The First Pop Age takes up these matters above all: how Pop art folds painting and photography into one another; how, in doing so, it combines the effect of immediacy with the fact of mediation; how, in this combination, Pop might evoke artistic tradition even as it foregrounds contemporary culture; how, in this treatment of our image world, it strikes an ambiguous attitude, neither critical nor complicit strictly; and finally, how Pop indicates, through such ambiguity, not only a heightened confusion between publicity and privacy but also a deepened imbrication of image and subjectivity.
I focus my reflections on five artists—Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha—because they evoke, more graphically than any others, the changed conditions of painting and viewer in the first age of Pop, which here I take to begin in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Stripped to its essentials, my thesis is this: a shift occurs during this time in the status of image and subjectivity alike, and the signal work of these five artists registers it most suggestively.
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.
I would be happy for the reader to land anywhere in the book; it is written to engage him or her at any point.
But any reader might as well begin with the cover. Mine shows a detail of painting by Hamilton called Swingeing London 67 (1968) based on a news photograph of a drug bust involving the Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Frazer. Hamilton made no less than seven silkscreened paintings on the subject, heightening its effects in different ways: the grainy image is blurred, the lurid colors are blanched as though by a sudden flash of cameras, and in all but one version the window frame is removed so that we seem to be thrust into the van by the sheer avidity of our own look. As if in reaction, the two celebrities, who otherwise thrive on such visibility, attempt to deflect it, lifting their hands, manacled together, to hide their faces and to ward away our gaze. The title plays on the hip partygoers (the phrase “Swinging London” was a recent coinage) as well as the severe judgment passed on Fraser in particular (“there are times when a swingeing sentence can act as a deterrent,” the judge intoned, dispatching the art dealer to six months of hard labor), but the image is less a protest against retributive justice than a reflection on the vicissitudes of celebrity. Yet, typically, Hamilton injects an ambiguity here, for Jagger seems to smile, even to smirk, under his palm, and the handcuffs double as bracelets displayed for the benefit of press photographers (in the cover version of the painting they are built up in globs of shiny aluminum). In fact, like other Pop artists, Hamilton is concerned less with the event than with its mediation—how it is produced for us precisely as an image—and it is this mediation that he both exposes and elaborates. For Swingeing London 67 is an early reflection on a media world that has become second nature to us today, one in which transgression and adoration are hardly opposed, manacles are often forged into bling, and sheer visibility, desired or not, trumps everything else.
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’.”
Hal Foster is Townsend Martin ’17 Professor of Art & Archaeology & Professor of Architecture at Princeton. Recent books include The Art-Architecture Complex (2011); Art Since 1900 (2005), a co-authored textbook on 20th-century art; Prosthetic Gods (2004), concerning the relation between modernism and psychoanalysis; and Design and Crime (2002), on problems in contemporary art, architecture, and design. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Foster won the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing in 2010. He continues to write regularly for October, which he co-edits; Artforum; and The London Review of Books.