First Pop Age.

There is a proposition in Pop art, I believe, one that possesses its own psychoanalytical insight, and it is this: if the ego can be understood in part as an image, then the image might be seen in part as an ego, that is, as a surface or screen for psychological projections.

Often in Pop, especially as practiced by Warhol, people are regarded as a species of image and vice versa, with both people and images thus subject to the vicissitudes of the imaginary (which, in the psychoanalytical account, is a volatile realm where narcissistic impulses vie with aggressive ones).

This view of a vexed relation between subject and image in Pop goes against the usual association of this art with the easy iconicity of media celebrities and brand products.

On the contrary, Pop in general and Warhol in particular sometimes underscore the sheer difficulty of our status as homo imago, the great strain of achieving and sustaining coherent images of self and other at all. This strain speaks to a telling doubleness that often obtains in Pop paintings and personae alike, an oscillation between the iconic and its opposite—the evanescent, even the ghostly. So it is, for example, that Warhol could operate as both superstar and specter in art and life alike, or that, despite his emphatic style, Lichtenstein could present the self in Self-Portrait (1978) as an absence, an empty t-shirt topped by a blank mirror.

Yet if these artists are tested, so are they testing. They test not only the tableau tradition, and its criteria for pictorial composition and its ends of subjective composure, but also popular culture, and its refashioning of the postwar subject as homo imago with a new cultural literacy to learn, even a new symbolic order to negotiate. There is an intrinsic strain in the subject understood as an image (and vice versa), and my Pop artists pressure these vexed relations further. They are concerned, too, to explore the training-and-testing of the postwar subject by different technologies—photographic, cinematic, televisual, and other.

In doing so they also reflect on a test society on the rise—from the military-entertainment complex already parodied by Lichtenstein to the neoliberal factory at large weirdly anticipated by Warhol. Perhaps the last word about painting and subjectivity in the first Pop Age should be his, from a book published just two years before his death, America (1985): “I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment’.”