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Before Globalization: Pop as Transnational/Transitional


The following text is slightly revised from a talk given at a panel discussion on the catalogue to the 2015 Walker Art Center exhibition International Pop at the Swiss Institute in New York. The exhibition, curated by Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan, revises the familiar narrative of Pop art as primarily a British and American phenomenon, instead chronicling the emergence and migrations of Pop art from an international perspective. Godfre Leung’s sixty-four-page “Visual Chronology” in International Pop’s catalogue mapped the international circulation of Pop art across more than thirty nation-states over four continents, from the immediate postwar period to the early 1970s. Below, Leung discusses the Chronology’s periodization scheme and methodology.

As I was trying to figure out how to conceive of an international history of Pop art, my art historian’s instinct was to come up with a formal basis for thinking “Pop.” What I came up with was a characterization of Pop as an era of art in which things and images of those same things circulated around the globe simultaneously. I then framed that era with a beginning and end point: if Pop was defined by the circulation of things and images—which is to say, commodities and their advertisements—then what we are really talking about, historically speaking, is the era of the Marshall Plan and the rise of postwar consumer capitalism. The end of that era would then naturally be the end of the postwar Bretton Woods economic system in the early 1970s. In 1971 US President Richard Nixon ended the direct convertibility of the US dollar to gold, and by 1973 the world financial system would be governed by unbacked fiat currency. The total systematic relativity of world finance ushered in by the end of Bretton Woods and the final fall of the Gold Standard, it seems, was the beginning of a truly global era. The circulation of images—and furthermore, of speculative value, of futures—now no longer needed to be accompanied by actual things. So Pop, while international, and also trans-national, was something less than totally global; Pop was the transitional era between modern Fordist commodity production and what Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello called “the new spirit of capitalism.” Or at least that’s what I began with as my guiding historical framework.

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[Right: Shinohara displaying his Imitation Painting]

I defined Pop art, accordingly, as a mise-en-abyme of images of images: an art of a piece with the conflation of images and the things they represent that drove the logic of postwar consumer capitalism. An example from the Chronology: at a 1964 exhibition at Tokyo’s Naiqua Gallery, just before he was scheduled to travel to New York, Japanese artist Shinohara Ushio holds an art magazine open to a page depicting works by Jasper Johns in front of his “imitation” painting of that page of the magazine. A year earlier, Shinohara and his anti-art colleagues in Tokyo were introduced to American Pop art by the January 1963 “Pop” issue of the Swiss magazine Art International, almost exactly as that issue also introduced American Pop to Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter in Düsseldorf, Germany, spurring their work as so-called Capitalist Realists. We can also see this Pop-ist image collapse in Andy Warhol’s multi-media Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, in which film footage of his performers was often projected at the stage, overtop of the performers themselves. And we see this Pop move in the staging of International Pop itself: a recreation of Dalila Puzzovio’s 1963 sculpture A Load of Serious Smiles, made from discarded plaster casts, installed in front of an installation shot of the original sculpture at the Walker Art Center’s 1964 exhibition New Art of Argentina.

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[Left: Dalila Puzzovio, A Load of Serious Smiles, 1963/1997. View of the exhibition International Pop, 2015 Photo: ©Walker Art Center ]

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With this in mind, it made sense to me to begin the Chronology with the publication of André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls in 1947. For the caption, I wrote:

France, 1947: André Malraux publishes Le musée imaginaire (The Museum Without Walls), proposing that photographic reproduction had democratized art by eliminating the necessity of travel to see the world’s masterpieces.

If Pop was the first era of art to take photography for granted, I thought, Malraux’s theorization of a “museum without walls” was as much a conflation of images with the things they represent as any Coca-Cola advertisement. But some time after I turned in my first draft, the exhibition’s co-curator Bartholomew Ryan added a second, explanatory sentence:

Bringing together photographs of artworks that were wildly divergent, Malraux anticipated Pop artists’ concern with nonhierarchical flows of information and the mediation of culture by images.

This little addition changed the entire tone of the chronology. I was talking about the historical period of 1945 to 1973: what the historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his book on the 20th century, called our “golden age.” Bart was talking about the transitional nature of Pop—the way it took us from modernism to what we now call contemporary art, and from the rationalizing logic of industrial modernity to the schizophrenia of neoliberalism. In other words, I was doing the historian thing and focusing on differentiating Pop from the previous and succeeding eras; but to quote the preface to the catalogue written by Bart and his co-curator Darsie Alexander, Pop was also “the birth of the now.”

What Bart described as “nonhierarchical flows of information” sounds more like contemporary Deleuzo-Guattarian theory than it does Roland Barthes, Daniel Boorstin, or even Marshall McLuhan, to name three key thinkers of the Pop era. To me, those nonhierarchical flows of information sound most of all like the language contemporary theorists use to talk about the internet—and also, sometimes in the same breath, to talk about deregulated global economy. In composing the Chronology, though, my headspace became very much the famous schizophrenic global cultural flows of overlapping and interlocking ethnoscapes, and mediascapes, and technoscapes, and financescapes, and ideoscapes that the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai describes in his essay “Difference and Disjunction in the Global Cultural Economy.” In truth, I handed over a hundred pages of text, and another hundred pages of images, and the Visual Art and Design offices at the Walker had their way with that information, with Bart taking the editorial helm.

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[Right: Jorge Romero Brest, director of the Di Tella Institute]

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[Top Right: Sōgetsu Art Center]

In the process of compiling the information that went into the chronology, insights about Pop emerged. For instance, in back-to-back pages of the chronology, we see that three of the major centers that catalyzed Pop outside of London, Paris, and New York opened within months of each other. In May of 1958, Pontus Hultén helps to found the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which became pivotal for both the international proliferation of American Pop art, and the positioning of related European practices as “Pop” alongside Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Warhol. In July of 1958, Argentine industrialist Torcuato di Tella establishes the Di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires, out of whose Centro de Artes Visuales emerged two generations of Argentine Pop, as well as two key international organizers: Jorge Romero Brest and Oscar Masotta. And in September of that year, Japanese filmmaker Teshigahara Hiroshi opens the Sōgetsu Art Center in Tokyo, which in addition to bringing the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Rauschenberg to Japan, also provided an early home for Japanese animation. We might see this coincidence, in a sense, as a zeitgeist: as a “Pop spirit,” which is what Darsie described to me as International Pop’s objective when we had our first meeting about the exhibition in 2013. Against Boltanski and Chiapello’s “new spirit of capitalism,” perhaps a distinct, slightly older spirit.

[Editing the Visual Chronology on the wall of the Walker’s Visual Art office, October 2014]

Less zeitgeistical moments of convergence also emerged, and many of those came after Darsie, Bart, their team, the catalogue’s designer Andrea Hyde, and others at the Walker had edited and selected from my selections. Andrea created a modular system to order all of the information—she describes envisioning her design for the Chronology to be “like reading the Financial Times.” After I got the first layout proof, I sent back several rounds of re-edits and poor Andrea then had to move things around and re-lay out many of the pages so that the right images or texts would be next to each other, or facing each other, or in the right order. But I’d like to conclude with one moment of convergence in the Chronology that was completely unintended by me: to the left of the photograph of Jorge Romero Brest at Di Tella’s Centro de Artes Visuales is a décollage by the French Nouveau Réaliste Raymond Hains featuring posters pulled off the walls of Paris’s streets, including one very clearly stating “Peace in Algeria.” Facing Hains’s décollage is the French informel painter Georges Mathieu, painting a mural on the roof of a department store in Osaka.

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[Left: Georges Mathieu painting at Daimaru department store; Center: Raymond Hains, décollage, Paix en Algérie, 1956]

Mathieu is dressed like a Japanese samurai warrior and wields his paintbrush like a sword. This performance, in September of 1957, was extremely influential for Japan’s anti-art generation. Even though some of those artists, for example Shinohara, described Mathieu’s painting itself in unfavorable terms, the performative nature of Mathieu’s painting—and, subtextually, also its public spectacle—was emboldening, eventually culminating in 1964’s season of public art in Tokyo that included Hi Red Center’s Cleaning Event on the streets of the Ginza district six days after the beginning of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Sightseeing Art Research Institute’s Walking on the Street Exhibition at Tokyo’s main train station, and the Off Museum: New Pop, New Junk, New Toy exhibition and outdoor art festival.

In both Mathieu’s action painting and Hains’s décollage, the wall is the site of transnational activity: in the former, the French artist paints on a Japanese wall to colonialistically teach so-called avant-garde art to the Japanese. In the latter, its obverse: public discourse on a French wall is unmoored and turned into a panel painting in anti-colonial protest. The debut exhibition of Hains’s and Jacques Villeglé’s décollages: October 1957 at Galerie Colette Allendy in Paris, one month after Mathieu’s performance in Osaka. I don’t think it was moments of convergence like this that Malraux imagined or intended when he theorized the comparative possibilities of a “museum without walls.” But here, in our Pop Museum Without Walls, two images of walls. Their resonance, unintended by me, produced, seemingly, by “Pop’s concern with nonhierarchical flows of information and the mediation of culture by images.”

Unless otherwise noted, all images are from Godfre Leung, "International Pop: A Visual Chronology," originally published in the exhibition catalogue International Pop (2015), published by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The catalog is available for purchase through the Walker Art Center.

Godfre Leung
Author: Godfre LeungCountry: USA
Godfre Leung is a Minneapolis-based critic and assistant professor of art history at St. Cloud State University. His writing has recently appeared in Afterimage, Art Journal, and C Magazine, as well as publications by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Walker Art Center. He is currently working on a book project entitled Playback: Medium, Media, and Digital Audio in Marclay, Tone, and Eno, which analyzes critical uses of reproductive audio media to pursue a theory of the digital through the perceptual matrix of the compact disc.

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